Well-being and the arts

Around this time of the year, and every year, I am involved in an advertising campaign.  My third-year pupils (aged 14-15) are busy pondering their exam programme choices.  It is the point where pupils have to choose which subjects they will continue to study to exam level at the end of their Dutch secondary education.  Pupils in the Netherlands take a still very broad collection of subjects through to the age of 18, so you would think that there would be plenty of scope to choose an arts subject.  This is indeed the case, virtually every student could find the space for art in their timetable.  So why the need for an advertising campaign to push my subject forward and encourage it to be chosen?

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It is an effort to win hearts and minds of those in the classroom (the children themselves) and those beyond (parents and colleagues).  It is, broadly speaking, a two-pronged attack.  Firstly, and perhaps more obviously, there are the children would have particularly strong and well-developed abilities where just maybe the studying of an arts related subject may help them in their route into further education and ultimately a career.  In these cases, I don’t have to do too much, they enjoy the subject, they want to extend themselves and they want to see just how far that they can push themselves.

The second group however, potentially a much larger group, is a much harder sell.  They too may well have a high level of artistic ability and interest.  However, somewhere, even at the age of fifteen a decision has already been made that an arts subject is a wasted and unnecessary choice on the railroad to their future and prestigious career.  The idea that everything has to be in the service of their future university study and career is a deep-seated one.  It is a perspective that is undoubtedly pushed by over cautious parents wanting the ‘best’ for their children.  But it is also reinforced all too often by the general advice that is consciously or unconsciously given at school.  This is the playing-field for the art department’s advertising campaign.

To this group of pupils my message is normally pretty straight forward to deliver; it is perfectly acceptable to choose a subject to follow for three years simply because you like and enjoy it.It might give you a good feeling, it offers a different perspectives and activities to many other subjects on the timetable, it broadens you view of the world, it combines theory, practical, creativity, design, social issues, history and so much more.

Would I dare to add to this that it can increase your sense of well-being? Well maybe, and I wouldn’t be alone in doing this:

British Doctors May Soon Prescribe Art, Music, Dance, Singing Lessons

It is ironic that the views that are presented in this article (that I whole-heartedly support) run counter to the difficulties experienced in the arts, be that the pressures creative subjects are under within educational institutions or funding towards our broader arts organisations across society.

The arts as a wide field of creativity offers so much to those directly involved as artistic practitioners, but infinitely more to the broader public.  Those of us involved at all levels of the cultural world shouldn’t be shy in pushing our agenda, it is a constructive and at fulfilling one. 

Two further articles exploring this area:

The arts and medicine

Medical schools and art classes

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February…..cultural and educational frustrations

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Teenagers are to various degrees and depths interested and engaged with the cultural world around them. They love to watch movies, they listen to music, they follow extended TV series, they take photographs, they are interested in fashion and what they wear, the architecture and built environment around them, the design of stylish cars, many dance or play a musical instrument.  They have the beginnings of becoming adults who later will be culturally engaged, not necessarily as active participants, but at least as active receivers and users of the cultural world around them.  There is an inherent interest, and in some cases the ability to perhaps take one step further and become someone who might actually have a part to play in the broad and varied cultural environment.

Having said all this, February is for me, a culturally frustrating month. It is the month where the third year pupils (14-15 year olds) that I teach are making their so called profile choices, selecting the group of subjects that they wish to study in their last three years of secondary school. For those not familiar with the Dutch ways of education, this means choosing a selection of around nine or ten different subject areas, it is a broad choice. Some might say that it is the strength of the Dutch system that you can keep so many doors open in terms of future study and career choices. Compared to the British system where I studied, it allows for amazing diversity, I had to be satisfied with just three subjects (in my case maths, physics and art) for the last two years at school in the UK.

Yet despite the wide scope of choice on offer, I and my art department colleagues are confronted each year by the same problem of persuasion of pupils to consider choosing a two hours per week of art as an exam subject. For three years the same pupils will have bounced into the art rooms for their lessons, for so many one of the favourite lessons of the week. Many (although of course not all) will have shown great ability and interest in making surprising and imaginative work. So what is going on here when it comes to choosing to take the one cultural subject that the school offers?

The overriding feeling that I have is that decision making is driven by a sort of safety first career related perspective. Pupils, and I dare say parents too, are driven by a career/financial mind-set. It’s a kind of academic subject equals good, versus vocational subject equals risky, view of the world. But it is a view that throws probably more than one important baby out with the bath water.   If I’m honest, I don’t feel that the advice that pupils and parents are often given helps this situation, it tends to reinforce the ‘safety first’ careers perspective and fails to acknowledge just how many people work in the art and cultural sector.

But in away the career building view is not the central point here, remember, we are talking about the art subject being just one of ten subjects on the timetable a pupil will be following. Choosing the subject as a career choice isn’t for many the most important or relevant point.  What the arts offer is something longer term. It is about giving our young people baggage to take with them into adulthood. Not baggage that will weigh them down, it is baggage that will enrich their lives, help them understand the world around them, give them perspectives on the past.  It is about developing opinions and encouraging diversity and insight in the world around us.