To what extent can public arts education compensate for society?

Updated: Oct 8


According to Bob Smith (cited by Eton College 2021) at the Royal Academy, ‘Eton are making big investments in time, money and commitment to the visual arts’. This, as 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 and design teachers leaving the profession (Weale 2021). Even as the Conservatives claim otherwise stating, ‘this government values the arts and supports the creative arts throughout the education system’ (ibid), they are reducing funding for public Higher Education Arts by 50% (Bakare and Adams 2021)—not a great encouragement for the public arts education sector and pupils from non-elite backgrounds who are interested in the arts. In his guidance letter to the Office for Students, Education Secretary Mr Williamson (2021 p.2) explains, ‘The Ofs should reprioritise funding towards the provision of high-cost, high-value subjects that support the NHS and wider healthcare policy, high cost STEM subjects and/or specific labour market needs’. Does the government know something that Eton doesn’t about educating people to a high standard? Perhaps. But this assignment looks at why, assuming ‘Levelling Up Opportunity’ (Greening 2020) is more than just a soundbite, they might be mistaken in relegating the arts to a lower status than the other subjects on Mr Williamson’s shortlist (ibid). Is public arts education an unnecessary luxury, or is it a means to democratising creative thinking, problem solving, value creation—key components in any progressive society—and even power?

Throughout this assignment, I refer to ‘art’ in the plural to encompass a range of creative processes, and while I acknowledge the importance of music, dance, drama, and literature, my own focus will be on the visual arts: painting, sculpture, design, architecture, video, film-making, photography, drawing, and ceramics. I do this for the practical reasons of narrowing the definition for acuity’s sake, and because this is my personal and professional area of expertise—I was a graphic designer for 15 years prior to becoming a teacher, and have painted and drawn ever since primary school.

My definition of art is simply whatever a self-proclaimed artist presents to the public, or even to themself in private, as art. This doesn’t make it good art, but the broad definition deals with, what I perceive to be, misguided claims that something ‘isn’t art’ just because an audience doesn’t like it, doesn’t ‘understand’ it, or can’t ‘decode’ it (Bourdieu 2005), (Newman, Goulding and Whitehead 2013 p.466). Philosopher Markus Gabriel’s definition of an artwork also comes in useful. His essay ‘The Power of Art’ should be read in its entirety for his nuanced and comprehensive thesis on what art is (and why it’s powerful), but an important and helpful highlight is that:

‘Artworks are compositions, not objects on display under special conditions (museums, concerts, theatres, etc.). Literally, a com-position 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.)’ (2020 p.45).

This is instructive as it reminds us that a creative, time-reliant, process lies behind an artwork’s existence, and that an artist’s and/or audience’s and/or performer’s interpretation is required for an artwork to be an artwork.

In a society where a top private school is bolstering its visual arts programme, while an incumbent government seems uninterested in supporting public arts education to an adequate degree, might an exacerbation of an already apparent cultural and creative apartheid be intensifying? And what are the implications for society? The case here is made for the availability of quality arts education to everyone for the betterment of society, not just an elite—an elite who could quite happily pay for such education in the form of extra-curricular activities regardless, and who often do (Brooks 2009 p.105).

This assignment identifies several disparities in society that concerned Bourdieu and Bernstein—certain advantages they claim the more privileged in society embody and leverage thanks to upbringing and environment, and it then looks at how these gaps might be (or are already being) addressed by arts education. The title is a nod to Bernstein’s paper ‘Education cannot compensate for society’, in which he somewhat wryly objects to offering ‘compensatory education’ to underprivileged pupils who ‘have as yet not been offered an adequate educational environment’ to begin with (1970 p.244). It is suggested in this assignment that arts education is a key part of an adequate education, and implicit throughout is the view that it brings unique and irreplaceable value to society. On this last point, I start with the question of what a society might want, or come to expect from education in general and arts education in particular.

Arts education in society

In considering the optimal direction for society to move in, I would side with philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris (2010) and his metaphor of a ‘Moral Landscape’. Harris argues for the need to strive for maximal reduction in suffering and minimal suppression of happiness. Within the Moral Landscape, mountain peaks represent states of happiness, contentment, and fulfilment and valleys, pain (physical and psychological), suffering, and distress. There are many different paths that lead to many different locations—states of being—but there are, he reasons, objectively better locations for a society to find itself in compared to others.

In my opinion, education, generally speaking, should be steering us towards these better locations on the Landscape. Education’s—and arts education’s—role should be to equip us sufficiently, as a collective, for the continuous journey and challenges ahead, and to help us grow out of ‘immaturity’, to gain the ‘ability to develop’ (Dewey 2004 p.45). We will need thinkers and doers, problem solvers, and creatives, not just automatons and customer service clerks, from all sections of society (Wheelahan 2007). Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) argue that it is exclusionary, unfair, and maybe even dangerous for a small segment of the population (an elite) to steer the ship.

Even more fundamental to society, as well as to Mr Williamson’s ‘labour market’ which relies heavily on the services industry (Wood 2021), is the subject of communication—an inherent aspect of the arts. People need to communicate effectively with each other. Willis (1990 p.10) argues that, ‘Imagination is not an extra to daily life, something to be supplied from disembodied ‘art’. It is part of the necessariness [sic] of everyday symbolic and communicative work’. He is talking of the basic tools that enable society to function, such as language (including body language), and more specifically ‘symbolic creativity’—the ‘production of new (however small the shift) meanings intrinsically attached to feeling, to energy, to excitement and psychic movement’ (ibid p.11).

This assignment won’t be getting involved in arguments about power struggles and exerted control from ‘the system’ or agenda-driven governments as discussed by Ball (2017), Bowles and Gintis (cited in Brooks 2009 p.29), and others, although I concede that this will be a missing piece of context. There also isn’t a hard argument for social mobility—that arts education can be a silver bullet for ironing out society’s inequalities. As Bernstein (2003) explains, education is as much affected by society as society by education, so there is no turnkey solution here, especially when a whole culture of inclusivity seems to be lacking in terms of a bedrock to build from (Reay 2011).

However, certain elements in the social theory presented might unveil paths to more equitable locations in Harris’s Landscape. A more equal society is surely one in which all people have a fair chance at contributing something. Bernstein (2000 p.xx) posits that people need a stake in the community, that they need to feel as if they can not just take from, but give to society. But this implies people—all people—should at least have access to acquiring the ability to generate value for others, and, as argued below, this is an area where arts education can and does shine. Before that, I address two disparities in society.

Disparity 1: Cultural capital and the habitus

A concern of Bourdieu’s is that children enter the school system on an unequal footing, that the ‘games of society’ are lopsided due to cultural and social distinctions in the social classes, especially in the form of ‘capital’ (Bourdieu 1986), (Reay 2011). As Reay (2004) stipulates, Bourdieu’s notions of ‘capital’, ‘habitus’, and ‘field’ shouldn’t be interpreted in isolation from each other.

‘Fields’ can be defined as segments of the social world, what Bennett and Silva (2006 p.99) term ‘social microcosms which relate to, and reflect the dynamics of, the wider socio-cultural contexts in which they are embedded’.

We can think of the habitus not just as an individual persona in the field(s) within which it resides, works, and operates but also the very perception of and relationship with such fields and the manner with which it manipulates, or is manipulated by, capital and other environmental factors (Reay 2004). Habitus (plural) ‘constitute the set of attitudes, assumptions and expectations regarding not only the objective ‘standing’ of a group, or class, but their subjective sense of belonging’ (Gilleard 6 p.3). In accordance with this idea, there is a continuous feedback loop of conception, perception, and the consequential interaction of the habitus and its field(s) anew. The habitus is ‘A structured body, a body which has incorporated the immanent structures of a world or of a particular sector of that world—a field—and which structures the perception of that world as well as action in that world’ (Bourdieu cited in Reay 2004 p.432).

This is backed up by current understandings in neuroscience. Neuroscientist Jeff Hawkins (2021) suggests the brain’s neocortex forms many models of the world in order to build knowledge and intelligence. Models and predictive capabilities are generated from interactions and verifications with the world through motor-sensory inputs and outputs in the cortical columns (ibid), (Hawkins, Ahmad and Cui 2017). Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett (cited in Harris 2021) argues that it is much more efficient, in terms of energy expenditure, performance, and survival, for the brain to make predictions, based on its models, before rationally interpreting something in its surroundings. As I see it, models, predictions, and the person are integrated as one within the Bourdieu’s habitus.

According to Bourdieu (1986), ‘embodied cultural capital’ is an intrinsic part of the habitus. While economic capital, social capital (your network; ‘it’s who you know, not what you know’), objectified cultural capital (items of value), and institutional cultural capital (qualifications; status), and their interdependences are relatively easy to grasp as being advantageous in society, embodied cultural capital seems more elusive, less tangible than, say, Becker’s idea of ‘human capital’, the fungible relationship between time, in the form of labour, and money (1993).

Bourdieu himself accepts that embodied cultural capital is not instantaneously interchangeable with, or even necessarily overtly correlated to economic capital (ibid p.245). But therein lies its strength, its more subtle and pervasive (insidious, perhaps) quality. Bourdieu sees it as the core of the habitus—the on-going result of a life-long and continual investment in education (in the broadest sense of the word) involving schooling, family, culture, and community, and which often includes, within more privileged circles, access to, and even immersion in music, visual arts, science, literature, etc (ibid).

Kingston (2001) expresses his concerns about how far the idea of cultural capital can be pushed, specifically on the point of how much of a leg up at school the more privileged enjoy because of it, although he concedes there’s an observable ‘natural ease’ present in the elite, rendering some form of social advantage (ibid p.89). As Neveu (2018) points out, one of the issues with regards to taking Bourdieu’s concept seriously stems from his own hazy definitions of this and other terms. But Kingston goes further in his criticism by attempting to show that cultural capital does ‘not substantially account for the relationship between social privilege and academic success’ (ibid p.89). His empirical counter position presents a challenge to Bourdieu’s theory, but his view in my opinion, is perhaps tarnished by the slightly cartoonish form the concept has taken: the simplistic notion that going to museums, art galleries, and concerts gives you better grades because your teacher jives with your cultural vibes. Indeed some research suggests an inverse correlation, that museum attendances increase as education levels rise in a geographical area rather than strictly visa versa (Brooks, McCarthy, Odaatje and Szanto 2005), a phenomenon also mentioned by Bourdieu (1973 p.76), which presents a more nuanced relationship between specific cultural activities, social status, and academic success, if it indeed exists.

Although I value Kingston’s efforts to curb the gravitas Bourdieu and others (Dumais 2015), (DiMaggio 1982) give to the notion, I find him a little too dismissive, and perhaps not as attentive to embodied cultural capital as I think we should be. Whatever he or anyone else wants to call it, there seems to be an advantage to being brought up a certain way, in a certain environment, by certain parents, whether thanks to ‘cultural capital’, connections, education, genetics, or more likely, an impossible-to-delineate relationship between all these factors that contributes to social advancement (Becker 1993 p.260). This is not just bravado or posturing, but actual ability thanks to a persistent, consistent, and patient accumulation of skills, knowledge and habits over time (Bourdieu 1986). Going forwards from here, the focus is more on how individuals are shaped, rather than solely on their academic success, and how embodied cultural capital plays a part, to a degree. My position is that embodied cultural capital is real, is a differentiator, is the result of the continuous and sustained exposure to a broad, rich, and deep range of cultural experiences, and contributes to an asymmetry in society (not just in school), but also that it constitutes only part of the picture.

Disparity 2: Symbolic savviness

‘Symbolic capital’ is the term given by Bourdieu to denote the culmination of all forms of capital perceived, and given meaning to, ‘not [as] a particular kind of capital but what every kind of capital becomes when it is mis-recognised as capital’ (2000 p.242). The term ‘mis-recognised’ is crucial. This is where the arbitrage opportunity, the magic, takes place in the form of a ‘social fiction’ (ibid p.243), or as he more brutally puts it, ‘symbolic capital rescues agents from insignificance, the absence of importance and of meaning’ (ibid p.242). We see here the revealing of a playground, or ‘grey area’, for those who know the rules of the game, who understand the hidden syntax, and who, due to their exposure over time to culturally rich and socially nuanced environments, understand that symbols can have more leverage than ‘real’ things, money being an archetypal example. Historian Yuval Noah Harari (2014) talks of story-telling (symbolism in prose) as being implicit in the rise of money, commerce, religion, cultures, and civilisations.

Symbolic control matters to Bernstein the way symbolic capital matters to Bourdieu. Both are interested in how abstract notions of what constitutes value and power exist and how certain segments of the population use this arbitrage to their advantage (although Kingston (2001 p.90) reminds us that ‘not all cultural resources have an arbitrary character’). ‘It is a matter of some importance (following Bourdieu) to consider the underlying structure of the field of cultural reproduction constituted by the agents and agencies of symbolic control, the underlying structure of the interrelationships of agents and agencies and the forms of symbolic capital’ (Bernstein 1977b p.128). The ‘agents and agencies’ here refer to the people or entities who, to varying degrees, Bernstein regards as controlling the narratives in society (1977b p.129, 2003 p.139).

Bernstein goes into the fabric of where this gap in society might have originated and how it may have been, and perhaps still is, exacerbated by the education system. He is particularly drawn to Durkheim’s work on medieval higher education and the differentiation between practical (‘profane’) and abstract (‘esoteric’) knowledge (Bernstein 2003 p.150). Much like Bourdieu, his concern is how consciousness is shaped by, and as a consequence, how it then shapes relationships to things and people.

Inspired by Durkheim, Bernstein identifies two distinctly different manners of engaging with the world when comparing ‘working-class’ children to ‘middle-class children’ (his terms), although he concedes there’s a spectrum (1977a p.25). One of the differences he notes, is to do with relationships to objects: ‘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 p.24). 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, whereas, sensitivity to structure is defined in terms of how the object relates to other things and people, ‘a function of learned ability to respond to an object perceived and defined in terms of a matrix of relationships’ (my italics) (ibid).

When it comes to seeing an object’s place within a ‘matrix of relationships’, symbolic awareness is the lingua franca. ‘Concepts bring objects together’ (Gabriel 2020 p.66). ‘The middle-class child is predisposed towards the ordering of symbolic relationships and, more importantly, imposing order and seeing new relationships. His level of curiosity is high’ (Bernstein 1977a p.30). This is critical. It means that, crudely speaking, there are those who see the world in terms of unrelated or loosely-related objects, and those who see connections, relationships, and imagined opportunities. Gabriel reminds us that ‘Society is essentially tied to human imagination’ (ibid p.9), but I would go further. Human society is unique in that it isn’t just tied to imagination, it exists in the form that it does very much in part because of our imagination. It is people’s imagination, creativity, and ability to synthesise and interpret symbols such as language, money, maths, country borders, political power, and status, that produce infrastructure, financial products, artworks, inventions, medicine, science, etc, as well as the inequalities—an epistemically apartheid world materialises if only one group of people in society ‘get it’.

Compensating for society? Reference points, Powerful Knowledge, and cross-disciplinary knowledge

How might public arts education compensate, and to what extent? I start by breaking down visual arts education into two broad categories: theoretical practice, a large part of which is comprised of art and design history; and the practice of art- and design-making.

Briefly on art and design history, this is the exact area arts education can, does (IB 2021), and should better expose students to cultural artefacts. In the words of Grenfell summarizing Bourdieu’s thoughts from Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, ‘all the means have to be used, from nursery school, to give all children the experience that children from well-off social groups owe to their families—contact with cultural works, and with other aspects of modern society (organized visits to museums, famous sights, history and geography trips, theatre visits, slide shows and listening to records)’ (cited in Bennett and Silva 2006 p.88).

Bourdieu talks of the difference between acquired embodied cultural capital from, say, a school, and the ‘naturally’ embodied cultural capital of the privileged (Dumais 2015 p.375), and the case here is not being made for arts education as a means of magically endowing less privileged students with embodied cultural capital, rather, more in line with Grenfell’s summary, for using the concept of habitus as a construct that can be nurtured by and exposed to a broader range of ‘reference points’*. By ‘reference points’, I mean anything, anyone, or any experience an individual encounters, and that affects their psyche and their mental models of the world, to some degree. This could be an artwork (a painting or sculpture, a movie, a piece of graffiti), a conversation (observed or had), a book, or a trip somewhere outside of the immediate domain (to Florence, or Peckham, or the zoo, with all the related reference points therein).

* I have been thinking about what I call reference points for several years. These should not be confused with Jeff Hawkins’s ‘reference frames’ (2021), which he suggests enable the brain to learn the structure of objects and the world. It might be possible to argue that reference points contribute to reference frames, but this is beyond the scope of this assignment.

The above is not aimed at a kind of cultural cleansing programme, forcing one social group’s set of values onto another’s, but as a means of addressing a discrepancy between the two main social classes: the breadth and quality of reference points available to each (Bourdieu 1993). There is a difference to being engaged with the genius of Mozart, Shakespeare, and Cezanne as well as to being exposed to X-Factor, Ant and Dec, and Instagram. Both classes have access to the latter grouping, but the privileged tend to have access to both, providing a greater range of stimulation and examples of genuine talent to assimilate, assess, compare, contrast, and crucially synthesise from. Watching Big Brother on Channel 4 is one thing, knowing the historical origins, social and cultural significance, and symbolism behind the concept is another—for starters it positions one party as potential creators of any future such franchises, rather than remaining mere consumers of future such products.

Bourdieu’s significant work on art history and the interpretation of art (1986, 1993), and how it might contribute to, if not a form of acquired cultural capital, an enriched habitus, will not be elaborated on here, and it is left up to the reader to determine how relevant this is or isn’t to the conversation. But on a slightly different note, I will mention that learning about famous artists and what they went through in order to achieve results that last for decades and centuries, creating work now worth millions of pounds, is in itself of value, and informs and refines conversations around whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art, or art at all (Newman, Goulding and Whitehead 2013).

Art- and design-making also casts artworks in a new light for students, and provides them with practical experience in value creation. Regardless of any cultural significance, it’s easier to appreciate a Monet after having tried to paint the sea, or even a garden pond, oneself. It’s easier to appreciate a Rothko after having tried to put three colours together on a large canvas in the hope of prompting an emotional response from an audience. The International Baccalaureate Visual Arts Curriculum explicitly requires students to ‘investigate and compare how and why different techniques have evolved and the processes involved’, as well as to, ‘experiment with diverse media and explore techniques for making art’ (IB 2021).

Initiating students to the travails involved, the grit, dedication and heartache, and the methods of production, required to succeed (King 2016), not only deepens art history appreciation, but possibly also addresses, to some extent, Bernstein’s observation that the ‘middle-class’, who benefit from sustained levels of curiosity and a means-to-an-end mentality at home, tend to typically exert patience and an ability to stick with a task until completion, attributes he observes less of in the ‘working-class’ (1977a p.25 and p.29). Aside from exploring and exploiting abstract relationships between objects, the very act of creation provides indispensable experience in what it takes to produce something of value.

Arts education’s priority should be on enabling students to identify and be comfortable with a broad and rich range of reference points (not just culturally significant artefacts, although important) in order for them to make something, a point compellingly made in graphic designer Alan Fletcher’s The Art of Looking Sideways (2003). Neuroscientist David Eagleman explains how humans, as creative beings, have the capability to leverage ‘cognitive flexibility’ as we ‘absorb the raw materials of experience and manipulate them to form something new’ (Brandt and Eagleman 2017 p.8). He goes on to say, ‘because of our capacity to reach beyond the facts we’ve learned, we open our eyes to the world around us but envision other possible worlds. We learn facts and generate fictions. We master what is, and envisage what ifs’ (ibid). Architect Bjarke Ingels (cited in Eagleman 2019) says, ‘if you have tons of material, you can really give the imagination something to build [from]’.

With regards to Eagleman’s ‘what ifs’, I suggest that creativity relies on what Bernstein (2000 p.600) calls vertical structures of knowledge in order to discover the ‘potential discursive gap’, where the hidden value in knowledge lies, the ‘site of the yet to be thought’ (ibid p.30). This correlates with Michael Young’s notion of ‘Powerful Knowledge’ (PK). Powerful Knowledge, according to Young (2013 p,196), is ‘powerful because it provides the best understanding of the natural and social worlds that we have and helps us go beyond our individual experiences’. He then notes, ‘even the creative and performing arts, and literature and drama, have these emergent and universalising properties