Making a stand for art: Bob and Roberta Smith (Patrick Brill). Photograph courtesy of Bob and Roberta Smith
Making a stand for art: Bob and Roberta Smith (Patrick Brill). Photograph courtesy of Bob and Roberta Smith

Art in school and higher education is being endangered by government policies, according to Bob and Roberta Smith (B&R).

The East End contemporary artist (confusingly, he is actually just one person, whose real name is Patrick Brill) is so concerned about the future of the subject he loves that he is standing in the 2015 general election in Surrey Heath – the seat of former education secretary Michael Gove.

Although standing as an independent, B&R launched an informal political group, the Art Party, back in 2013, to apply pressure on the government to protect workshops in schools.

The party took inspiration from American wartime leader Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s post-war Works Progress Administration, which employed millions of people to carry out public works including art projects.

B&R, who has a studio off Cambridge Heath Road and whose work was shortlisted for the Trafalgar Square forth plinth, says the initiative paved the way to economic recovery from the depression and the USA’s subsequent successes in the 1950s.

One of the Art Party’s key beliefs is that art in schools should be practical rather than simply about appreciation and enjoyment.

Workshops are more expensive to maintain than classrooms, says B&R, and accountants and politicians “see them as resources that can be cut”.

Another subject B&R is concerned about, and once wrote to Michael Gove to address, is access to opportunities in art.

“Schools, when they achieve Academy status or if they’re Free Schools, don’t have to follow the national curriculum,” says B&R. “So that means that they don’t have to teach art, and that means then that if you have a Free School set up by whoever it is, a businessman or ex-serviceman or someone with a particular passion for a particular thing, they don’t necessarily have to teach art.

“This means that pupils at primary level might not be taught art, and that’s really bad.”

Free Schools are a flagship part of the government’s approach to education, and their supporters say they give educators more freedom.

Pupils in inner cities will be most affected by the changes, as these are the areas were Free Schools are being set up – and B&R thinks this means art could become more homogenous as poorer pupils could have less access to the opportunities to create it.

B&R says: “If you go to Westminster, if you go to The Tate or St James’s, as I do occasionally, you can walk past Westminster School [the elite private school]. It has fabulous art rooms, so it’s not that the rich or wealthy don’t want art.

“But the thing is, we want culture made by everybody, and every child should have a right to make it. It makes culture more vibrant if you have lots of different voices participating in it, and actually wealthy kids don’t tend to make terribly interesting art. We don’t really want a monoculture of just one sort of people making art.”

B&R says the government’s approach is “daft” even when looked at on their own terms.

“Conservative people are always very keen on business and enterprise and that sort of thing,” he explains. “And actually it will cripple British design if you don’t have people like Jonathan Ive, who was the son of a CDT (Craft Design and Technology) teacher.

“He grew up in Chingford and he went to a regular comprehensive school and went on to design the Apple Mac.

“It’s about plurality and getting as many people involved in culture and design as possible. That’s basically my problem with what the government has done.”

B&R, who teaches at London Metropolitan University, is passionate about higher education too, viewing it as key to individual development, and he is worried about increasing fees and “privatisation”.

“I think education is pretty much diagnostic,” he says. “When you start off doing it, you need to do as broad a curriculum as you can, and as you go through it you get passionate about certain things. The mathematicians get passionate about maths, the footballers get passionate about football and the artists get passionate about the arts. As you get further along with it you find yourself as a human being.

“Protecting support structures for artists is actually quite important. It’s important for the artists, and also it’s important for society more generally. I think one of the things that’s going to happen, one of the things people are worried about anyway, is what will happen to postgraduates and degrees.

“It’s not just the Conservatives that have been responsible for what has happened in higher education, the Labour Party instituted the Browne Review on Higher Education [which led to the cap on the amount universities could charge in fees to be removed].”

The 2013 student visa saga at London Met, which put foreign students at risk of being deported, brought the problem of funding for universities into even sharper focus.

“The government’s whole model has been increasing fees for home students and then getting as many overseas students in as possible,” says B&R. “That model for London Met is just being ripped away.”

As for whether aspiring artists should gain higher education qualifications before launching their careers, B&R clearly believes the answer is yes.

“The foundation course is kind of the great invention,” he says. “The thing about any kind of higher education, whatever subject it may be, is it’s as much about the subject as it is about those crucial years between 18 and 21 or 22 when you really do grow up. And young people need to do that in that environment which they can expand themselves and push and find the edges of.

“It’s not just about learning the subject, it’s about developing as a human being.

“As an artist you think maybe you should just go ahead and sell paintings or get something going on that front straight away, but the problem is once you do that people then tend to want the same thing that they bought last time, and it does actually tend to stunt the development a little bit and a make you a bit stale.”

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