Headmaster places art education in a worldwide perspective; Creativity -- the persistent rallying cry

By , The author is headmaster of Geelong College, a large independent college-preparatory school in Australia. He attended the 24th World Congress of the International Society for Education Through Art and sent the Monitor the following report.

On hand: Educators from 84 nations.

Topic: Education through art.

The Queen of the Netherlands sat through the opening plenary session, which was, after sundry ministers and burgermasters, addressed by Ivan Illich. The latter was obviously invited to provoke us: He did just that. His paper was art, but said little about art, more about gender.

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If Illich proved to be titillating, then some of the subsequent keynote speakers were positively disturbing, particularly Diethart Kerbs of West Germany and Vincent Lanier of the United States, who wanted the title of the society changed from ''through'' art to ''in'' art.

Some speakers should have been ''keynoters'' - David Best of the United Kingdom for one: He was lucid, precise, and rigorous in his examination of creativity and the creative process, avoiding the sloppiness and slipperiness of the catch cry slogans which have bedeviled the art education movement.

In the course of the conference I found myself probing the fundamental questions:

* What is art?

* What, if anything, is the social function of art?

* What theoretical justifications can teachers of art find to validate their activities?

* Do teachers of art look for such theoretical underpinnings?

* What is the place of studio art?

* What political purposes does art education currently serve?

* Is art inevitably political and inherently moral?

* What does art have to do with education?

* What is aesthetic literacy?

* What is the distinction between process and product?

Clearly the conference had been designed around the issue of process.

There were about 120 ''nonkeynote'' contributions offered in various categories, presented in various forms in rooms labeled Picasso, Moore, Van Gogh , etc. You could choose or choose not to choose and just wander through the labyrinthine panels with displays of children's arts and crafts from all over the world.

You could fill your suitcase with materials, pamphlets, and other weighty propaganda. You could watch mime as an interlude or listen to a stunning program of medieval music or see films on Rembrandt, etc.

Mr. Kerbs of Germany obviously forced many to question some long-held assumptions. I think it's worth while to provide a translation of part of his talk.

''My first thesis (first of three) is that art education should free itself from state guidelines.

''My second thesis: Aesthetic practice in the school should draw much more strongly on the informational and communicational needs of the general population, particularly on minorities, grass-roots groups, citizens' committees , and the likes.

''I now arrive at my third thesis: The orientation of aesthetic education in the grass roots of the population does not exclude the capacity of enjoyment, development of creativity, and the ability of expression.''

(Incidentally, the importance of graffiti as art could not have escaped any who wandered around Rotterdam.)

In times of recession, times when budgets are being cleavered, the arts look and become very vulnerable; their peripheral status is no match for the basics.

No amount of asserting that art, too, is a basic will make it so: We will have to demonstrate that it is so.

We may, too, as Kerbs implied, have to put aside some priggish and prettifying notions: Children's art may well be brutal and say some very uncomfortable things to a world that largely treats art and life as commodities.

What appealed to me about David Best's paper was its cogent articulation about the need to observe products, to appraise them, and to teach through them. His was no ''Take-out-your-paper-and-brushes-and-do-your-own-thing'' approach. He reminded us that a mind full of creative processes never expressed was an inaccessible mind.

Mr. Best asserted, and rightly, I believe, that there must be objective criteria for creativity; subjectivism, once so palatable, was a product of and a contributor to laziness. Moreover, he put products, techniques, and processes in the context of the past. They do not spring up de novo, but all belong to a tradition into which we must all be initiated.

Art is, like education, always in resistance. He also reminded us that there is no substitute for good teaching, for teaching that acknowledges the past. Such teaching never destroys, but rather builds up personal style.

I came finally to a curious conclusion:

Sometimes we have to stand on our heads to get them out of the clouds.

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