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Teaching art: an aesthetic dog's breakfast

By Jane Gooding-Brown - posted Wednesday, 14 July 2010

After attending the annual conference of New South Wales VADEA (Visual Arts and Design Education’s Association) in Sydney and listening to other Visual Art and Design teachers speak about students and their artwork with such passion and enthusiasm, I am surprised that as teachers in the state education system, we are here at all!

I was reminded of Stephen Lacey’s provocative article in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2008 (“The triumph of ugliness” March 22). He said:

Are Australians visually illiterate? That's the question that architects, designers and their critics have been pondering since the first convict staggered ashore, whacked up a bark humpy on the edge of Sydney Harbour, hung an emoh ruo sign on the front door and stuck a gnome in the garden.


The architecture critic, Philip Drew, weighed in as well, “in no doubt [that] Australia is a nation of almost endemic ugliness”. He sees it as a product of our English inheritance.

Glenn Murcutt sees the problem as the lack of arts education. “We don’t have any education in the arts to speak of, except some lucky students who do art at school,” he laments.

Recently, architect Michael Bryce commented that councils had allowed Sydney to become “an aesthetic mess” and advised that a team of architects and designers was needed to oversee local government architectural and aesthetic decisions.

Of course Stephen Lacey is right about the poor approach to visual and aesthetic literacy. Murcutt begins to see the real problem but they all fail to understand the constant uphill battle against prejudice, ignorance and discrimination that teachers of the arts, particularly the visual arts, face every day in schools. From administration, from media, from parents, from students and even from other teachers every one feels like that they can have a say in visual arts education.

In the Sydney Morning Herald’s reporting on NSW selective schools (July 3-4, 2010), a good example of this discrimination was evident in the comment from the head teacher of Creative Arts, Joanne McMillan, at James Ruse High School. She admits to “a relatively low participation rate in art classes for the HSC, despite much talent …”

Parents at Parent’s and Citizen’s nights often ask me, using their 1950’s mentality on visual arts education, “How can you teach art? All they (students) need is a pencil …”


This attitude towards aesthetic education, that is, that an aesthetic education or one centred round the visual arts cannot be “taught”, is not just British as Phillip Drew maintains but is also found generally in the Western industrial world. In the USA - where I lectured budding education student teachers on teaching about the visual arts, encouraging them do so with passion - I came across the same attitude in the general community.

Why are the visual arts so poorly appreciated in schools in Australia? At the present moment there are too few dedicated visual arts teachers in state primary schools. In my experience as a visual arts teacher and lecturer of more than 40 years, most students leave primary school, a crucial period of educational development, with little aesthetic knowledge. The attitude expressed by many ordinary Australians that somehow the arts (and particularly teaching and learning about contemporary visual arts) may be one big “con” job, is not the full answer. It maybe about the childlike Australian belief that anything one does not understand is basically dangerous, suspicious or devious. Or it may be that any subject where students make “incomprehensible” objects, make loud noises, use the classroom as a studio and generally have lots of fun is not considered rigorous enough for a “real” education.

State secondary schooling conspires to keep visual arts education in its place at the bottom of the queue because as ignorant and suspicious parents are wont to say, “its not a rigorous subject and really has no credibility”. What this does is make visual arts teachers more passionate, more knowledgeable and better teachers than many of their peers in other subject areas. My Year 12 Visual Arts students know more contemporary theory than their classmates and find that this knowledge helps them in understanding literary texts in their English courses.

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About the Author

Jane Gooding-Brown PhD has teaching experience which includes 44 years teaching as visual arts teacher with NSW Department of Education and Training; at SCECGS Redlands, Sydney; and as Assistant Professor Art Education Pennsylvania State University, Pennsylvania USA. Currently she is the Visual Arts Coordinator at the Conservatorium High School, Sydney NSW.

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