Arts organisations as sites of learning

First published on November 2011.

Arts organizations can advance knowledge because they are alternative sites of learning that can overcome some of the shortfalls inherent in school systems. The arts are non-linear, abstract and qualitative, in contrast to education systems which are linear, literal and quantitative. Society needs to be built upon alternative knowledges, not just on economic priorities. The abstract, ambiguous and intangible – the very nature of the arts – is, in reality, where living life meaningfully in the 21st century will be apparent.

There are four important differences between arts organisations and schools as sites of learning. First, arts organisations are not constrained by a bureaucratic system of set precedents or rules and regulations. Looked upon as diverse ‘schools’ unbounded by a national curriculum, arts organisations have alternate or diverse knowledge at their core. When unconstrained (but not unruly), the knowledge that they create is not based on economic competition but rather in and of art forms that communicate human concerns.

Second, each individual art form is a loosely based subject discipline with the flexibility to evolve. Its fluidity stems from the multifariousness of its primary materials and traditions, and these are developed and extended through the imagination of artists. Imagination is crucial, extending humanity’s ability to manoeuvre in the face of the speed of change brought about by globalised information technology.

Third, elements of surprise from creative ideas stimulate curiosity and motivate action through the sense of wonder. In a knowledge economy, the ability of the arts to surprise not only provides the basis for creativity but, more importantly, both reminds us of, and uplifts, the human spirit that can otherwise be entrapped in the daily routines of wealth creation and the pursuit of a top position in a league table.

Finally, whereas the professional development of teachers in undergraduate and postgraduate degrees is predictable, pragmatic, utilitarian and dedicated to serving the curriculum and examination requirements, by contrast, artists as teachers are acutely aware of the need to transform, to evolve constantly and to reinvent and innovate continuously. This is where flexibility of mind comes from. This is where a creative habit of mind originates.

This is an edited extract from ‘The Arts in a Knowledge Economy: Creation of Other Knowledges’ in Journal of the Knowledge Economy 3 (1) (forthcoming 2012).

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Illustrations by Paul Davis -