The value of visual art and design

The South African education system has for many decades punted the sciences as a top priority.
Millions of rands have been ploughed into materials, educator upgrades and teaching strategies for mathematics and science subjects. And still we have a system with high failure rates, particularly in these areas.

We also have a growing population that does not recognise its own humanity any more. We are generally a nation with very stressed and angry citizens.

The arts offer a divine way out, a catharsis, a tool for healing and for rationalisation.
I believe that the arts, and more specifically visual art and design, should be punted as highly desirable subjects in our school curriculum and they need to receive much more support from the department of basic education than they do.

Strong schools have strong arts programmes. However, drama and music are not as neglected as visual art and design. When we neglect our insightful, creative and emotional side, we neglect our core human values. To sideline visual art and design as easier options, to denigrate them as subjects that should not be bothered with because they supposedly do not lead to a cognitively more able person or to decent job opportunities, is to show crass disregard for all people who are strong in the humanities. It also shows an alarming lack of knowledge about how many job opportunities there are in the visual arts.

The stigma of visual art or design as a soft option at schools has been around for too long. It is a stigma which, thank goodness, is falling away in some intelligent parts of our country.
Artists are not people who have lower intelligences compared with those in the sciences. But rather they have a different set of intelligence. And, in this world where emotional intelligence is at last receiving its proper regard, these subjects are light-bulbs of opportunity that need to be switched on.

It is a pity that so many high-minded policymakers and those who structure the education curriculum have perpetuated the myth that artists are somehow B-class citizens and that to take art at school is a death knell for any good career.

Art, like no other subject, hones emotional intelligence, insight, analytical skills, spatial intelligence, cognitive skills, planning, entrepreneurial skills and integrated brain activity all of which are vital to the learning process, critical thinking skills and social awareness. And there is much maths in art.

Even career guidance counsellors at good schools do not know about the 24-plus options of well-paying careers in the visual art and design fields, ranging from the obvious teaching or lecturing, to advertising, design work for big companies, curatorships, interior design and architecture or drafting.

Neither do career counsellors know the starting monetary values of these arts careers. I have friends and relatives in some of these fields and their starting salaries range from R15 000 to R20 000 a month or more after their arts qualification. That beats a beginner teacher’s salary by a good margin!

How does art help those learners who would otherwise not do well at school? (And beware here of falling into the trap of thinking that it is only the academic strugglers who do or should take art.) Visual art and design, with their theory and practical components, are as intellectually challenging as history or geography. And more so than some other subjects that are on the designated list of subjects for university entrance.

These two subjects allow different but valuable, creative, lateral-thinking intelligence the space to be: the forward mind of society, the mirror of society, the social conscience of society, the player-out-of-dreams of society, the morale booster of society, the best cathartic tool for all who do it, the social yardstick of society, the warning bell of society and the maker of more sensitive, caring human beings.

These subjects teach skills that will provide many of our disadvantaged learners with the immediate possibility of earning a living. Nothing in our man-made world has happened without design. South Africa has a vast pool of potential designers who need to be developed. The success of our economy depends on this design potential.

Perhaps the biggest advantage that visual art and design gives to learners is confidence, which enables them to tackle the world. Ask any child who has suffered from dyslexia, or attention deficit disorders how art has made a difference to his or her life, and you will feel humbled. One such case is an exceptional set of paintings and sculptures by a grade 12 learner who has severe dyslexia, and who received an A for art in the recent November examinations. The learner has a hugely increased sense of self and has received the praise of peers and teachers alike. He has been offered job opportunities in Canada and the United States on the strength of his art portfolio.

Ask any child who dances to a different but no less worthy drummer, what visual art or design has done, and you might well see your own child in that answer. The visual arts are powerful because they are visible, and become permanent monuments or signposts for the rest of society.

I am so pleased that, in Grahamstown, and in many towns I have visited, there is respect for the visual art subjects and learners do not suffer under the stigma of second-rate people because they choose to do visual art or design. Tens of thousands of our young people would benefit from these subjects.

May our government and education planners give proper and fair cognisance to these two vital humanities subject choices if we are to heal ourselves and our social and economic problems in South Africa.

Virginia Reed is headmistress of Johan Carinus Art School in Grahamstown

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