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‘Culture is a Birthright’: Eight Leading UK Artists on the Perils of Excluding Arts in Schools

With the government’s push for the controversial English baccalaureate, why the arts should be an integral part of the curriculum

Last month, 104 leading UK artists – including 15 Turner Prize winners – signed an open letter protesting the marginalization of the arts in the new English baccalaureate (Ebacc) qualification. They asked the UK government to reconsider this secondary school policy, which has made sciences, English, maths, a language and geography or history compulsory in secondary schools – no arts subjects are included. The government says it wants 90% of GCSE students to take the Ebacc combination by 2025. But critics warn that it will increase the erosion of creative subjects in the state school sector. Here, eight signatories – Sam Taylor Johnson, Rose Wylie, Ryan Gander, Liliane Lijn, Zarina Bhimji, Liam Gillick, Paul Noble and Rose English explain why they think access to arts and culture – a sector worth GBP£92bn a year to the UK economy – should be open to all children.

Liam Gillick
Zarina Bhimji
Rose English
Liliane Lijn
Sam Taylor-Johnson
Paul Noble
Ryan Gander
Rose Wylie

Liam Gillick, ‘The Lights are no Brighter at the Centre’, 2017, installation view, CAC, Vilnius. Courtesy: the artist

Liam Gillick, ‘The Lights are no Brighter at the Centre’, 2017, installation view, CAC, Vilnius. Courtesy: the artist

Liam Gillick, ‘The Lights are no Brighter at the Centre’, 2017, installation view, CAC, Vilnius. Courtesy: the artist

Liam Gillick
Liam Gillick is a British artist, based in New York. He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2002.

It is universally understood that human beings are creative. It is clear that this creativity is used as the initial route to education and play. Play, creativity and education help us to relate to each other and the world around us. But the concept of ‘creativity’ has been hijacked by neo-liberal marketing – leading to a cynical attitude to art education. Continuing art education is a critical process that helps us to see the world and remake it. To remove the potential for young people to reimagine themselves within a disruptive context abandons them to a synthetic world of image reception rather than image production.

Zarina Bhimji, Jangbar, 2015, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Zarina Bhimji, Jangbar, 2015, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Zarina Bhimji, Jangbar, 2015, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Zarina Bhimji
Zarina Bhimji is a Ugandan, British and Indian artist living and working in London. She was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2007.

I believe that art education in the early stages of school life has a big impact on what you choose to do later in life. At school, I was lucky to have a teacher who introduced art to me on my terms. I am not from a privileged background. And many in a similar position may not easily choose art as a subject. But I was inspired by my teacher, who taught me textiles, to go to Goldsmiths. Discovering art at school changed my life, it took hold of me and occupied me completely. I discovered something very special. 

Cover for Abstract Vaudeville: The Work of Rose English by Guy Brett, with texts and scripts by Rose English and interviews by Anne-Louise Rentell, edited by Martha Fleming and Doro Globus (Ridinghouse, 2014)

Cover for Abstract Vaudeville: The Work of Rose English by Guy Brett, with texts and scripts by Rose English and interviews by Anne-Louise Rentell, edited by Martha Fleming and Doro Globus (Ridinghouse, 2014)

Cover for Abstract Vaudeville: The Work of Rose English by Guy Brett, with texts and scripts by Rose English and interviews by Anne-Louise Rentell, edited by Martha Fleming and Doro Globus (Ridinghouse, 2014)

Rose English
Rose English emerged from the Conceptual art, dance and feminist scenes of 1970s Britain to become one of the most influential performance artists working today. 

Culture is the birthright of every child. No child should be denied access to or discouraged from learning, practising, participating in or enjoying arts subjects at school because of their economic status or class background. Thinking happens in many forms: through looking, drawing, making, moving, playing, singing and speaking. Encountering these different forms both enriches and enables a child whether or not they eventually become an artist, dancer, musician or actor. The Ebacc policy is clearly creating a hostile environment for the arts in state schools and numbers studying arts subjects are dwindling. We will all be poorer as a result.

Liliane Lijn, Woman of War, 1986. Courtesy: © Liliane Lijn, all rights reserved; Photograph: Thierry Bal

Liliane Lijn, Woman of War, 1986. Courtesy: © Liliane Lijn, all rights reserved; Photograph: Thierry Bal

Liliane Lijn, Woman of War, 1986. Courtesy: © Liliane Lijn, all rights reserved; Photograph: Thierry Bal

Liliane Lijn
Liliane Lijn is an American-born artist living and working in London. Well known for her work with kinetic text, a new commission Converse Column will go on show at the University of Leeds this autumn.

If we believe equality is important in the UK – equality of race, religion and gender, equality of age, equal job opportunities, and so on – it seems absurdly anachronistic and irresponsible to create a new education policy in which our children are deprived of the essential contact with culture. Science may be important, but it will not progress without art: our understanding of reality calls for more communication between disciplines.

Sam Taylor Johnson, Self Portrait in a Single Breasted Suit with Hare, 2001. Courtesy: the artist

Sam Taylor Johnson, Self Portrait in a Single Breasted Suit with Hare, 2001. Courtesy: the artist

Sam Taylor Johnson, Self Portrait in a Single Breasted Suit with Hare, 2001. Courtesy: the artist

Sam Taylor-Johnson
Sam Taylor-Johnson OBE is an English filmmaker and photographer.

As a kid, I was never academic. I was smart, savvy, street-wise and a dreamer but not at all a high grade-scorer. On the contrary, I scored low in everything. I wasn’t even the best at drawing in my art class. But, what I had, I knew was important – and it was something that only in an art class I could nurture. I had ideas – big, wild, unruly ideas – and that was the class where I could talk about them. The art room gave me a voice as well as place to experiment, fail and succeed. It taught me that all ideas were valid and worth exploring, to think, to dream and realize. And ideas are valuable in all senses – arts and culture are the foundation for some of our most important industries. Lose these, and what are we nurturing?

Paul Noble, Black Door, 2015. Courtesy: the artist and Gagosian; © Paul Noble; Photograph: Mike Bruce

Paul Noble, Black Door, 2015. Courtesy: the artist and Gagosian; © Paul Noble; Photograph: Mike Bruce

Paul Noble, Black Door, 2015. Courtesy: the artist and Gagosian; © Paul Noble; Photograph: Mike Bruce

Paul Noble
Paul Noble is a British artist. He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2012.

It was my relative good fortune to be born in 1963 and schooled through the 1970s in a well-funded comprehensive school that included in its syllabus dance, drama, pottery, poetry, woodwork, metalwork, music, technical drawing and ART. I was able to develop the part of me that thought in images. I am from a generation that flourished because, for a moment, the toffs lost their grip. Scared of the Left, the posh spawn laid low in their posh schools. But now they are back and are shamelessly pursuing a class war against us common people. They don’t want the children of the Oiks to dream of a better world, but instead be prepared for a life of shit jobs, for shit pay, watching unreality TV.

Ryan Gander, It’s got such good heart in it, 2012. Courtesy: the artist

Ryan Gander, It’s got such good heart in it, 2012. Courtesy: the artist

Ryan Gander, It’s got such good heart in it, 2012. © Ryan Gander; Courtesy: the artist and Lisson Gallery.

Ryan Gander
Ryan Gander is an English artist living and working between London and Suffolk.

The people who make decisions about our country’s education system model it on the only thing they know: the formal and conformist education that they received (almost all of them having gone to private schools). They fashion our children in their own self-image. The irony is, as they are far from innovators themselves, and as they lack cognitive agility and humility, they encourage a rhetoric of plodders in great suits. Difference decreases and empathy with it, replaced by ubiquitous predictability. Creativity is the UK’s largest export. An export that comes from taking chances: decision-making through exaggerated play making, learning by mistake-making, encouraged by mis-meaning and an ability to find unusual solutions to our problems. Not from being forced to remember information that technology now holds for us anyway. Art is the source of creative citizenship and art education makes innovative thinkers that filter into every part of our society. I know that I would rather be rescued by a firefighter that went to art school, than one that didn’t.

Rose Wylie, Lolita Later, 2018. Courtesy: the artist and David Zwirner

Rose Wylie, Lolita Later, 2018. Courtesy: the artist and David Zwirner

Rose Wylie, Lolita Later, 2018. Courtesy: the artist and David Zwirner

Rose Wylie
Rose Wylie, OBE, is a British painter.

Art is not something you have to learn or memorize. You have to feel it, and do it: there is no script, and it’s uniting and universal. It’s somewhere in life you may be able to fit in, or flourish, even though other things don’t seem to work for you. To minimize this introduction to a particular intuitive attitude, a creative exhilaration, and a potential for later cultural inclusion, would cut a lot of children out. And we need them.

Main image: ‘Schreibtischuhr’, Galerie Meyer Kainer, Vienna, curated by John Rajchman, artists selected by Liam Gillick, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: Liam Gillick

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