Dr. Emese Hall (University of Exeter) and myself were part of a team of four who designed and interpreted the National Society in Education for Art and Design (NSEAD) survey report 2015-16. We asked over 1100 art educators in England how policy had impacted their experience of delivering the subject in schools (http://www.nsead.org/downloads/survey.pdf).
We presented our qualitative response to the survey report at the International Journal of Art and Design conference, November 2016. The aim was not to discuss the content of the report but instead to present a series of drawings which represent our experiences of it. In the process we constructed a visual narrative enquiry by curating drawings created collaboratively during an afternoon in August.
I am currently co-authoring a journal article with Emese examining the implications of the NSEAD survey report findings, with a focus on educational policy and subsequent marginalisation of visual arts education experienced by many. We wanted to explore a more original angle than just regurgitating findings, and in the process of deconstructing them, ‘value’ emerged as a core theme. This refers to what teachers tell us about experiencing an undervaluing of the subject and themselves in schools, and to creating a counter argument. We recognise a need to champion the value of the subject in a challenging political climate.
When we met in August we started the drawing process by writing down words that resonated with us as a result of writing the article and interpreting the survey findings. We began by considering how to visually interpret some of these words through mark-making.
Starting was difficult until we realised that our emotional responses were the most immediate and tangible. We have both experienced the effects of government policy in our own professional contexts, through our students and school partners, and we intentionally drew on these experiences at the beginning of the drawing process. For me, this was immediate, intuitive and spontaneous. I tried not to think too hard about the process of making and just responded with the materials at hand.
We made art standing on opposite sides of a large table, sharing a range of media and drawing onto a large roll of brown paper. Unconsciously we began to share a visual and spoken dialogue, something we became more conscious of through constructing the conference presentation.
This image is my first drawing. I was thinking about two different positions: the ‘devaluing’ and the ‘valuing’ articulated through the survey findings and our journal article. Devaluing is represented by the blackness; I wanted to created depth which absorbed energy although in reality I was frustrated by the limitations of the materials. Valuing is represented by the fragile thread running through the centre of the drawing, a conscious reference to what we know is valuable in the subject.
Emese made this piece simultaneously to my first drawing. It is based on the experience of constant devaluing of the subject, which she represents as a bleak landscape, a battlefield with echoes of a loss of hope.
Media intentionally references constraint where the red tape symbolises bureaucracy and the rope represents subjugation.
We had a follow-up meeting in Exeter in October where we made further sense of the drawings, their meanings and the importance of the collaborative component. In retrospect we recognised a shared visual language emerging right from the start, evident in the repetition of marks and shapes across both our visual responses that act as metaphor for experience.
This is my second piece, which indicates more of an internalised response where I re-experience being professionally devalued. This links to Emese’s previous image of the battlefield through the suggestion of a fleshy wound (red element). In this piece I managed to achieve the depth of black I was striving for in first drawing, and intentionally produced it on a piece of discarded wrapping paper.
During the creation of the conference presentation I realised I was engaging in a reflexive oscillation where meanings emerge from the act of making marks – then responding to marks – and finally reflecting on their meaning through discussion. A cyclic process of connecting the concrete to the abstract and back to the concrete as a method for generating new understandings. Here the collaborative component was operating unconsciously. We didn’t recognise until we created the PowerPoint that we had been having a visual discussion all along. I was also surprised at how visceral the experience was.
Emese created this as an external personal angle compared to my internal response (flesh fragment). It conveys feelings of alienation, dejection and disregard, and speaks of relationships with other people in professional institutions. In its crudest form it can be read as symbolic of exclusion of the arts from the E-Bacc.
This drawing is a deliberate, process-driven response to the word ‘restriction’. It is one of a series of images constructed using recycled materials, such as cardboard packaging, which I used as a barrier placed between the paper and the drawing implement to restrict my mark-making. I was exploring which media enabled the best mark qualities through restrictive play where the final image wasn’t revealed until the restriction (e.g., packaging) was removed.
We deliberately chose to show the image from this distorted view. It speaks of the relationship between the ‘desperate’ marks situated within the confines of the environment, a reference to how we are shaped by our environments and in turn shape them through our acts. In the process of making these drawings I realised the complexity of meaning in my actions, some of which are deliberate, spontaneous, confined, restricted, and liberating.
Emese constructed this piece, which in its original form explored the feeling of imposed structures such as timetables on professionals, drawing on previous visual devices such as an echo of the red tape from an earlier artwork. By destroying the artwork she subverts reference to imposed structure by taking something conservative and reproductive and transforming it into a productive form.
Core meanings underpinning this piece include representing the positive difference between the visual arts and other curriculum subjects. Emese is articulating visually what makes our subject special (its non-conformity) although it wasn’t until after the presentation that we realised we had found a way to articulate the value of the subject. We achieved this using our language, a visual language.
Building on the previous piece Emese was inspired by the word ‘imbalance’ and the social divide that is exposed in the NSEAD survey findings report. This is a metaphor for discrepancies in cultural capital experienced by learners in some State school settings.
The golden ball symbolises the privilege of the independent sector with its emphasis on rich cultural learning experiences, access to visual practitioners, cultural institutions and unfettered opportunity to study the subject at GCSE and A Level. On the opposite side is the State sector and its less consistent cultural offer, where marginalisation is a real experience for some groups of learners across England.
We were concerned that our overall response was very negative and we wanted to locate and communicate a genuinely positive component to our drawn responses. To achieve this we originally planned a second drawing session to focus on the survey report’s recommendations, although this didn’t happen in the end. Instead we revisited our initial drawings to make more sense of them.
Through discussion we recognised that this piece demonstrates glimmers of hope and rebellious energy. It symbolises the good practice we know exists which can’t be constrained by existing marginalisation. The threads represent the subject’s ability to transcend the current political agenda; an indication of the potential for generative growth through bearing witness. Collaborative support is key in articulating new positions of value: to value and be valued.
The NSEAD survey report findings provided opportunity to begin addressing issues that it raises. As academics we recognise the need to balance professional passion for a topic and the researcher’s role of generating trustworthy knowledge claims; this has been an unashamed passionate enquiry. However, it has also been liberating. We have reclaimed value in and for our subject through implementing a visual language to articulate our understandings. As a result, art-making processes supported through collaboration, reflection and dialogue reveal fresh insights into the political educational climate we are living in.