GO INTO THE ARTS (R15)


VONNEGUT

In this time of plague we constantly hear from the profiteering Power Possessors how everything must be done to ‘save the economy’, including opening the schools and sending children back into what could still be a dangerous environment. Though I’m fairly convinced that sending them back is probably just so their parents, instead of having to look after them, can return to work in order to keep the profits going, it is constantly suggested, especially on the media (as controlled by the government) that they must be in school for the sake of their mental stability.

Other than the opportunity to get back to being with their mates, and losing themselves in Maths, Spelling, Grammar, Science & Computer Studies, the pedagogic strategic priorities, what mental stability does schooling provide? What does conventional education offer kids in the way of sane development? What’s the relationship between current educational provision and the ability to maintain a continuing good grasp on what life has to offer? And what is mental stability, anyway?

Current hypocritical talk of ‘levelling up’ by means of ‘lifelong educational opportunities’ to gain a skill is arrogant piffle coming from a bunch of savages who did away with the kind of Adult Education that existed in my day precisely to establish what was then called ‘lifelong learning’. Now you can get specific skills training but little else. And it doesn’t stack up with the cuts needed to progress the political doctrine of Austerity.

On the 4th May 2021, for example, we learn that, according to the Office for Students, ‘The Government proposes that courses that are not among its strategic priorities – subjects in music, dance, drama and performing arts; art and design; media studies; and archaeology – are to be subject to a reduction of 50 percent…’ This can be described (with extreme moderation) as an attack on the future of UK arts, the creative potential of the next generation, and the people who deliver world-leading arts courses. It’s quite clear in my own experience that one of the Government’s main strategic priorities is to keep the merchants of death playing war games over The Wash as often as possible, wasting gigantic sums of money. ‘Death before Creativity’ is the watchword in the area where I live.

The Musicians’ Union has reacted with ‘horror’ to the plans, saying they will be ‘catastrophic for music provision at HE level’, and that ‘the notice given of this cut is far too short to enable HE institutions to plan for September…’ Equity has called it ‘another government attack on arts education after years of deprioritising creative subjects in our schools’, warning that it would ‘block a route into the creative industries for working-class and other marginalised groups…’

Mental stability, deriving from the creative union of body, mind & soul, ‘psycho-physical isomorphism’ (Herbert Read – Education through Art), comes about through participation in the arts, emphatically not through the acquisition of a specific skill, preparation for wage slavery, not through learning to work a computer, how to add up & take away, and not through science when it is divorced from art.

Before I trained to be a teacher, I had been greatly influenced by that dazzling book of Herbert Read’s – so much so that it both influenced the way my children were brought up, made a great impact on how I approached formal teaching in school & FE for 25 years and then, after my escape from Wage Slavery, determined the way I designed courses for executives and trainers in industry – little did they expect to be asked to write poetry, compose music and engage in self-development exercises that required pretending to be ballet dancers. Early in my teaching efforts, to the disgust of their form teachers who had them lined up for virtual death on the line in a car factory, I helped 4th & 5th ‘naughty boys’ to write poems and, in my first summer (1969), having put on an optional Dada-related post-exam course, at their suggestion, to emulate Kurt Schwitters by constructing a ‘Junk Palace’. It became a place in which, very late in the evening, we watched the moon illuminate the roof patterns made by the junk they collected from the local area, played percussive music on metal and wood and used the space around it to enact various dramatic sequences, notably a Dada take on the investiture of Prince Charles which happened at the time – his limousine was the toy pedal car on the top of the extension in the photo; the sixteen year old who played the leading part waved to his subjects sitting n the little car, pulled along by his courtiers using a length of old rope.

JUNK PALACE

Now, sixty years later, I have just read Herbert Read’s Education for Peace (1950) and have been reminded of the quiet enthusiasm generated in me then – no time between, no change of view. True education can only be gained through art & poetry & music. The Power Possessors would have no truck with this because they know that fully educated human beings will always see through the circus ritual of a Fascist government made up of a bunch of performing savages.

In Education for Peace Herbert Read’s argument is that education is currently dedicated to the promotion of intelligence (however defined), the promotion of industry (in the broadest sense) and the maintenance of ‘progress’. Curiously, in order to make these things happen, education is characterised by competition and division.

Present systems of education might be generally described as partitive. Their tendency is not to unite but to divide. They divide in the first place because they establish a hierarchy or caste system, not only splitting children into age groups – infant, primary, secondary, technical, commercial, and university, but decreeing that certain tests should determine the right of an individual child to proceed beyond a particular stage. Within each group similar tests and examinations determine the place of the individual child within the group. All these tests and examinations have the effect of pitting child against child in a grim struggle for places, and the division of any local community of children into groups determined by these tests further accentuates the sense of social division, of disunity… [thus dissolving] the subtle bonds of love & fellowship, and leaving us a nerve-ridden aggressive herd…

Then there was public education for the plebs & private for the toffs and since 2010, on the Facsistory principle of Chaos Theory, the fragmentation of schooling into so-called ‘Free’, Academy, & specialist subject outfits with the lockin of private funding.

My own formal education was happening around the time when Education for Peace was written. Somehow or other I was completely impervious to the effects Read lists; if the emphasis on exam results, jockeying for positions and general divisiveness was present in the atmosphere of the 1940’s and middle 50’s (looking back now, I think I could probably trace the signs) I must have been so inward-focussed, as I’m told I am even now, that it all passed me by. Read talks about the need to re-vivify a sense of vitality & spirit, asserts that culture is not a commodity to be handed out but a spiritual growth, organic, originating from within, rather than from arid classroom learning or propaganda. We must be actors in all forms of art, making active sense of them – be productive rather than simply responding to them as spectacles.

We have to live art if we would be affected by it. We have to paint rather than look at paintings, to play instruments rather than go to concerts, to dance and sing and act ourselves, engaging all our senses in the ritual and discipline of the arts. Then something may begin to happen to us: to work upon our bodies and our souls…: entertainment must be active, participated in, practised. It is then more properly called play, and as such it is a natural use of leisure. In that sense it stands in contrast to work, and is usually regarded as an activity which alternates with work. It is there that the final and most fundamental error enters into our conception of daily life.

Education should certainly not become ‘Preparation for Work’. Work itself should become play and playing has to be worked at. Little kids should be encouraged to work seriously at playing around, making whatever mess they need to in the art of making sense of the world. Rhythmical, ritualistic, interpretative, serious work should be done for the sake of play, says Plato. Education should promote not intellectual abstract learning but opportunities for THINGS to flow through the senses, the limbs and the muscles. An education with reference to concrete things will unite rather than divide. Rousseau emphasised the need to keep children focussed on things only. Poetry is literally a ‘doing’ (after the Greek ποιεω – I do); art is grabbing things, smashing things, sticking them together again, music is grabbing the possibility of organising sound things – doing it for yourself: ‘…the person is the only ground in which a cultural renaissance (or transvaluation) can take place…’

Moral consciousness comes neither from mass media, nor from words as abstract cyphers but from the positive virtue of playfulness in the organic active practice of concrete arts giving experience in harmony, texture, colour & rhythm.

Morality is the whole &
only aim of education.

Rather than having as an objective the turning out of professionals in arts the aim should be to encourage human beings to possess independence within freedom, subject to law & self-discipline through creative activity in all its rituals, exercises, festivities & practice. That way emerges a morality not in accord with the imposition of standard patterns of orthodoxy of any kind or based on purely intellectual prowess but out of a thoughtful, feelingful, active engagement with concrete situations.

The rebirth of a tragic sense of life; the re-emergence of transcendental forces so long frustrated by the lawless expansion of competitive instincts, by crude materialism or by the elimination of human sympathy from the processes of thought; the restoration to life of significant play and ritual; a moral healthiness which is affirmative, and not an inhibition of all vitality; a sense of personal freedom and a consequent responsibility for the endowment of one’s own fate with values; all these changes are involved as groundwork for a new civilization. But it is unlikely that these deep, subtle and intimate changes can be brought about by secretariats and committees, by international conferences and polyglot organizations. They will be born in solitude, in meditation; in the family circle and in the nursery school; in the field and in the factory; in the face of specific problems and by conscious discipline; in creative community and in communal creations; in drama and in the building of new cities; in dance and song; in moments of mutual understanding and love. For all these moments and occasions, all that we need ask is peace in our time and an end to the exploitation of person by person.

Truly moral human beings act spontaneously in any situation; there’s no command to act in a certain way, it’s not a question of ‘ought’ or ‘must’; being intrinsically humble the well-educated person operates from aesthetic necessity – the order of things is the way it is in music, poetry and art without the intervention of the will; it’s a natural state of self-discipline coming from aesthetic choice, appreciation & creation.

Plato said that true education is learning to feel both pleasure and pain about the right things in early experience, holding off from making judgements; this would ultimately lead to world harmony.

We begin our life in unity – the physical unity of the mother and child, to which corresponds the emotional unity of love. We should build on that original unity, extending it first to the family, where the seeds of hatred are so easily and so often sown, and then to the school, and so by stages to the farm, the workshop, the village and the whole community. But the basis of unity at each successive stage, as at the first stage, is creativity. We unite to create, and the pattern of creation is in nature, and we discover and conform to this pattern by all the methods of artistic activity – by music, by dancing and drama, but also by working together and living together, for, in a sane civilization, these too are arts of the same natural pattern.

Life should be dedicated to playing games; work itself should be, rather than drudgery, a pursuit full of playful enthusiasm.

Song & dance, making mosaics out of words & things & ideas, making musical patterns – all such activities, undertaken with great spontaneous application & stickability, result in a wisdom that transcends the ordinary. In thinking, speaking, persuading, arranging, locating, disposing, constructing, transfiguring, we should be encouraging children to go to nature which ‘exhibits elegance, boldness, dance & masterly certainty…’

woodpigeon chorus –
the slow movement of leaves
& dawn chaffinch

Every opportunity should be given to repeat these patterns endlessly in a great variety of contexts so that children learn to discipline themselves to stick at things through freedom, positive ritual and coherent action.

Our epoch, says Jung, calls for ‘the liberating personality, for the one who distinguishes him[her]self from the inescapable power of collectivity, thus freeing him[her]self at least in a psychic way, and who lights a hopeful watchfire announcing to others that at least one person has succeeded in escaping from the fateful identity with the group soul…’

Though this might well be a prerequisite for an individual being able to run a spontaneous & adventure-seeking way of being, any social growth, says Read, would have to depend on group mutual aid deriving from individual independence.

Left to their own devices, separated from their fellows, free-wheeling individuals who have escaped from ‘fateful identity with the group soul’ may, in the eyes of society, turn out to be just cranks.

Either [schools] force individual growth into a pattern which destroys its natural grace and vigour; or if a free and independent person does emerge from the process of education, it is only to find him[her]self at odds with a society into whose concept of normality he[she] does not fit.

The emphasis on intellect and linear order, left brain thinking, stultifies spontaneity. Instead of inculcating the absolute rule of the abstract concept in order to create efficient thinking machines, so it is thought, the educative process should be devoted to putting children into constant meetings with concrete things so that they develop image structures, more especially of an eidetic quality, so as to develop the ability to remember an image of what they do in so much detail, clarity, and accuracy that it is as though the image were still being perceived long afterwards. Not photographic slavery but images that live in the mind, affecting the quality of an individual’s behaviour for years, infinitely transferable to many contexts, being modified and made relevant to particular circumstances – the unique acquisition of patterns to inform being.

Unfortunately, I do not know what lasting effect, if any, the Junk Palace experience will have had on those young boys, at least one of whom I know is dead (Pete Dayer-smith in a sledging accident) but I am aware that a great deal of my own intellectual grasp on things is managed by reference to patterns of images – in the way that lively possession of them helps to determine spontaneous behaviour.

Prompted by reading Education for Peace, I began to do a brain-rummage to list the image structures that may be said to have influenced the way I am. The very idea that when I read a book some kind of effect will linger, or even leap off the page at me to result in a found poem or haiku, making itself into a pattern for thinking, is a profound image structure that came to me during childhood! Come to think of it, the start of it all might have been when my parents bought me a book called Colin Courageous – there I was enshrined in a book! My other-than-conscious thought at the time was perhaps that I would always be able to find myself in a book.

Initially there’s a ‘closed book’, knowledge contained in secret Distant Places, image containers needing to be carefully prized open to reveal the excitement of learning.

The intentional brain-rummage started with something I’ve often thought about, the way I was left to my own devices when my father went off to war in 1941. I had what I suppose was a natural desire to be like him – a person so curiously, for no particular reason, having to be in a distant place called ‘India’. Then was born the overwhelming image of the ideal Distant Place where all was, in spite of reality, somehow well – in some way comfortable, organised, patterned with self-contained jungles, people & artefacts, my father pursuing some abstract role which I constructed for myself. You had to make arrangements to contain such a complex image in your mind so it made sense; there was no logic to it, nothing you could organise into linear thinking, just an image floating around in thin air.

The jungle became an image for the outside world; a carefully mown lawn (with stripes and very neat edges – an image my mother sustained about my father till she died: “He had the neatest lawn edges of anybody in Elmstead Gardens…”). This has remained an image of order for me against the shrubbery chaos of the surrounding world – a comfortable state of things capable of being set up by myself, near at hand, to stand for the notional order of the Distant Place. Much later it was a pleasant discovery to find the same kind of image at work in Harold Pinter’s short play A Slight Ache. Potent images creep up on you like that; you recognise them in spite of all the subsequent intellectual learning.

I have elsewhere described how gazing out of the window of a train from Waterloo in the darkness of approaching night I assumed the role of transport officer managing the shunting of trains and the changing of points to have trains going in different directions to suit my intentions. Something of my absent father’s role in that?

Thus developed the image of the surrounding hedge, keeping things in organised areas so they can be worked upon while they’re in mental custody. Nothing logical but resulting eventually in a passion for spidergrams and systems, thinking in diagrams, one thing always capable of leading to another either like the tendrils of a brain-cell or in virtuous circles of relationships. Always a recourse to the image delivering up the goods. The great thing about it being that you don’t have to think about where to start on anything – you can start anywhere and look forward to being surprised at finding out where you eventually get to.

Scan0009

The cat image is fundamental. All the cats I’ve ever had since Timmy in 1943, have been emblems of order & self-containment.

Scan0300

Cats do their own thing: only appear from out of the cold when the log fire is going or when they want food, change their sleeping arrangements to suit themselves, surprise you with their sudden determined modification of habit and want stroking only when it suits them; DIY enthusiasts.

Cats are eccentric, like the teachers in Kingston Grammar School 1948-54 on whom I other-than-consciously modelled. I built them into my mind as the conglomerate image ECCENTRICITY out of which my mum’s mum said I would grow by the age of 30… but I never did. All the individuals I’ve been drawn to in my life have fitted that image, random, spontaneous and not subject to any xyz of logic. ‘Unconscious modes of integration’ Herbert Read callsthe process.

At Junior School there was an annual Summer Fête with various displays of dance and other artistic performances. There were prizes for the best model in any medium which I sometimes won with fretwork and also a prize for a garden in a wooden seed-box not more than 4″ by18″ by 12″ with footpaths, a little pond, sedum and small trees (sycamore seedlings they’d be these days) which I always won. Container image of making a garden, organising well-delineated pathways and hidden areas – all eventually turned into more general ways of thinking and acting. Here’s the page of notes I made while thinking about all this:-

Ideas in Containers

When you put things in boxes on a page it makes it less easy for them to take flight and become mixed up with everything else!

Then there’s the great image of the PENDULUM:-

***

Herbert Read’s little book contains many other thoughts that a teacher would find it worth building into their pedagogic structures. For example:-

The discipline of creativity should transcend the borders of all subjects

… I do not believe that there is any psychological difference of a fundamental kind between the skill of a dancer, of a poet, of a football or tennis player, of a painter, of a musician. Certain skills are confined to nervous and muscular co-ordinations; others take in a subtler and more extensive range of mental events – the difference between, for example, the repetition and the original composition of a violin sonata. These differences of degree are immensely important, but they do not affect our hypothesis – which is, that creative freedom or spontaneity depends on unconscious discipline.

The formation of unconscious discipline – that is perhaps not a very original definition of learning. But in pedagogical theory far too little emphasis has been given to the necessary unconsciousness of the acquisition. We learn the motions of a stroke, but muff the result because we observe the stroke, and muscles refuse to be co-ordinated by a conscious brain – they revolt against any form of dictation!

Certain rare instances of musical genius, and of other prodigious skills, show that the individual can be born with an unconscious discipline, but in general we must regard discipline as something to be acquired, and the business of education as the inculcation of such discipline. But how clumsily we approach this business! We are given this infinitely complicated, delicately co-ordinated mechanism which is the human child, and we begin to bang it about, box its cars, torture it in a thousand ways until it obeys. Obeys what! Well, in the first place, various restrictions on its instincts – not to make a mess, not to make a noise, not to inflict its natural desires for social activities on busy adults. Now suppose we took even one of these primitive instincts – to make a mess, for example – and used that as a basis for spontaneous creative activity.

Art as the basis of all subjects

The discipline of art – obviously we must interpret art in a sense wide enough to include any constructive activity, any technique or skill. But such was the original significance of the term, and the arts only became dissociated from the normal activities of the community as they lost their integrity, their meaningful purpose for the community. Our first step in the schools should be to break down the isolation of art – to abolish it as a subject altogether if it is to be considered as a specialized activity, set apart. It should be the significant aspect, the disciplined aspect, of every activity; every subject should be one of the arts, and the aim of education should be to make us all masters of the arts. But to be a master of an art is to be also a member of a mystery – of one of the functional groups of an organic community.

The order of Nature comes before intellect and morality

The free man is a man of nature, perfected in natural ways of behaviour. Such is the theory of Aristotle: he derived it in a large measure from Plato, and to Plato we must turn for a detailed account of this natural pattern and of the only effective method of adapting ourselves to it. But first let us note that the general tradition of education in Europe and America since the Renaissance has neglected or distorted this classical theory of education—first by blurring the clear distinction between intellectual and moral virtue, and then by ignoring the essential priority of moral virtue, by attempting to inculcate intellectual virtue into minds that have not received the necessary preparation. It is only on to a stock of goodness that knowledge can be safely grafted: by grafting it on to stocks that are unbalanced, undeveloped, neurotic, we merely give power to impulses that may in themselves be evil or corrupted.

Against this, it has to be noted that ‘…Plato was an authoritarian. His political Utopia has always been a model for exponents of the totalitarian state…’ He had the right idea about human-beings and Nature but otherwise, perhaps, influenced the authoritarian tradition in modern schooling. ‘Buffers’ at large…

Things precede Thoughts…

…the apprehension and understanding of wholes and relationships, the workings of the imagination and creative activity – in short, a subjective and sensational approach to reality – this aspect of wisdom might be called the method of art, or the ‘aesthetic method’. As such, it must be regarded as an indispensable instrument of education; and since the scientific method is not within the mental capacity of young children, and the aesthetic method is natural to them, we must turn to art as the only method available for the first stages of education.

Grace, rhythm & harmony

Plato then describes in what we call considerable psychological detail, the exact effects of rhythm and harmony on the growing mind. But he does not, as is too often assumed in the discussions of his educational theories, ascribe these qualities to music only. He says that the same qualities ‘enter largely into painting and all similar workmanship, into weaving and embroidery, into architecture, as well as the whole manufacture of utensils in general, nay, into the constitution of living bodies, and of all plants; for in all these things gracefulness finds place…’ And he adds, for he has always the negative picture in mind, ‘…The absence of grace, rhythm, and harmony is closely related to an evil style and an evil character…’

There is something at once so simple and so comprehensive about this theory of Plato’s that really we do not need to go beyond it. Music, painting, the making of useful objects, the proportions of the living body and of plants, these will, if made the basis of our educational methods, instil into the child a grace and harmony which will give it, not merely a noble bearing, but also a noble character; not only a graceful body, but also a sober mind. It will do this, says Plato, long before the child is able to reason, because it will inculcate what he calls ‘the instinct of relationship’, and it is upon this instinct that reason itself depends. Possessing this instinct, the child will never do wrong in deed or in thought.

Aesthetic Pleasure

…‘instinct of relationship’: the aim of education should he to associate feelings of pleasure with what is good and feelings of pain with what is evil. Now such feelings are aesthetic… This word ‘aesthetic’ as we use it is cold and abstract, but it indicates a relationship which to the Greeks was very real and organic, a property of the physiological reactions which take place in the process of perception. Now, says Plato, there exist in the physical universe, which we experience through our senses, certain rhythms, melodies, and abstract proportions which when perceived convey to the open mind a sensation of pleasure. [However they exist]. But if, says Plato, we can associate the concrete sensation of pleasure given by these rhythms and proportions with good, and the concrete sensation of pain given by the opposite qualities of disharmony and ugliness with evil; if we can do this systematically in the early years, while the infant mind is still open to such influences, then we shall have set up an association between natural and spontaneous feelings and graceful or noble behaviour.

Plato then illustrates his argument in this way: ‘No young creature whatsoever… can keep its body or its voice still: they are all perpetually trying to make movements and noises. They leap and bound, they dance and frolic, as it were, with glee, and again, they utter cries of all sorts. Now animals at large have no perception of order or disorder in these motions, no sense of what we call rhythm or melody…’ But man, Plato goes on to point out, is distinguished from the rest of animal creation precisely by the fact that he possesses an aesthetic sense, which he defines as ‘the power to perceive and enjoy rhythm and melody’. Link this power of aesthetic perception to the power of discriminating between good and evil and then the most fundamental aim of education has been achieved. Good is spontaneously associated with pleasure, evil with pain.

Reciprocity in the Teaching Process

Good teachers are those able to… establish a wholly personal relationship with their pupils, based on love and understanding for the unique personality which has been entrusted to their care. Such teachers will not attempt to impose on pupils arbitrary conceptions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, which they are unable to feel or understand (and which therefore lead to a state of tension or disunity which is one origin of neurosis). Good teachers will ignore the whole system of ‘make believe’ with its rewards and punishments, its constraints and inhibitions. [What’s important is] to establish a relationship of reciprocity and trust between teacher & pupil, of cooperation and mutual aid… Teachers should identify themselves with pupils in the same degree that the pupils can identify with teacher – perhaps the process, on the pupil’s part, should be more conscious than it would normally be. What is required is the give and take of a mutual relationship.

Education & Brain-washing

In Britain… as elsewhere, a system of national education has become potentially a system of national propaganda, designed to inculcate certain attitudes and beliefs which may not correspond with our independent deductions of truth. National socialism in Germany, with its wild distortions of scientific truth and of historical fact, would not have survived so long had not the government utilized the national system of education for the dissemination of the party’s doctrines. The same is true of the national communism established in Russia. To regularize and nationalize the instruments of education is merely to convert these instruments into weapons of dictatorship.

A second objection to a national system of education is psychological rather than political. Mankind is naturally differentiated into many types, and to press all these types into the same mould must inevitably lead to distortions and repressions. Schools should be of many kinds, following different methods and catering for different dispositions. It might be argued that even a totalitarian state must recognize this principle, but the truth is that differentiation is an organic process, the spontaneous and roving association of individuals for particular purposes. To divide and segregate is not the same as to join and aggregate – it is just the opposite process. The whole structure of education, as the natural process we have envisaged, falls to pieces if we attempt to make that structure rational or artificial. Like life itself, animal as well as human, education must follow a principle of organic consistency: we must feel our way to the right units, and out of the natural grouping of these units round the biological actualities and practical activities of man, free and healthy institutions will emerge.

6 thoughts on “GO INTO THE ARTS (R15)

  1. A timely post Colin. I wish more teachers, politicians – all of the powers that be – would read this. If I could get a copy of Read’s book I’m half inclined to send it to my local Jobcentre who are threatening to stop my Son’s payments over him not working (he is Dyspraxic and has Aspergers and is finding work that suits him – music, radio, national trust – all creative – nigh on impossible to find). I shall reread it again and maybe it’ll give me the inspiration for a letter at least. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the haiku too.

      Here’s one I wrote in similar vein I think …

      hazy sunshine
      a woodpigeon’s song
      warms the day

      In the words of the Pete Seeger song – ‘When will we ever learn …’ !!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. From one of my posts last year where I paired it with a painting of Mary Dipnalls’ where she quoted – “[that] she would rather be sitting in a meadow full of wild flowers, sketching with the sun on her back than anywhere else. […]”

        Liked by 1 person

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