‘I’m good at art, but stupid’: the state of art and design education in the 21st century

August 15, 2023

This first in a series of blog posts on art education has been kindly provided by Vanessa Corby.

Vanessa Corby discovered she could paint, think, and write while undertaking a degree in Fine Art in the North East of England. In 2002 she was awarded her PhD in the feminist history of art (Leeds). She is Professor of the history, theory, and practice of art at York St John University’. 

‘I’m good at art, but stupid’. These words have haunted me since I first heard them last year, during a workshop entitled Draw Hope hosted by Barnsley Museums and Heritage Trust. The project is a wellbeing initiative devised for vulnerable young people referred by the NHS Social Prescribing Service. I’d been involved in a pilot that had informed it and was dropping in on their Saturday morning sessions to help the Trust’s funding evaluation. In the introductions the youngest person in the room looked me in the eye and with deadpan wit, summed up their 12-year-old self as ‘good at art, but stupid’. Twelve months on I still find it difficult to find the words to articulate how profoundly that enunciation angered and saddened me. Not least of all because, to everyone else present this matter-of-fact nature declaration seemed like a normal thing to say. We folk from Yorkshire do pride ourselves on a reputation for straight talking, but their frankness was going some even by our standards. How is it possible that someone so young can seem to be so certain of their own lack of intelligence? And, how can they be so assured, aged twelve, that having a gift for art isn’t a marker of intelligence?

What this statement didn’t do was surprise me, because in it I see a microcosm of the state of the English education today. ‘I’m good at art, but stupid’ is a judgement that testifies to the feeling of ‘individual lack’, embedded by the ‘internalisation’ of class inequality and systematic discrimination within UK education (Reay, 2017). Or, as Miranda Fricker would argue, to the weight of a ‘deficit of credibility’ due to the ‘identity prejudice that tracks [people] through different dimensions of social activity – economic, educational, professional, sexual, legal, religious, political and so’ (Fricker 2007). Education is not merely a matter of implementing policy and curriculum but is profoundly relational (Reay 2017; Ingold 2018), and it wasn’t lost on me that, in the eyes of this young person, I was the posh professor who’d breezed back into her hometown to inspect the guinea pigs. Not so long before, as my train was coming into Barnsley station, a man dressed in a grey tailored suit turned to me and with clear disdain said, ‘You in this hell too?’ His smirk suggested he expected the concurrence of someone like him, someone who didn’t belong there. The response he received wasn’t quite what he bargained for. As Reay argued so powerfully, young people from poor and working-class communities live in constant fear of the ‘shame and humiliation of being thought of as stupid’ (2017). To this young person, the contempt of an educated Barnsley expat was inevitable. They therefore took steps to deflect my power to pass judgement on them by beating me to it and put themselves down first.

‘I’m good at art, but stupid’ is a testimony to the symbolic violence of performance culture, whose drive for league table results has generated what Diane Reay has named a ‘form of social apartheid’; a ‘segregated system where different social classes are largely educated apart rather than together’ (2017). The system’s dependence on measurable outcomes, captured via the rapid regurgitation of rote learned facts and figures privilege the neurotypical, and those who have grown up with access to the cultural capital it legitimates. In 2022 Michaëlsson, Yuan and colleagues confirmed the link between low socioeconomic status (SES) and the greater incidence of ADHD, but their findings unequivocally rejected the presupposition of a relationship between this condition and lack of intelligence. What this young person’s self-assessment articulates is the synergy between the effects of what Teresa Crew called the ‘poverty of expectations’ for the educational outcomes of the working class (2020), and what I would call the poverty of expectations for the disciplines of art and design. Young people who don’t readily meet the requirements of performance culture find solace in and are steered towards the not so easily measured non-academic subjects of art and design, it’s as simple as that (Uboldi, 2017; Corby, 2023).

I have taught fine art and art history in Higher Education for more than twenty years, working with many students from poor and working-class communities. That experience has taught me that UK universities are picking up the pieces of an ideologically driven education system, which discriminates against low socioeconomic status and actively undermines the contribution that art and design make to knowledge, society, and the economy. We are working within a system that teaches young people to write themselves and art off. This can’t go on, and I’m taking this young person’s damming self-assessment as the starting point for a call for a revision of the National Curriculum for Art and Design.

If you would like to blog for CHEAD on an Higher Education Art, Media and Design or related creative discipline please contact sandra@chead.ac.uk


The state of education: working bibliography

Anon., (1992) Editorial, ‘Art History in the National Curriculum’, The Burlington Magazine, vol.134/No.1068, March. https://www.burlington.org.uk/archive/editorial/art-history-in-the-national-curriculum

Ball, S J. (2017), The education debate (Third Edition), (Polity Press, Bristol).

Crew, T. (2020) Higher education and Working-Class Academics: Precarity and Diversity in Academia, Palgrave Macmillan, (XXXX)

Fricker, M. (2007) Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, (Oxford University Press)

Hewison, R. (2014) Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain, (Verso, London).

Ingold, T. (2011) The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, Routledge, London)

Reay, D. (2017) Miseducation: Inequality, education, and the working classes, (Polity Press, Bristol).

Mansell, W. (2019) ‘Ofsted plan to inspect ‘cultural capital’ in schools attacked as elitist’, The Guardian, 3rd September.

Michaëlsson, M., Yuan, S., Melhus, H. et al. (2022) The impact and causal directions for the associations between diagnosis of ADHD, socioeconomic status, and intelligence by use of a bi-directional two-sample Mendelian randomization design. BMC Med 20, 106. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-022-02314-3

Mould, O. (2018) Against Creativity, (Verso, London).

Steers, J. (2014) ‘Reforming the school curriculum and assessment in England to match the best in the world – a cautionary tale’, The International Journal of Art & Design Education, vol.33. no.1. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264717577_Reforming_the_School_Curriculum_and_Assessment_in_England_to_Match_the_Best_in_the_World_-_A_Cautionary_Tale

Uboldi, A. (2017) ‘Disadvantaged students and art school: the outcasts on the inside between acquiescence and contestation’, Contemporary Social Science: Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences, 12:3-4, 297-315.

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