Children’s Art School as a Free Cultural Agent

December 15, 2014
Author Kęstutis Šapoka
Published in Tribune
Agnu0117 Kamandulyte ir Daina Kau0161elionyte Dailu0117s  mokyklos  kieme u017Eaidu017Eia kiauu0161iniu0173 badmintonu0105.  Performanso dalyko mokytojas Jaras  Ramu016Bnas 2011

Agnė Kamandulytė ir Daina Kašelionytė, Egg badminton in the yard of Alytus Art School. Performance tutor Jaras Ramūnas

According to The Law of Education of the Republic of Lithuania, the informal children’s education is defined as an education carried out through various programs aimed at meeting educational needs, qualification raising, and acquiring additional competence, except all the programs of formal education. The purpose of an informal children’s education is meeting the demands for knowledge, education, and self-expression, as well as helping children to become active members of society (The Law of Education, §15).

The concept of an informal education is determined by a whole variety of components, however, being a part of a research “Children’s Art Schools: Cultural and Sociopolitical Participation in Society”, this text will be focusing on one particular area—fine art schools. The research project was initiated by The Lithuanian Interdisciplinary Artists’ Association and has been carried out over the period of half a year by Lina Michelkevičė (PhD), Vita Petrušauskaitė (PhD), and the author of these lines.

The authors of the project were trying to find out how fine art schools function, as well as how their functions are being understood by the educators and disciples themselves. At the same time, the aim, in a way, was also to see how fine art schools are approached from ‘above’ by, for example, Municipal Departments of Education that are responsible for curating the schools—the key motive was to see how they understand their functions and relations. The researchers used these visual art schools as models: Justinas Vienožinskis Art School (Vilnius), Alytus Art School (Alytus), as well as Neringa Art School (Neringa) that include visual art disciplines next to those of music, choreography and theatre.

My aim is to draw the attention both to children’s art schools as a phenomenon, as well as to draw the attention to the most common problems that educators are facing while trying to survive and compete in the area of an informal education.

Currently there are over 70 schools in Lithuania (including 12 specialised in visual arts) that are carrying out programs of informal art education. However, this number is gradually decreasing. In the whole Republic there is an observable tendency to reorganise and merge art schools. In part, it is due to a demographic situation in the regions—a lot of people are emigrating or moving to the capital, and because of the lack of children art schools find it problematic to carry on on their own. Another important aspect is the official tendency of orienting the education towards levelling and unification of the specificities of art education—a tendency often grounded in (slightly vulgarised) economical reasoning according to which keeping the specialised art (and/or music) schools is, purportedly, a matter of excessive luxury.

It becomes obvious that the process of merging art and music schools together often results in elimination of the specificity of both educational areas, or at least it undercuts the specificity of art education.

The same outcome is expected when art schools are relocated to the premises of regular high schools—a move (obviously motivated by economic austerity) that is supposed to bring the informal education closer to children. According to this kind of reasoning, children can learn general subjects during the first part of the day, and, comfortably enough, choose to attend the informal education classes in the afternoon. This arrangement is seen as a way to solve the problems regarding both premises and ‘rational’ use of funds.

However, economical considerations have a ‘dark side’ that often overshadows the ‘light’ one. In both cases—i.e., when the art and music schools are merged, and when art schools are relocated to the premises of high schools—the quality of learning art (in terms of vocational education) as well as the quality of education through art (in terms of development of a personality as such) simply drops. In other words, the educational services become a mere simulacra, because the specificity of both learning the art and learning through art demands a respective material base (which is needed in order to teach painting, graphics, fresco, textile, photography, video art and many other subjects) and space—the requirements that are obviously met in music and sport schools. In visual arts education the presence of things such as specialised premises, equipment, and materials is essential, and, by virtue of ending up under the auspices of a regular high school or music school, this specific area of education becomes deprived of any of those essentials. Furthermore—it simply fails as a field of education.

Unfortunately, opinion about visual art schools and their specificity is often influenced by an anachronistic soviet-style reasoning which is still prevalent in high schools—namely, that art lessons are nothing but a pure waste of time. This is the reason why in most of the high schools the quality of art education is still extremely low: under these conditions, art education suffers from unprofessional and profane attitudes, as well as from the lack of any kind of dedicated technical support that is so essential for this kind of education.

The same attitude prevails when art schools are merged with music schools: in these cases, more often than not, visual arts education becomes subjected to a bureaucratic system of music schools with their own specific understanding of learning (based on the logic of ‘training,’ mechanistic repetition, and development of the inborn anatomic features), which is so distant from and even inferior to the specificity of visual arts education. Surely, we cannot simply blame music teachers who are running art schools by accusing them of incompetence regarding how a visual arts institution should be run. However, in this context, both learning art and learning through art becomes something like this aforementioned waste of time in high schools—i.e., it becomes a mere formality, a line of data in an annual report.

On the one hand, contrary to musical education, it is not easy to evaluate the process and results of visual arts education (and there is no reason why it should be), but on the other hand, it might still be possible if we consider the peculiarities of the art education process. First of all, art education is not based on the ‘mechanical training’ (the connotation here is not necessarily negative) as it is in the areas of music or dance, and it associates itself with basic codes of visual culture instead. Visual art, more than any other art form, is based around the intellectual (self-)education as such: it aims at developing critical, independent, and creative ways of thinking—an essential aspect for many other disciplines. Vocational education is one of the fundamental features as well, especially for everyone who associates their future with professional visual arts. Therefore, art schools acquire not only the functions of narrow vocational education, but also much wider functions of (re)socialisation, personal development, and, to a certain extent, even those of therapy. Art school is, first of all, a specific and distinctive quasi-cultural space which, instead of ‘training’ a child, offers itself as a place where a child can unleash her creative powers, as well as find a way to focus and discipline herself.

Art school often becomes a place where experimentation and even mistakes are welcome—a feature which is least desirable in any other educational institutions oriented toward ‘competition’, ‘result’, and stuffing children’s heads with ‘knowledge’. Welcoming the ‘mistakes’ or organising purposeful and creative ‘procrastination’ during the educational sessions can play an important role in developing creative thinking skills and facilitating child’s creative development. Such a flexible environment is able to encourage children to unleash their creative powers and even to control behavioural problems through discipline.

barikada meno istorijos klaseje. Vilniaus J. Vienozinskio   dailes mokyklos N. Vilnios filiale. 2014

Barricade built during the Art History lecture in Justinas Vienožinskis Art School, Division of Naujoji Vilnia

Another important aspect is that art school teachers are professional artists—a fact that, in their own view, is a major factor which guarantees the preservation and cultivation of specificity, aura, and effective education. In Lithuania, professional art pedagogues (non-artists) definitely have the necessary pedagogical skills and some fragmentary applied knowledge, however they are unable to deliver specific and high-quality knowledge and provide them with the necessary creative atmosphere. In other words, the majority of fine art school teachers agree that art pedagogues in specialised art schools know how to teach, but they often don’t know what needs to be taught. This is the reason why it is necessary to maintain the specificity of vocational education in art in high schools as well as in art/music schools instead of levelling it down for the benefit of pedagogy itself. In this sense, one of the key factors is making sure that the majority is formed not of pedagogues, but of professional artists.

Perhaps, it is not very healthy to orientate the art schools toward selecting the best ones for enrolling the elite art schools of Vilnius (and, perhaps, those of Kaunas and Klaipėda), and overemphasising the role of contests (competitions). Of course, all of this is important, but there are only a few percent of the ‘best ones’, and such elitist model often induces the inferiority complex for the rest of the children from the regions. The relations between Lithuanian art schools and visual art schools should be based more on the principle of horizontality, and not on that of verticality—a pyramid on top of which only a few of the elite art schools are placed. All this pressure of verticality is simply crushing down the regional art schools.

In small regional municipalities, art schools play very important roles in terms of being cultural centres. The roles of the city art schools are different, but in both cases their importance and value is unquestionable.

The combination of logic, creative intuition, experimentation, and critical thinking results in a certain flexibility that allows children’s art schools to carry out a lot of positive functions such as implementing creative education and bringing regional communities together, and it is something that is beyond the grasp of other institutions of informal education, not to mention those of general high education. Furthermore, art schools play a major part in adult education.

The long term benefits for the community and society are obvious and significant, as long as they are not measured in terms of ‘economic gain’, which is an attribute of an utterly vulgar and plain way of reasoning. In other words, one of the most important and valuable factors is the autonomy of both visual arts and music schools. This is why we have to preserve the remaining art and music schools instead of subjecting them to the politics of gradual merging, levelling, and elimination. True, their maintenance is a matter of certain luxury (the same way that independent thinking can often be regarded as an undesirable luxury), however this luxury pays off tremendously by turning our children into civic-minded and conscious personalities.

We can only hope that the birth of The Art School Directors Association—a legal unit independent from any specific school or municipality—could be one of the first steps towards the idea of cooperation and children’s art school preservation.

More about Children Art Schools: Cultural and Sociopolitical Participation in Society