Last night BBC2 screened a programme about the final of a national competition called ARTiculation for young people to give a speech about a work of art. I only knew about this from the tweets, which piqued my interest because they were quite divided. The majority were complaining that it “was like elocution lessons for cultural bias” and “doing little to promote the idea that art and culture is for anyone but the privileged’. In response to these critical tweets were some supportive ones – that we shouldn’t take away from their achievements. The opener stated that the participants were from a different backgrounds, both private and state schools. By the time we reached the final, most were from private schools and many children of overseas professionals working here. Watching it this morning, I’m trying to articulate what I feel about it and why the reaction was divided.
There have been a few programmes about young people and schools on TV recently, such as Educating Essex, Educating Yorkshire and Tough Young Teachers. These, like Benefits Street, are a form of ‘poverty porn’ – they capitalise on the entertainment of watching young people, mostly disadvantaged, essentially being tamed in captivity. So, ARTiculation was refreshing in that it simply showed confident young people – who enjoyed learning about art and communicating well to an audience. I’d like to see more programmes for young and diverse people to explore and present art and culture.
However, it was not particularly enlightening if you wanted to learn about art or public speaking. The programme spent all the time profiling the participants rather than exploring art or approaches to interpreting it. So, it drew attention to their backgrounds and we only heard fragments of their speeches. This is probably the main reason for the grudging response – we Brits don’t like too much simple celebration. Also, we have a deeply set cultural allergy to privilege. We are, after all, one of the most unequal countries in the Western world. Our cultural mindset is basically Anglo-Saxon freemen who have been colonised by Norman aristocrats. That colonisation by the super-rich is gaining pace and we don’t like it, but we do little about it except snarky tweeting.
Personally, I was most critical of the fact that the competition format does not express best practice in interpretation of art. It is a public speaking contest which happens to use an artwork as a stimulus. The Roche Court educational trust behind the competition does offer a great education programme, where children can engage verbally and visually with sculpture in the landscape. But for the competition, I didn’t see much evidence in the scraps of speeches that the process had been dialogic (e.g. having conversations about different perspectives) or enquiry-based (tackling a question about a work of art).
It’s interesting to set this competition in the context of a new campaign to widen participation in Art History at school, to show that it’s not just a subject for posh girls. The campaign is about showing that Art History is a serious subject that provides you with a toolkit to interpret the visual world. It isn’t about being able to demonstrate your knowledge of a cultural canon so that you can belong. It is also saying that it’s a subject useful to the UK economy. The teacher behind this, Caroline Osborne, says “People visit this country for our heritage and our thriving visual arts. But we are not preparing our own population to regenerate that heritage. It is something we are really good at and should be doing in the future. Instead of which, lots of the best jobs are going to multilingual Europeans.”
One really positive reason why our visual arts are thriving and our heritage fascinating is that the UK is richly culturally diverse. One negative reason why we attract so many tourists is that our iconic heritage is built on centuries of inequality within the country and exploitation of people around the world. If we want to continue to build our creative and cultural industries, we have to celebrate that diversity while also encouraging critical thinking about inequality and social justice as an embedded part of art making and interpretation. Articulating art must be about articulating politics and cultural histories.