Carving a new image;Primary

13th March 1998 at 00:00
What is art? What are artists? If teachers aren't sure, how can we expect our pupils to reject tired images of hairy men in floppy hats and smocks? Away with stereotypes, says James Sharp

Ask most primary school child to describe an artist, and what do they come up with? A man with a curly moustache, floppy hat, glasses, holding a paint brush and palette standing at an easel.

Ask the average adult the same question and you'd probably get a similar answer - although perhaps not quite such a sexist one. Many adults may be happy with this stereotype and may feel in any case that the world of art - with its sheep in formaldehyde - has long since lost any relevance to them, but we have to ask whether such indifference could be hindering the future life choices of hundreds of children.

The importance of art and artists is not lost on the Government. Ministers are keen to promote Britain's image abroad as the creative powerhouse of the world. Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has said he believes Britain's "economic centre of gravity" in the next century will come from the cultural and creative industries. For this reason alone children need to have an informed attitude to them.

In addition, the national curriculum has given knowledge and understanding of art and artists equal status with the production of artwork, which means pupils need to be well informed about the range and diversity of activities that fall under the heading "art".

I asked teachers in a large primary school in the London borough of Newham - which has a sizeable Asian community - to get their children to draw a picture of what they thought an artist looked like. I asked teachers in a predominantly white, middle-class area of St Albans, Hertfordshire, to undertake the same task. I was curious to see if there would be any difference in attitude. The teachers were asked to keep their instructions to a minimum so that the drawings reflected the children's initial response.

The degree of conformity in the work from both schools was astonishing. I used the four "indicators" of a stereotype - easel, palettebrush, hat and facial hair (typically a curly moustache or goatee beard) - to compare the drawings. In 214 of the 345 drawings, two or more "indicators" had been used. A further 60 contained at least one.

The majority of drawings which didn't make use of any indicators belonged to children in Year 1. While the number of indicators used increased with the age of the child there was enough evidence to suggest that the stereotype had begun to take hold by the age of six. In the whole sample there was only one example of an artist being perceived as anything other than a painter, and that was a drawing of a guitarist. There was no discernible difference in response between boys and girls except in one key area. Sixty-eight per cent of the drawings portrayed the artist as male; those showing a female artist were all drawn by girls.

Can such a strongly held stereotype be changed? In an attempt to find out, I devised a teaching programme for my Year 5 class which consisted of a series of videos featuring sculptors, installation artists, who create and design a whole environment, and video artists, as well as painters. We also focused on Matisse and his work with paper cut-outs and collage. Most important of all, however, were two trips, one to the Bow Arts Studios and one to the Chisenhale gallery in east London. The children not only got to see many different art forms; they also had the chance to meet and talk to practising artists.

I had asked the children to draw an artist at the beginning of the term, and got predictable results: 44 per cent of the drawings contained two or more stereotype indicators, while a further 30 per cent had at least one, usually a palette and paint brush. There were no examples of "alternative" images and only two out of 15 boys drew the artist as a woman.

Nine weeks later, after the teaching programme, the drawings changed significantly. Sixty-seven per cent contained none of the indicators, and 23 out of 27 children portrayed the artist as a sculptor or installation artist. The number of boys drawing female artists doubled.

The attitudes that children form towards different professions and occupations are important because they influence later decisions about the children's own studies and careers. Furthermore, the existence of such a strong stereotype suggests there is a bias within the teaching of art, and teachers may have to look again at their own attitudes and preconceptions.

James Sharp is design and technology co-ordinator at Elmhurst primary school in Newham, east London. He carried out this research as part of an MA

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