Take pupils for a walk on the wild side of art

Modern artists explore the world inhabited by today's youth and use thrilling methods of expression. So why dismiss their work?

Phil Scott

Jake Chapman, enfant terrible of the art world and one half of the notorious Chapman brothers, caused a minor media storm last year when he told the Independent on Sunday that taking children to art galleries was "a complete waste of time".

Chapman stated that children simply were not capable of understanding much of the work found in galleries. Although this view is controversial and was opposed by many, it highlights important issues about how schools expose their students to different forms of art.

During some eight years of teaching in London - where some of the world's most thought-provoking and inspiring modern art is made and displayed - I have met art teachers who fail to see contemporary art as relevant and therefore do not teach it to students. For example, during a recent exhibition participated in by my students, one pupil's work was dismissed by a fellow teacher as "a bit Tracey Emin's Bed".

This was meant as a wry comment on the limited amount of effort the student had put in. But I was shocked by the attitude to contemporary art that these words revealed, and worried about the type of work that students of this teacher were being exposed to. Perhaps their education was turning them into the very children Chapman fears will fail to understand what they see in galleries.

In his defence, I don't believe that Chapman truly wants to see fewer children in art galleries. But his comments highlight a need for young people to be exposed to a greater variety of art than is hanging above the fireplace at home.

And that's where art teachers come in. Throughout my career I have aimed to introduce students to work that has something to say about their lives, their culture and the environment in which they are growing up. Contemporary art meets all these requirements: it is produced by living artists who respond to events in a range of media and use materials and methods with which pupils are immediately familiar.

Ideas generation

Perhaps the most common criticism of much contemporary art is the retort "I could do that", which had become something of a chorus by the late 20th century. But shifting the focus away from technique or skill and towards ideas makes art more accessible to more students, while also giving them a medium in which to communicate their thoughts. By encouraging the exploration of their surroundings and their lives, I aim to get students to make work that expresses their own ideas and opinions.

When young people are given free rein to produce artwork based on their own interpretation of an event or idea, they get excited about the subject. Their productivity and their capacity for deep thought are enhanced. And when students are exposed to artwork that is relevant to their own surroundings, time or culture, and to artists who are working in a variety of media, they understand that there are alternative ways of producing sophisticated resolutions.

At Brampton Manor Academy, the school where I work, we teach a variety of techniques and introduce a number of artists in key stage 3 so that pupils gain a thorough understanding of how art became what it is today.

We demonstrate a range of techniques and processes during Year 7 so that pupils grasp the wide variety of alternatives to drawing and painting. Then, in Year 8, children learn about the key 20th-century art movements, including Cubism, Dadaism, Pop Art and Surrealism, which helps them to consider how contemporary art communicates messages or ideas.

In Year 9 we focus exclusively on contemporary works, with the aim of getting all students excited about the variety we offer in our GCSE. If they then opt to study art at GCSE or A-level, pupils have a strong foundation of knowledge and an understanding of why an artist has produced a piece of work; ultimately this leads them to create pieces to stand alongside the very works that have influenced and inspired them.

And, after all, if young people are not taught about art at school - irrespective of their technical ability in the subject - they may be afraid to access art in a gallery when they get older.

"Contemporary art" has become something of a dirty word(s) in many art classrooms; too many art teachers are quick to dismiss the work that is being produced by artists alive and working today. But it is essential that this work is engaged with in our schools, so that students - the artists of the future - continue to push the boundaries and raise the profile of the art produced in this country.

For the subject to thrive, we need to make the opportunities for artistic development evident to all our students. If teachers foster an interest in contemporary art - and in controversial pieces such as Jake and Dinos Chapman's If Hitler Had Been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be (2008) - we can encourage more students to truly appreciate the arts and even visit the fantastic galleries this country has to offer.

Phil Scott is an art teacher at Brampton Manor Academy in East London

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Phil Scott

Latest stories