Skip to main content

Unleash dead cows in class

Art teachers are keen to move lessons out of Van Gogh's bedroom and into Damien Hirst's tank. Adi Bloom reports

Pupils will find it sick and weird. They might well say "yuck". But that is precisely why teachers believe that Damien Hirst's work should be included in the canon of secondary-school art lessons.

The support among some art teachers for bringing a shocking element into the classroom emerged during research conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research.

Fifty-four teachers, drawn from 18 secondaries, were questioned on the genres and artists that they refer to in lessons. Their responses revealed that most teachers still choose to base their teaching around the dead, white European males of the 20th century.

Dick Downing, who conducted the research, said: "You teach what you know.

Contemporary works carry out a different function from traditional art.

They represent issues and meaning, not simply a visual image."

He said many teachers focus on teaching artistic skills, rather than examining the cultural relevance of a piece of work: "Only if teachers are interested in helping children to contextualise art and understand their place in the world will they start to get to grips with contemporary art practice."

But, despite the lack of contemporary art in the curriculum, many of the teachers questioned believed that pupils relate more readily to modern images. Thirty-six teachers were shown six images, including Vincent Van Gogh's Bedroom at Arles, Andy Warhol's screen print Marilyn x 100 and a photograph of Damien Hirst's dead shark in a tank, and asked which they would consider using in the classroom.

The Van Gogh painting met with an unenthusiastic response. Teachers said it was a useful illustration of certain artistic techniques, but that it was overused and uninspiring. The Warhol image was the most popular, identified by 34 interviewees as artwork they would use.

But many of the teachers felt that it was the Damien Hirst image that would appeal most to pupils. One said: "You can use examples to create a talking point before a project. The lads all think it's brilliant, the girls all go 'Yuck!'"

Mr Downing said: "Some teachers regard contemporary art as too intellectually challenging or obscure for children. But some think it's exactly what resonates with them. The personal taste of individual teachers is a determinant in what art genres are used. And many just don't have the time and resources to become familiar with newly-emerging forms."

Linda Casper, art teacher at Archbishop Beck high school in Liverpool, said: "It's hard enough getting pupils to appreciate Impressionism, let alone anything more challenging. They'd like the 'yuck factor' of Damien Hirst. But I can't imagine convincing them it's art. They'd probably think it's a science experiment."

Opinion 25 teacher magazine12

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

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