top of page

Symbolic Arbitrage

Flux by Collectif SCALE.

Collectif SCALE, 2010. Contemporary Installations Where Art Meets Engineering

To what extent could an over-emphasis on formalism and pastiche in Key Stage 3 and 4 Art and Design in state schools contribute to an asymmetry in society?

Top of the list of ‘Aims’ on the national curriculum (DfE 2014, p.225) for Art and Design (referred to from now as Art) at Key Stage 3 is the requirement that pupils, ‘produce creative work, exploring their ideas and recording their experiences’ (my italics). This post questions whether this is really happening at state level, whether students are indeed bringing imaginative and new forms, objects, and ideas into existence in the spirit of the word ‘create’ as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2023), ‘To bring into existence’ and to, ‘produce through imaginative skill’. It also looks at how, if it isn’t, such an omission might contribute, in whatever small way, not only to an asymmetry in society but to the acceptance of this social order within the context of Bourdieu’s notions of symbolic capital and violence, and Bernstein’s ideas around symbolic relationships.

An asymmetry in society

Bernstein uses the terms ‘working’ and ‘middle’ class to distinguish between two separate groups in society he thought he witnessed during his career in education, one that took him from mathematics and PE teacher to distinguished sociologist at The Institute of Education (Sadovnik 2001, p.607). What matters is not so much the exact terminology, but the idea that a certain group of people have access to knowledge and resources that others don’t (Jones 2015), and that this remains central to the UK class system even today, despite the Conservative government’s efforts to ‘level up’ (Greening 2020) society.

An extreme example of social division can be seen in a recent Guardian article (Neate 2022) exposing findings that suggest the number of UK billionaires has increased by 20% during a time of financial struggle for the rest of society. One could deduce that these billionaires are privy to knowledge and resources that the rest of us aren’t. But it isn’t just billionaires who emerge from, and take advantage of, such discrepancies. Bernstein (1971; 2003) and Bourdieu (1986; 2013) were concerned about the subtle forms of distinction that create social asymmetries between what they termed the working and middle class in the form of symbols, codes, and capital.

Symbolic capital and violence

Bourdieu (1986) speaks of several different types of ‘capital’ in society: economic capital, social capital, objectified cultural capital, institutionalized cultural capital, and embodied cultural capital. Embodied cultural capital is a more elusive concept; Bourdieu considers this to be the integration and projection of all the other forms of capital a person might exude (Bourdieu and Wacquant 2013, p.295). Symbolic capital relies on the belief that all the above is real, ‘legitimized’.

Symbolic violence is the recognition or acceptance (from all sides) of the effect of all the above culminating in a social order (ibid., pp.298-299). Hypothetically, a cynic might frame the term ‘level up’ as an expression of symbolic violence when considering the disparity between the idealistic concept and the actions of a government simply maintaining the status quo while at the same time, in the words of Bourdieu (ibid., p.295), ‘denying [social] distances (by appearing ‘simple’, by making [themselves appear] ‘accessible’)’. Another expression of symbolic violence might be the way money (a powerful symbol) is framed as either a real threat to the economy, for instance with regards to public sector workers’ salaries and their wage increase demands, or framed as unreal, abstract or not even worth talking about, for instance in the case of a deficit in the economy partially due to a country leaving the European single market or to a mis-judged neoliberal tax policy (Kettle 2023).

Art in all of this

‘Eton are making big investments in time, money and commitment to the visual arts’ according to artist Bob Smith (cited by Eton College, 2022) while state schools across England face a ‘‘creativity crisis’ with the number of creative arts students and teachers down by as much as a fifth in some subjects after a decade of underinvestment’ according to Labour, with one in eight Art teachers leaving the profession (Weale 2021).

Smith’s (cited in BBC, 2018) observation that, ‘In the independent sector they really value the arts […]. At Westminster [school] they have fantastic arts classes, at St Paul’s they value the arts’, possibly highlights a difference in importance placed upon Art between the public and private education sectors, or even a missed opportunity to ‘level up’ society.

There is no conspiracy being proposed here, nor is it being suggested that social disparities are solely the result of an erosion of Art at state school level—that Art is a superpower of the elite or has the magic-bullet-potential for social justice. The conjecture is that, whether by design or happenstance, a weakened Art programme, lacking to a degree in creative work at state level, could to some extent, contribute to symbolic illiteracy and that this could, perhaps, suit the establishment.

Formalism and pastiche, the dominant forces in Key Stage 3 and 4 Art at the three UK state schools that I’ve worked in, and why this might be a problem

Smith (cited in BBC, 2018) suggests private schools, ‘value the arts because they realize art makes people powerful’. He talks of Art as a means of understanding and harnessing symbols and power dynamics (ibid.). But what kind of Art is he talking about? Is there a difference between Art that goes on in private (well-funded) schools compared to what happens at state level? The following proposes there might be, with two caveats: That this is based on my limited experience as a teacher in a few state schools while comparing this to what’s advertised on the websites of several elite private schools; and, that I’m not claiming a clear distinction between one kind of Art that happens solely in the private sector compared to a completely different kind of Art that happens in state schools, I’m positing that there seems to be a difference in priorities and emphases.

I claim that formalism and, in particular, pastiche are limited in terms of creative and cognitive development and therefore shouldn’t carry the weight they seem to at state schools. What’s lacking, in my view, are the conceptual and symbolic aspects of artmaking that hark back to the national curriculum’s requirement of creative work (imaginative work that brings new forms, objects and ideas into existence) being produced at Key Stage 3 and beyond.

In trying to establish a ‘relationship between the mode of cognition and certain social expressions’, Bernstein (1974 p.24) shares that, ‘Two types of ordering relationships will be proposed; that which arises out of sensitivity to the content of objects and that which arises out of the sensitivity to the structure of objects’ (my italics) (ibid.). Sensitivity to content refers to the acknowledgment of or, ‘learned ability to respond to the boundaries of an object’ (ibid.), i.e., this is a thing and it’s different from that thing. Sensitivity to structure is defined in terms of how the object relates to other things, ‘a function of learned ability to respond to an object perceived and defined in terms of a matrix of relationships’ (my italics) (ibid.)—in the words of philosopher Markus Gabriel (2020, p.66), ‘Concepts bring objects together’. I regard this ‘matrix of relationships’ as the fertile ground, the nexus, from where new forms, objects and ideas can be brought into existence, corresponding to Gabriel’s (ibid., p.45) definition or artworks as compositions combined with interpretations.

Formalism, by its very nature, is the process of responding to the boundaries and properties of objects—the ‘content’ of objects, to use Bernstein’s terminology. This is all well and good and carries with it immense weight in the world of Art—I’m not saying the line work and shading in the (deeply symbolic) drawings of Michelangelo aren’t of value. Eisner (2002, pp.75-76) even suggests that formalism indeed does provide an examination of relationships, for instance regarding the interaction of the human body with the floor and other objects in life drawing, although I consider this generous. But an over-emphasis on formalism—a focus on ‘content’—at the expense of more imaginative artistic expressions involving conceptual relationships across boundaries, I think, contributes to a gap in symbolic understanding. Couched within the broader context of behaviour, linguistic codes, and value systems, the suggestion made by Bernstein (1974., pp.24-25) is that ‘working-class’ children are less predisposed to, ‘the relationships between means and ends and of the relevant cognitive and dispositional attributes’ compared to ‘middle-class children’. I doubt formalism does much in terms redressing the balance, chances are it compounds the disparity.

I think pastiche even worse. In copying another artist, it’s true, one learns about technique and approach, but the conceptual work has already been done, and probably won’t be fully appreciated, enjoyed, embodied or understood by students despite any (oftentimes Googled and tokenistic) research on the artist or movement. Although pastiche at state schools at Key Stage 4 (not 3) is justified as the initial stages of a ‘creative’ response to a known artist (which I see as a rip off lite rather than the creation of something imaginative and new), I feel there’s a lack of cognitive breakthrough that even formalism offers to a degree in terms of challenging perceptions and the senses.

In a bid not to make this too binary, I acknowledge that it’s useful, especially in early Key Stage 3 with a classroom of 30+ students, to introduce techniques via established artists by having students explore/copy such techniques. For instance, students can get a taste of what it’s like to paint in a Fauvist style or cut out and lay down different coloured pieces of paper as Matisse might have done. These seem to be valid methods of introducing different ways of recording. But such activities should not constitute the end goal, they should be the means of introduction only. I think about pastiche is problematic when students are assessed on the degree of accuracy with which they have managed to recreate historical masterpieces.

For me, Kant (2005, pp.193-194) epitomises pastiche in his introduction to Transcendental Logic when he says, ‘Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind’, where Gabriel (2015, p.332), citing Kant, interprets ‘intuitions’ as relating to our first-order representations of ordinary objects and ‘concepts’ as relating to our higher-order representations of our representations. In my view, pastiche breaks the unification of understanding, which is ‘not capable [in itself] of intuiting anything’, and the senses, which are ‘not capable of thinking anything’, that Kant (2005.p.194) claims leads to cognition. In this vein pastiche is void of cognition, meaning-making, and conceptual relationship-building.

I see pastiche in the Art room as little better than an English teacher instructing students to use an AI programme to write an essay and insisting on them reading it through before handing it in; surface level content is gleaned, but no real cognition or synthesis takes place with regards to thinking through the essay’s premise, constructing its arguments, and generating the thesis. Gabriel (2017, p.141) writes, ‘Understanding an artwork involves confrontation with our assumptions regarding what it is to understand something’. I think that with pastiche, the act itself of understanding, is undermined.

A further dynamic is brought to the fore with Bernstein (citing Domingos in 2003, p.75) suggesting there are social pressures on the school to conform to local codes and transmissions: ‘Where the catchment area of a school draws upon a lower working-class community it is likely […] that the school will adopt strategies forced upon it, which will affect both the content and the pacing of the transmission. The content is likely to stress operations, local skills rather than the exploration of principles and general skills, and the pacing likely to be weakened’. While many factors* might be contributing to excessive weight given to formalism and pastiche, the one highlighted here is the possibility of a self-perpetuating cycle of social transmissions, expectations, and ways of thinking, leading to, as well as derived from, these forms of pedagogy.

*Another factor could be the current ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum, where the enquiry and the building of concepts play second fiddle to the transmission of factual knowledge (Chapman and Gray 2018).

Contrast this to Eton (2022), suppliers to a different tranche of society, where it’s claimed on their website that the Art department, ‘prides itself of being a place of creativity, imagination, ideas and visual stimulation’; or St Paul’s (2023) where, ‘the possibilities for personal expression are endless …’; or Westminster (2023) where a student is quoted as saying, ‘I thrive because there are no creative boundaries. The school actively encourages artistic innovation’; or Dulwich College (2022) where, apparently, Art teaching, ‘strives to reach beyond any predetermined ‘tick box’’, where teachers are, ‘driven to develop independent thinkers who are armed with the technical ability to realise their creative ambitions’, and where, ‘risk-taking alongside boundary breaking’ are integrated with traditional and contemporary practice. These elite schools, at least claim to, prioritise exploration, innovation and the conceptual, symbolic thinking required to solve practical problems, generate value, and, importantly, challenge assumptions made of the world and the appearances within it.

I think this is an example of what Bernstein (2003, p.135) means when he shares that, ‘The class system has deeply marked the distribution of knowledge within society. It has given differential access to the sense that the world is permeable’ (my italics). With symbolic knowledge and a deeper understanding of the relationships between objects, people and concepts across boundaries comes the realization that the world is permeable, flexible, transformable, and with that in turn comes the ability to create objects and services of value in the marketplace as well as the rules. Harari (2015) in his book Sapiens applies this principle to tracking the rise of human civilization in the form of symbols and story-telling birthing religion, countries, money, and businesses—structures where the rules and the revenue are made by those creating the narratives. Gabriel (2020, p.9) corroborates this in saying, ‘Society is essentially tied to human imagination’, as does Willis (1990, p.10) who shares that, ‘imagination is not an extra to daily life, something to be supplied from disembodied ‘art’. It is part of the necessariness of everyday symbolic and communicative work’.

But an asymmetry exists in society if one group of people accept the boundaries imposed on them as legitimate (symbolic violence), while another understands that many ‘boundaries’ are merely symbolic and can oftentimes (legally or illegally without reprimand) be purposefully misconstrued, created or recreated. I think that the potential power of Art education lies not in the reproduction of singular objects or in other artists’ work, but in the emancipation of the human spirit expressed as the transgression of the logical, the status quo, and the already known and accepted. In my view, formalism and pastiche given too much emphasis leads to a stunted version of what could be, compared to what should be, and what seems to be in the private education sector.

A kernel of hope

Markus Gabriel in The Power or Art (2020, p.45), defines artworks as:

‘… compositions, not objects on display under special conditions (museums, concerts, theatres, etc.). Literally, a com-positions puts things together. At a minimum, artworks combine more or less ordinary objects (a bronze statue, sounds, printed or spoken words) with an interpretation (a perception of a sculpture, a reading of a novel, a performance of an opera, etc.)’

The sad thing about state school formalism and pastiche is that a key aspect of what an artwork is (according to Gabriel at least), the interpretation, is rendered mute. Very little—most times nothing—need be interpreted.

Another issue Gabriel’s definition (and his book) draws attention to is the rich and diverse nature of the Arts as a whole (dance, film, literature, music, sculpture, painting, design, drama, etc., …). Perhaps due to curriculum design that noticeably started to take shape in the 80s (Hulks 2003, p.134), ‘Art’ in schools seems to have shifted to a more contracted discipline compared to Gabriel’s reminder of a grander scheme of human creative expression. This might have to accepted as a practicality, a concession to keeping Art onboarded in an education system, although the irony lies in that the further isolated the subject becomes from the rest of the curriculum, the less innovative students themselves might find themselves to be. As Robinson (2006) posits, powerful, creative, meaningful art emerges from cross-disciplinary knowledge and understanding. I suggest the trend, one that I think I’ve seen at a few state schools, of narrowing the subject down even further to formalism and pastiche, needs tempering. This post has given some thought as to why: That to some, however modest extent, these forms of pedagogy may perpetuate asymmetries in society and an acceptance of such a social order. I’ll add too that I think it has a tarnishing effect on how students relate to the subject—I suspect that some of them feel, however subconsciously, the creative restrictions imposed upon them and possibly resent Art as a result.

However, I think there is real hope in attempting to reverse this trend. In the chapter ‘Creating a Personal Symbol’ (Ross 1978, pp.131-134), Art teacher John Woolner gives a beautiful description of a project in which a student engages in multiple studies of a horse chestnut. The emphasis is on the ‘expressive act’ (ibid., p.131) and Woolner claims to have come to the realization, from working with this student that, ‘We perceive with feeling. Perception is coloured by subjectivity’ (ibid., p.132). Woolner shows that while a formalist approach can be a good starting point for a project, in colouring the object with our own subjectivity, it’s possible to move gracefully towards symbolic representations of it. I can’t defend pastiche, but in terms of honoring formalism—I think it holds an important place in Art—Woolner’s project showcases how to cover the bases whilst moving students forward to more conceptual realms, where symbols and codes are exposed for what they are, and can, perhaps from an idealistic perspective, be leveraged by lots more people, not just a few, thereby contributing to the enrichment of communication, deeper understandings, and less social divisions.


BBC, 2018. Arts Education in schools – a Front Row debate from Leicester [online]. London: BBC. Available from: [Accessed 27 December 2022]

Bernstein, B., 1971. Class, Codes and Control (Volume 1) – Theoretical Studies towards a Sociology of Language. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Bernstein, B., 2003. Class, Codes and Control (Volume 4) – The Structuring of Pedagogic Discourse. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Bourdieu, P., 1986. The Forms of Capital. Edited by J. G. Richardson. Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. New York, NY: Greenwood Press. pp.241-258

Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L., 2013. Symbolic capital and social class. Journal of Classical Sociology, 13, 2, pp. 292-302

Chapman, A. and Gray, S. L., 2018. Until the DfE understands curriculum its well-meaning pilots will run off course [online]. London: UCL. Available from: [Accessed 15 February 2023]

Department for Education (DfE), 2014. The national curriculum in England – framework document [online]. Available from:

[Accessed 27 December 2022]

Dulwich College, 2022. The Department [online]. Available from: [Accessed 27 December 2022]

Eisner, E., W., 2002. The Arts and the Creative Mind. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Eton College, 2022. Art at Eton [online]. Available from: [Accessed 27 December 2022]

Gabriel, M., 2015. Fields of Sense – A New Realist Ontology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd.

Gabriel, M., 2017. Why the World Does Not Exist. 2nd Ed. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Gabriel, M., 2020. The Power of Art. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Greening, J., 2020. Boris Johnson’s social mobility plan could create the change we’ve been waiting for – now he just has to deliver [online]. London: Independent. Available from: [Accessed 27 December 2022]

Harari, Y., N., 2015. Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind. London: Penguin Random House UK.

Hulks, D., 2003. Measuring artistic performance: the assessment debate and art education pp.134-143 in issues in art and design teaching. Edited by Nicholas Addison and Lesley Burgess. New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer – Taylor & Francis Group.

Jones, O., 2015. The Establishment. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Kant, E., 2005. Critique of Pure Reason. 2nd Ed. Translated by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kettle, M., 2023. Truss and Brexit have sunk Britain’s economy – and the right is in deep denial about both [online]. London: The Guaridan. Available from: [Accessed 3 February 2023]

Merriam-Webster, 2023. Dictionary Entries Near create [online]. Available from: [Accessed 11 February 2023]

Neate, R., 2022. Call for wealth tax as UK billionaire numbers up by 20% since pandemic [online]. The Guardian. Available from:

[Accessed 27 December 2022]

Robinson, K., 2006. Do schools kill creativity? [online]. Available from: [Accessed 27 December 2022]

Ross, M., 1978. The Creative Arts. London: Heinemann Educational Books.

Sadovnik, A., R., 2001. Profiles of Famous Educators – Basil Bernstein (1924-2000). Prospects, XXXI, 4, pp.608-620

St Paul’s School, 2023. Art [online]. Available from: [Accessed 12 February 2023]

Weale, S., 2021. ‘Creativity crisis’ looms for English schools due to arts cuts, says Labour [online]. London: The Guardian. Available from: /2021/jul/15/ creativity-crisis-looms-for-english-schools-due-to-arts-cuts-says-labour [Accessed 27 December 2022]

Westminster School, 2023. Art [online]. Available from: [Accessed 12 February 2023]

Willis, P., 1990. Common Culture – Symbolic work at play in the everyday cultures of the young. Buckingham: Open University Press.

16 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page