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All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right. 1

It is impossible to extrapolate culture from society as they exist in symbiosis and are essential to one another in their evolution rather like Steinberg's hands that draw each other Passport As art constitutes a large part of any society's cultural wealth, the same must necessarily be said of it. Aspects of art are varied and manifold. Wherever one looks one encounters art in one form or another, whether it's on television, in films, photographs, architecture, landscaping, sculpture, literature or in the broadsheet newspapers. One of the earliest functions of art was as a means of relating historical events, for example the Bayeux Tapestry Image from Bayeux Tapestry and Trajan's column in Rome. The list of things that can be spoken of in relation to art is endless and all contribute to our society and cultural identity. Whether it be a positive contribution or a negative one it serves to help shape our lives and our minds in one way or another. It therefore follows that it is also a way that we as individuals may make a contribution to society, even if it is only through our observations and insights.

Trajan's Column

"As a result of the infinite permutations or reciprocity of the individual. As a result of the infinite permutations of heredity, the individual will inevitably be unique, and this uniqueness, because it is something not possessed by any one else, will be of value to the community. It may be only a unique way of speaking or of smiling - but that contributes to life's variety. But it may be a unique way of seeing, of thinking, of inventing, of expressing mind or emotion - and in that case, one man's individuality may be of incalculable benefit to the whole of humanity." 2

What distinguishes art from other forms of cultural activity is that it speaks to people directly. It is, if you like, a coded message from one subconscious to another. The possession of the keys to these coded messages are not exclusive to those that have had the benefit of a fine art education. Often the artists themselves are not fully aware of all the implications of their work until years have elapsed. They are merely explorers in the same way that those who are able to view the work are explorers on an exciting visual, aural, and tactile adventure.

One of the problems to be addressed with respect to the arts (particularly in the United Kingdom) is the individual's attitude towards it. For a long time it has been seen as exclusively the terrain of highbrow intellectual's and not an area for the ordinary person. To a certain extent this attitude still persists. A most common assumption seems to be that unless a work of art is clearly representational of something recognisable then it will not be liked or understood by the average person in the street. These fallacies were originally seeded by the latter-day bourgeoisie and are perpetuated by cultural and educational elitists. Artists such as Carl Andre have rebelled against this perception of art and answered this misconception in a way that should make it clear that art is not just about high brow painterly and sculptorly objects, it can also be about a pile of ordinary everyday firebricks. Although it may still take some time for this message to be decoded and assimilated by the masses.

Channel 4's experiment with the community on the Byker Grove estate proved to be successful in changing some of these attitudes towards, in particular, modern art. They selected members of that community, who had no previous formal involvement with the arts, to become the procurers and curators for an exhibition that was to be held on the estate. This experiment provided evidence that a wide spectrum of art forms can be fully appreciated and analysed by people, no matter what their denomination and that everyone's experience is enriched and improved by involvement and exposure to it.

In his book 'Art in Society', Ken Baynes outlines how and why the misconceptions about art came into being:

"In our technological society, built over centuries on the upward thrust of a merchant class seeking to establish blood lines that it didn't have, the newly rich took many cues from the aristocratic and clerical classes they were replacing. Merchants and the sons of merchants sought in the possession of artistic objects a connection with the societal wellsprings of so much art of the past. But given the ability of a technological society to reproduce things, this acquisitive class, having acquired means, naturally downgraded utilitarian artefacts; the fact of profusion made them less valuable. How could one establish privilege if everyone could possess the same things? Not unnaturally, this attitude was a carry-over from bourgeois attitudes emerging from the business world itself – scarcity produces value." 3

Chico, graffiti muralist of the Lower East Side, Manhattan with his comment regarding the murder of rapper Tupac Shakur

Thankfully it takes more than a few petty minded individuals with a superiority complex to seriously inhibit what is an organic part of societal evolution. This is most fortunate from the historian's point of view. Community art is an essential ingredient in the historical documentation of the various different stages in the development of mankind. A good example of this kind of ongoing documentation is graffiti wall art and murals. In this instance artists may work in collaboration with local residents in order to create murals locally that reflect on events that concern that community. This kind of projects occurs most frequently in inner–city areas. It first started to develop in the late 60's, early 70's and in some places, such as what was until quite recently the 'Tabernacle' community centre in West London, it has become an intrinsic part of everyday community life. Graffiti and mural are also employed as a means for protest when the misrepresented and usually silent majority utilise the medium to voice their general discontent with situations that they have had to put up with for too long (the picture to your right is an image of Chico, graffiti muralist of Lower East Side, Manhattan re: the murder of rapper Tupac Shakur). A work of this nature was observed in the mid 70's in the United States by Alan Barnett:

"In an inner–city park in 1974, a Latino teenage gang was doing an unauthorised painting on the side of a field house that displayed a blue uniformed figure offering drugs and a gun to the young. The painters were holding off placing a star on his chest until everything else was finished for fear that the Police would have it painted out before the neighborhood could get a good look at it. Everyone who had grown up in that Barrio knew that it represented what happens there, said Ray Patlan, then art director of a nearby community centre whom the gang had consulted. But the public media were not available for this kind of indictment and such charges would never make the courts in a city controlled by Mayor Daley's political machine. The mural was a public statement and a means of building opposition in the community. It was guerrilla art. While almost all of the murals that have been done in the current movement do have the permission of the owner of the wall, they frequently challenge the social and political establishment." 4

The community artist can function as a catalyst for the coming together of people – across generations – to create a work of art that is socially and politically aware and available to the public at all times. This can only help to strengthen the fabric of any community and promote a sense of security, born from the realisation that local people care and notice about what goes on in that area. It would be a sound investment to provide funds and resources in order to encourage the growth of community arts projects. A well integrated society can police itself, it is this integration that the arts can be a catalyst for and this would surely be a saving for society in the long run.

"The theory put forward embraces all modes of self-expression, literary and poetic (verbal) no less than musical or aural, and forms an integral approach to reality which should be called aesthetic education - the education of those senses upon which consciousness, and ultimately the intelligence and judgment of the human individual are based. It is only in so far as these senses are brought into harmonious and habitual relationship with the external world that an integrated personality is built up. Without such integration we get, not only the psychologically unbalanced types familiar to the psychiatrist, but what is even more disastrous from the point of view of the general good, those arbitrary systems of thought, dogmatic or rationalistic in origin, which seek in despite of the natural facts to impose a logical or intellectual pattern on the world of organic life." 5

An effect of the elitist attitude to art that has existed in our society for some time now, is the lack of integration of an alarmingly high proportion of individuals into society. The over population that exists in the prisons of the western world is a testimony to this. Art can provide a means of transforming destructive energy and emotions such as anger and violence into creative energy. The arts provide us with a conduit to the subconscious, enabling us to work through aggression, frustration and bad experiences, that may not otherwise be addressed. Un-defused they are potential mind bombs that may explode at any time.

"Developmentally, the use of art as a creative medium can encourage very gently one's own self confidence and self esteem, together with physical and intellectual areas of ability." 6

Art has proven to be particularly effective as a therapy not only for those with emotional and learning disabilities but also as part of the rehabilitation programme for offenders. In a research project that was funded by the Arts Council and the Home Office, Anne Peaker and Jill Vincent of Loughborough University produced a directory of prison activities in visual arts and crafts.

"This was followed by Arts in Prisons: towards a sense of achievement (1990), which gives an account of their research and findings and makes recommendations for making arts activities available in a more coherent way. Peaker and Vincent outline the personal and therapeutic benefits of arts activities: fostering creativity, encouraging choices and decisions, increasing self-respect and self esteem, developing self-awareness and understanding, channeling emotions in a constructive way, expressing feelings, concentrating and making an effort." 7

Positive and significant changes have been observed in offenders who have been exposed to art and music therapy workshops. This may be an indicator for how their imprisonment could possibly have been avoided in the first place. One of the things that a lot of prisoners probably lacked beforehand is the guidance and encouragement to 'make their mark' in a creative way. The impetus is with most of us to make a mark of some sort on society, unfortunately for some people, the only way they know of doing this is in a destructive way.

"The development of positive qualities inevitably eliminates their opposites. We avoid hate by loving: we avoid sadism and masochism by community feeling and action." 8

If only the establishment would take the arts more seriously and implement the development of creativity as core curriculum subjects at infant, primary and secondary school levels, I am sure that a lot of this misery could be avoided. Look after the pennies and the pounds take care of themselves!

"Avoid compulsion, and let your children's lessons take the form of play. This will also help you to see what they are naturally fitted for." 9

The school curriculum of the present and the recent past does not seem to heed this ancient doctrine and exploit the many benefits that a good creative grounding can offer the individual and therefore society as a whole. Maths and English are of course important subjects but first there must be properly established in children, a sense of co-ordination, differentiation, identity and a pattern of achievement . If these things are not encouraged and the child does not perform well with core curriculum subjects, as all too frequently does happen, that child may well start to assert his/her identity in the form of disruptive and rebellious behaviors.

"Growth ... is, in effect, a very complicated adjustment of the subjective feelings and emotions to the objective world, and the quality of thought and understanding, and all the variations of personality and character, depend to a large extent on the success or precision of this adjustment. The most important function of education is concerned with this psychological orientation', and for this reason the education of the aesthetic sensibility is of fundamental importance. It is a form of education of which only rudimentary traces are found in the educational systems of the past, and which appears only in a most haphazard and arbitrary fashion in the educational practice of the present day." 10

If the education of children were approached more holistically with art as a core subject, there is evidence that the majority of children's school work would benefit. In a recent lecture at Bath Spa University on the subject of Art in Education, Rosemary Devonald clearly outlined the process by which children can be encouraged in their creative development. She stated that in schools where the children were encouraged in this way, there was a marked benefit to their other curriculum subjects, they displayed results that placed them far ahead of other schools. Art in children's education should be a bottom line priority as it helps to develop the analytical and differentiation skills in a child that are extremely useful across all curriculum subjects. The ability to analyse children's art enables the teacher to accurately assess what stage of development the child is at; "Stage does not necessarily relate to age." 11

Rosemary also made another very important point in that it is the experience that children gain through this kind of education programme stays with them for the rest of their lives.

It cannot be expected that the arts would provide a panacea for all society's ills, although I am sure that they would be twice as effective a prevention as they have been proved to be a cure. There are so many ways that the arts can be of benefit to society and to all its individuals that it has only been possible to outline a few here. It seems anomalous to me that many of these areas do not command the respect and receive the funding that they deserve. By skimping financially in these areas the government and local councils are making a false economy.

The effects of this erroneous judgment on the behalf of the authorities can be seen in society today when viewing the crime and unemployment figures. Respect breeds respect and the arts in their turn will cock a snook at a system that has undervalued its potential for such a long time, creativity and destructivity are two sides of the same coin. The collaboration of artists with the community is of mutual benefit to both artist and society. Unfortunately even the most altruistic of artists can become rapidly disillusioned with the constant wrangling over finances. This is a terrible shame considering the incredible progress that can be made with those people who participate in workshops of various kinds. There can be no doubt that appropriate funding for education in general would contribute a great deal towards creating a better society for future generations.


  • 1. Alexander Pope, Moral Essays Epistle || <<Back to text >> ||
  • 2. Para. 2. Page 5. Educating Through Art || <<Back to text >> ||
  • 3. Para 3. Page 5. Art in Society || <<Back to text >> ||
  • 4. Para 4. Page 11. Community Murals || <<Back to text >> ||
  • 5. Para 2. Page 7. Educating Through Art || <<Back to text >> ||
  • 6. Para 4. Page 117. Art Therapy in Practice || <<Back to text >> ||
  • 7. Para 2. Page 7. Art Therapy with Offenders || <<Back to text >> ||
  • 8. Para 2. Page 6. Educating Through Art || <<Back to text >> ||
  • 9. Plato's Theory of Education || <<Back to text >> ||
  • 10. Para 2. Page 7. Educating Through Art || <<Back to text >> ||
  • 11. Rosemary Devonald. "Children's Art". Lecture at Bath Spa University, 11/11/96 || <<Back to text >> ||


  • The Hidden Order of Art by Anton Ehrenzweig. Published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
  • Community Murals,The Peoples Art by Alan W. Barnett. Published by Cornwall Books.
  • Art in Society by Ken Baynes. Published by Lund Humphries Publishers Ltd.
  • Art Therapy with Offenders. Edited by Marian Liebmann. Foreword by Judge Stephen Tumin. Published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  • Analyzing Children's Art by Rhoda Kellogg. Published by Mayfield Publishing Company.
  • Educating Through Art by Herbert Read. Published by Faber and Faber Ltd.
  • Art Therapy in Practice. Edited by Marian Liebmann. Published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  • Working With Children In Art Therapy. Edited by Caroline Case and Tessa Dalley. Published by Tavistock/Routledge.
  • Art in Modern Culture. Edited by Francis Frascina and Jonathon Harris. Published by Phaidon.
  • Art and Illusion by E.H. Gombrich. Published by Phaidon.