In my pursuit of an education and (eventual) career in the history of art I’ve often met people who laugh it off as some kind of illegitimate discipline, the love-child of macho history and a woman with Titian hair and a cubist figure. They don’t know why they
should care about art, so they don’t. But the history of art is the history of ideas. With it we can trace the ideas of an individual, of a people, of a country. But the history of art is the history of ideas. With it we can trace the ideas of an individual, of a people, of a country. The ideas surrounding a place, a time, a culture. The ideas about an idea.Fundamentally, a love of the history of art should start with a love of art. Why would anyone want to understand something if they don’t care about it? In Western Australian primary schools children have art classes from pre-primary through to year seven. We made a lot of self-portraits. Once I made a sarong. An African tribal mask. A painting of cornflowers. A drawing of an ‘Australian Christmas’. But we didn’t actually look at art. I’m not trying to quash the creative expression of children across the state, but why did our teachers never show us any of these things before they asked us to do them?
It wasn’t until earlier this year when I saw Van Gogh’s Irises at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and I realised it looked so familiar to me not because I had seen it so many times in books, but because the colour blue used is exactly the same as the cornflower blue my teacher spent ages helping me to perfect in year four. Why didn’t she just show me a picture of Irises? Artists have always borrowed ideas from each other. She could have shown us pictures of Morris’ repeating floral patterns, Monet’s Poppies or Chrysanthemums, Cassatt’s Picking Daisies in a Field, Klimt’s Flower Garden, Klee’s Flora on Sand. I’d been asked to depict flowers for years without actually being exposed to depictions of flowers, and I was in my late teens and at university before I became familiar with these images and I was finally able to see connections between them.
I studied art in my final year of high school. We were assessed on a body of artworks that we created over the course of the year and we were also assessed on two different art movements. It was clear our teacher wasn’t passionate about teaching us the material. When I left school I was fairly disenchanted with art and its history on the whole. Creating it was frustrating and its assessment subjective, and studying it seemed irrelevant.
Then after leaving school I lived in Belgium for a year where I visited cities and towns where art and architecture and artists defined places and people. It was then that I realised how important art is. But why should I have had to leave home and travel fourteen thousand kilometres to find that out? It doesn’t make any sense that art can’t be used to explain concepts to children. We show children films and documentaries and television programmes to explain concepts, why not use art? For almost as long as there has been man there has been art, showing us the humanist side of many contemporary issues. We can observe attitudes towards revolutions, industrialisation, colonisation and even global climate change using art. Art needs to become familiar to children; art is about people and their ideas and this shouldn’t be alienating.
We don’t need to teach children names or dates, they just need to be exposed to works around central ideas or themes. Even at tertiary level art history departments are beginning to move away from the art survey approach and towards courses which focus more on how we can read and interpret art and what it means to people. There is no reason why a simplified version of this system can’t also be implemented in primary and high schools in Western Australia. Our state and country have a rich artistic heritage, both in terms of indigenous art and that created after European arrival, which can help us to understand a variety of themes, including national identity and how that has changed.
Arts education reform is critical. As the majority of students in Australia don’t have parents who take them to galleries or museums and the regulations regarding school excursions are becoming ever more rigid, making visits to art galleries and museums few and far between, it is necessary for art to come to students instead. Every primary and high school in Western Australia has an art specialist of some description. Instead of classes being only about creative expression they should also focus on using art to address, map and explore issues pertinent to that age group, for example family, the environment, self-image, sexism or racism. We need to make art relevant to Australian students again so that even if they are not passionate about it they don’t have to travel halfway across the world to begin to understand its value, and can appreciate that understanding art is not only applicable to those who choose to pursue it in theory or practice but to anyone wishing to explore the ideas surrounding what it is that makes us human.