Unqualified creativity

Students working on task

Students invited to bring creativity to a science problem

I confess, I got an E for my Art A level and I don’t have an Art (practice) degree. I do have 3 academic A levels, a good BA Hons degree, two teaching qualifications and an MA – all in the Arts – but nothing much that says on paper that I’ve mastered Art practice. That’s why I feel I can’t call myself an artist, even though I have plenty of paper to show that I can make art of all kinds. Plenty of paper, boxes and shelves of it! And mystifyingly to myself, I can’t even call myself an artist when I promote the idea of Joseph Beuys of ‘everyone an artist’.

My daughter wants to do both Theatre and Art at Post-16 but it’s not going to work out, so she may have to do Art independently. I hear that universities accept students on to Art courses based on their portfolio, and an Art A level is not important at all. This is encouraging.

There does seem to be a shift in recognition – in some quarters – that creativity is not best developed and demonstrated by qualifications or quantitative rewards. In this RSA animation Dan Pink explains that quantitative rewards do work to motivate people to do mechanical tasks, but for any task that is complex and creative, there is an opposite effect. People actually do worse. He goes on to say that when people have basic needs met, they are most fully motivated when they have the conditions for autonomy and mastery. Autonomy is freedom of expression and action. As Beuys puts it, ‘Every human being is an artist, a freedom being’. Mastery is about getting into a state of flow to continually improve at a practice, to adapt it, and to create new things using those skills.

Increasingly I’m noticing people acknowledging the truth of all this. It’s no longer a bit weird to talk about creativity. There are models, motivational epithets, blogposts, courses and campaigns for creativity all over the internet.

There’s a bit of a movement towards everyday creativity, for example, as expressed in the project 64 Million Artists. I’ve just started up a movement (I hope!) of Creativity Clubs. These are like Book Clubs but where you come together to imagine and make something, with the host in turn providing the idea and materials. I’m hopeful to see people starting up their own Creativity Clubs and sharing what they make on the Facebook group.

However, despite this movement, there’s also a worrying retrenchment in Government policy on education (in England). There are too many factors that are removing intrinsic motivation for teachers and students to be playful, experimental and aesthetic, and too many factors forcing them into a model that sees learning as preparation for work that exploits others and the natural world. Nurturing creativity is a delicate thing – it can be crushed if it is too much enforced and rewarded, but also it can be lost if it is not supported and scaffolded.

The policy of universal academisation (or privatisation) will mean an ever diminishing role of local authorities in providing shared capacity for delivering arts and culture. The dominant Multi-Academy Trusts that will run the majority of schools do not seem to prioritise arts and culture, and do not promote the vision of young people as ‘freedom beings’. Government plans to make the EBacc compulsory for 90% of pupils, which requires at least 7 or 8 academic GCSEs, leaving little room for practical and creative subjects. Pearson and Edexcel have changed their BTEC frameworks to be much more formal and mechanical, and much less creative and practical. There are many threats to Further and Higher Education, with reduced funds, and plans to assess universities based on how successful they are in helping students get into employment (which is hard for some creative subjects that lead to precarious freelance careers). In the Education White Paper, the majority of mentions of arts and culture are as Extended School activities and seen as developing ‘Character’ – which in Tory minds equates to ‘grit’. The recent Culture White Paper is slightly more encouraging, as it encourages all cultural organisations to focus on ensuring access by children and young people. However, their efforts to open access may be in vain if young people are spending more hours than ever working towards academic goals, and if schools are narrowing curriculums to exclude arts and culture.

There is a huge amount of reform to resist, and it sometimes seems hopeless. One source of hope is to continue to be creative, to be our best selves and to help others become so, as cultural workers and educators. Let’s have the confidence to call ourselves Artists for Change!




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