‘Taste’ and its creators: 1862 and beyond (Part 1)

Explanation

Over the next two weeks Natalie Bradbury and Ruth Mason (one of the editors of Visit1862.com) will be entering into a conversation about the process of taste formation.

Natalie is currently a PhD researcher at the University of Central Lancashire looking at Pictures for Schools, a scheme founded by painter and educator Nan Youngman which ran from 1947 to 1969 and aimed to get original works of art into schools. As well as focusing biographically on Youngman, she is particularly interested in the relation between art education, art appreciation and post-war themes of citizenship, taste, modernity and reconstruction. She blogs about her research process and archival finds at www.picturesforschools.wordpress.com.

Natalie and Ruth met in November 2013. Although studying very different periods, individuals and institutions it became apparent that they were both interested in the process of taste formation and how ‘good taste’ has been considered a value that can be easily enshrined in the general public since before the 1862 International Exhibition and beyond.

This week Natalie’s post explores the post-Second World War Pictures for Schools project and its role in forming children’s taste. While, next week, Ruth will consider the role the 1862 International Exhibition in forming Britain’s taste in the nineteenth century. Both Natalie and Ruth will make a short response to each other’s posts and we warmly encourage more comments, questions and further discussion points.

Taste formation and Pictures for Schools, Natalie Bradbury

The idea of working to raise standards of public taste to counteract perceived shortcomings in education, urban environments and industrial design has been a topic of discussion among governments, educators, critics and other social and cultural authorities since the days of the industrial revolution. This discourse intensified again after the Second World War, when post-war reconstruction offered new opportunities for rebuilding Britain’s towns and cities, reshaping the education system and altering the experience of being in society. Changing the nation’s tastes through increased access to art, culture and improved leisure opportunities was seen as playing an important part in this.

In 1945, Henry Morris, Director of Education for Cambridgeshire, argued that schools should be exemplars of beautiful environments and appropriate design and thereby set the standard for ‘lifting the standard of taste of the whole community’. Morris had already started to put this into action locally with his network of ‘village colleges’, which provided pleasant and spacious learning environments incorporating original works of art. In 1947, following in Morris’ footsteps, educator and artist Nan Youngman, who had been Morris’s Art Adviser since 1944, set out on a great educational crusade. She aimed to get original, contemporary artworks into schools across the country: on the walls, in classrooms, in pride of place in entrance foyers and finally, in art rooms, where they could be passed around and handled by children. This, she hoped, would introduce children to objects – seen by the experts who selected them for exhibition as being suitable for schools – that were well-designed and well-crafted, and created by artists of the children’s ‘own country’ and ‘own time’. Through this, children would become accustomed to being surrounded by good original examples or art and design, as opposed to the standardised and uninspiring reproductions of old masters which many schools relied on for visual stimulus. Through a series of annual exhibitions and sales of work in London entitled Pictures for Schools, which continued until 1969, she found a willing new market for art in schools and local education authorities, who bought thousands of artworks which were often used as the basis for county collections and loan schemes. The exhibitions also welcomed school groups, who visited from all over the country.

Pictures for Schools was buoyed by by post-war educational ideals of educational equality and a democratisation of art and culture. In many ways, it carried forward the desire to bring art to the masses, both for their education and enjoyment, of organisations such as the Artists International Association, which whom Nan Youngman had been involved in the 1930s and early 1940s, with their affordable print schemes for the public and work to increase patronage for the struggling artist. Another element driving the exhibitions was a preoccupation with taste. As the 1948 Pictures for Schools sending-in form, distributed to potential contributing artists, explained: “To see and live with such works is an essential part of the formation of taste and judgement, alongside the equally essential practice of the arts by children.”

The keywords here are both ‘taste’ and ‘judgement’. As the sending-in form highlights, for the organisers of Pictures for Schools art education involved two equally essential elements: firstly, the practice of art and, secondly (acknowledging that not every child would grow up to be a practising artist), the appreciation and enjoyment of art through exposure to artworks, particularly original artworks, in schools and as part of children’s everyday lives. The first function was linked very much with the development of the individual child. Here, Youngman drew on art educator Marion Richardson’s theories of child-centred education, developed during her time as a teacher of both children and art teachers, including a conception of art education as enabling children’s self-expression and personal growth. The second function of art education was linked by the organisers of Pictures for Schools more explicitly with the child as a social being. Art education was seen as a way of improving the taste of the nation as a whole. This was a common theme in educational discourse in the 1920s and 1930s, including in the theories and writing of Marion Richardson. In her book Art and the Child, published posthumously in 1948 but drawing on her experiences in the preceding decades, Richardson argued that only by practising art and seeing examples of good arts and crafts as children would future consumers be able to recognise good examples of art and design and reject the ‘shoddy’ or the ‘second-rate’. This involved learning to exercise, and internalise, standards of criticism and discernment as a child, which would enable them to produce, and to later recognise in others, genuinely-motivated pieces of art drawing from their own needs, interests and experience, and reject anything that was superficial or produced insincerely.

In keeping with this emphasis on developing and strengthening students’ capacity for individual judgment, the Pictures for Schools exhibitions incorporated an important element of critical looking. Children who visited the exhibitions were asked to vote for their favourite artworks on display, and to fill out questionnaires about what they saw. Questions aimed to encourage them to look carefully at the artworks and what was around them, rather than merely listening to adults’ opinions, and lead them to their own conclusions about what made one artwork more effective or appealing than another.

In the nineteenth century public taste had been seen as coming under threat from increased mass production and cheap goods. To this, in the twentieth century, particularly after the Second World War, were added concerns about a perceived ‘Americanisation’ of culture. Children were seen as being particularly vulnerable to external influences such as advertisements and Hollywood movies. This led to calls from both educators and the government for education to develop the skills of ‘discrimination’ and criticism in children to enable them to make effective judgements about what was real and unreal, genuine or fake. In this context, post-war educators’ conceptions of taste cannot be seen as just relying on experts to choose objects representing a particular vision of taste to be conveyed to the masses. The idea of taste, as promoted by educators such as Richardson and Youngman, is closely linked with a strong element of criticality. For them, education, particularly art education, involved equipping children with the skills to make taste judgements from within, based upon their individual outlook, choices and preferences, rather than passively accepting standards and products dictated, marketed or chosen for them by others.

Response, Ruth Mason

I was struck by a number of things while reading this post. Firstly, it is interesting that the improvement of taste was considered the result of prolonged exposure to art. Children’s taste could not be improved through one off encounters. Secondly, the pieces of art intended to inform children’s taste were brought to them. Rather than being taken to a special event to see pieces of good design, these tasteful objects infiltrated children’s natural habits, normalizing good taste, but also arguably taking children unawares. Stealth taste formation! Finally, children were encouraged to enter into active relationships with these pieces of art, active responses considered more effective forms of education. It will be interesting to see how these principles of taste formation compare with those used in relation to the 1862 International Exhibition and the course of the nineteenth century – read next week’s post to find out!

© Natalie Bradbury and Ruth Mason, October 2014

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