Art and education are uneasy companions. To begin with, art itself is not something about which one can clearly say “I’ve got the answer!” The content of the field is continuously and drastically changing, and if the premise is that this content must be taught, the task will be a difficult one. On the other hand, some feel that art education is not so difficult, as long as time is set aside for creative activities and students are allowed to express themselves freely. In such cases it is only necessary to evaluate the quality of the finished work, and even evaluation is not such a big challenge.
Of these two contrasting positions, the latter seems to be the one that art classes in schools have long held. If one looks at individual teachers, it must be said that the majority take this approach, although some have certainly done otherwise. In fact, since art is a subject regarded by many as little more than drawing pictures, no one can fault them for teaching the same content as they did a few decades ago. One can say that art education has been established as a space for replication of beautiful things that can be categorized as conventional painting or sculpture. Phrases such as “universal beauty” and “life is short, art is long,” which we often hear but do not really understand with any great depth, place lack of change in a positive light. It makes sense that if we assume art has universal value, then art education must also be universal and changing it is impossible.
If getting students to make things (here I intentionally avoid using the word “teaching”) that are generally considered beautiful, or immediately recognizable as Art, is “universal” art education, then what occurred Aichi Triennale 2019 was not an anomaly. It is only natural that an exhibit that lacks the array of pretty pictures and sculptures that many think of as “art” would confuse large numbers of people. There are, of course, varying degrees of tolerance. Even if an artwork is not my idea of art, whether I would go so far as to take action, trying to pull it down or damage it, is a matter of tolerance. However, if universality or tradition are presented as absolute values, then there is no room for choice and little scope for tolerance. That, I believe, is what really lay behind all that fuss. So, the question we must ask is, why don’t art festivals exhibit what general audiences consider to be Art? We need to engage with this question seriously.
Art has undergone a thorough transformation since the late 19th century. The explosive development of styles that began with the Impressionists eventually led to color and form being considered the essence of art, with all other elements eliminated and a competition for innovation unfolding within these parameters. In other words, color and form themselves became subject matter, and the ideal was for the artist to be autonomous and free from other influences. Present-day art and crafts departments, which take “color and form” as signifiers of their identity, adhere to this position in an ambiguous and contradictory manner.
However, the history of art did not end there. The pursuit of color and form developed mainly in the context of abstraction, but as various strategies were exhausted, it reached a dead end and the game of pursuing the pure essence of art became untenable. Under these circumstances, different trends have emerged. One is the stance of expressing oneself freely while quoting from past styles, and another is the stance of seeking subject matter in one’s familiar surroundings and in society. The former stance is known as postmodernism, while terms relating to the latter are truly diverse, including Pop Art, environmental art, and recently, socially engaged art. And artworks in the latter category are increasingly being presented not only in exhibition spaces supported by art institutions such as museums and galleries, but also in the real world. In recent years, one of the main venues for this trend has been art festivals. At art festivals we encounter other sides of our actual society of which we are not usually aware, but as a school subject, art and crafts – dedicated to “color and form” – have not been able to respond to these changes.
So, why do art festivals seek to have visitors encounter works of art that render various aspects of society visible, rather than showing art that offers the comforts of color and form? One important perspective to consider is that of Romanticism, a philosophical and artistic trend that originated in Europe around the end of the 18th century. Romanticism emphasized the importance of the individual’s inner self, and the value of human beings that express thoughts and feelings emanating from this inner self. This way of thinking can be called the skeletal framework that underpins the state of art today. The premise is that even if the world does not understand or appreciate what an individual makes, if that individual feels an inner compulsion to express something, then that thing should be expressed. This is, of course, what we call “freedom of expression.”
However, even if people have the freedom to express themselves, of course not everything they create will be appreciated. At times creators find widespread sympathy and face no objections, but this is likely to be when they are recreating things already stamped with the seal of approval, and they are unlikely to be appreciated for their originality or artistic merit. Curators, who specialize in planning exhibitions, select works (artists) to be exhibited by looking for art that should be shown to the public now, while comparing the works against existing ones to judge their value. In this context, depending on the intent of the exhibition, a work may be exhibited as something that the public ought to see, even if it is incompatible with people’s normative sense of beauty.
In this sense, art festivals, which offer opportunities to experience new creative expression, have the potential to be controversial. As a festival is a place where viewers confront works that express, in unique ways, what individual artists feel and think as they move through the world, it is only natural that there will be differences and dissonance between the viewers and the artworks. Conversely, a society without these would be a totalitarian state. We do not live in such a state, but in a society that respects diverse ways of feeling and thinking, and the issue of how to deal with such differences and dissonance should be of crucial importance to our society. When it is framed in this way, it should be easy to grasp the great value that art festivals provide by delivering the experience of appreciating new and innovative modes of expression.
One thing required of art festivals primarily organized by governmental bodies is a commitment to verifying the underlying significance of such festivals, and to communicating it to the public. The social significance of art festivals will not be recognized if people continue to have high expectations for encounters with beautiful paintings and sculptures that they already fully understand. Curators, as specialists in the field, should think carefully about what kinds of works people ought to encounter. They should also plan and execute projects with an eye to how they can constructively generate discussion about the differences and dissonance that may arise.
To ensure that art festivals are valued by society, a great deal of responsibility falls to art education at schools, as noted at the beginning of this text. Teachers can only teach what they have realized and understood for themselves. First of all, it is important for teachers in the field to come into contact with new modes of expression, think about the disparities between their own views of art and those of others, and engage in discussions with people holding various opinions and viewpoints. In this process they will confirm their own positions, learn that there are ways of seeing and thinking that differ from their own, and renew their own perceptions of the world. Unless they realize the value of such experiences, they will not be able to break away from the conventional paradigm of color and form. And this cannot be accomplished within the limited time-frame of an art festival, but must be a constant and continuous practice. This daily practice is actually more important than what takes place during a festival, and I believe the organizers of festivals should offer ongoing opportunities for such experiences in a sustainable manner.