Even with all the challenges and failures the education system in SA is subject to, arts education is not just a luxury, writes Mpho Moshe Matheolane.
Last week I pried open the issue of art being more than simply an educational medium, but also an important thread within the social fabric of society.
The responses to that particular article brought to bear an obvious point: the conversation around the arts is seldom heard – and if it is, it is not consistent.
So I thought it best to inquire a little further, in the hopes of bringing to the fore more insights regarding the issue of art within the context of education.
Imagine this: A group of public school students are on an exhibition and museum tour. In their school, art is not offered all the way through to matric.
The school children are shown the work of a photographer whose subject matter has been the documentation of everyday life under South Africa's democratic dispensation. They are asked what they think of the work on show, what it means or could mean, and finally, how it makes them feel.
Some, naturally, like what they see, others do not. Some see the work as nothing more than the depiction of the past, despite the work being contemporary. Given this last point, it becomes clear that this group sees, in the present, aspects of the past. They reveal, in their visually literate analysis, a revelation of sorts.
I heard this tale from the educational curator of the Wits Art Museum, Leigh Blanckenberg, who was referring to a school tour she led during the recent exhibition of Dale Yudelman’s work. Although her intention was to simply inspire the children into thinking about what art is, is not and could be, the pleasant surprise came from realising just how engaged those students were and it was through the medium of art, photography in this case, that they were able to draw the conclusions that they did.
This leads us back to our starting position, and the question of how much attention arts education receives and deserves. As an institute that is relatively new to the arts and cultural scene, Wits Art Museum offers a great opportunity for testing new ideas around its part in developing an arts audience. Education has become an important feature of the museum’s plans, and this means figuring out ways not just of attracting new audiences but of retaining them as well.
It also means highlighting the partnership that exists, and ought to exist, between art and education as public sector fields. According to Yvette Hardie, the director of the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People's South African branch, a lack of integration of arts training as a means to learning, the limited time that is dedicated to the subject and the minimal exposure to the scope of professions that are concerned with it, are but a few of the issues that stand out as obstacles and problem areas.
One thing that is certain is that arts education does not occupy the same playing field as other areas, be they in the public or private sector. At tertiary institutions, science-related subjects are encouraged. At primary and secondary school level, teachers do not have adequate infrastructures to encourage the growth of young minds through art. The National Audit of School Sport, Arts and Culture of 2004 found issues similar to those presented by Hardie regarding the shortfalls facing arts education. Among them some that are seemingly unavoidable: a lack of resources and educator training, poor access to materials, and disparities between schools.
It is at the primary levels of schooling that arts education must be given fertile ground in order to grow firm roots. Further, a functioning partnership between all the institutions that have this as an interest should be encouraged.
Of course, one cannot but admit to the potential hazard of hoping that the arts will come to be seen and treated as the critical human tool for social cohesion that they are. The immense problems facing our education system currently make for one of the more shameful and sobering realities in South Africa. It is therefore easy, under these circumstances, for it to be forgotten that art does more than engender society with the tolerance of different views and interpretations.
While we may be a nation that is diverse not just in culture but in sociopolitical issues too, art is the unassuming device that enables this diversity to be expressed for the sake of better understanding ourselves.