'Culture Lesson' (chosen by Catherine Packham)
By sussexenglishencs, Jun 27 2016 06:51AM
In this photo (a still from a short news clip, below) taken fromThe Guardian website, some primary school children sit with their backs to us, on bare tarmac in south Bristol. They are uniformed, and arrayed in a line: someone, perhaps a teacher, has instructed them to take up these positions; other, larger, societal or educational forces have caused the pupils to be dressed as they are. They are in the playground of a school, and they are all looking at an image, spray-painted onto the school wall in front of them. In visual terms, this image marries the complex and proficient, with the simple and off-hand; the faux-naif with the virtuoso-expert; the spontaneous with the deeply meditated. Graffiti art, by the Bristol artist Banksy, it is a child’s stick-drawing of a child, by a stick-drawing house; the stick-child holds a stick-stick, and is playing with a burning tyre. The tyre is the only element in the image to be represented super-realistically: it could almost be a photo. Taken as a whole, Banksy’s art spans the spectrum of artistic culture’s ability to represent: from the starkly suggestive, just-decipherable daubs of a child, to the artist’s almost magical ability to re-present the real in mimetic terms.
Art and the real meet and clash in Banksy’s image, then, as well as in the news photo of the children looking at Banksy’s art. Culture and anarchy are present too, at many levels. Most obviously in the image of the child playing with fire: an image which subverts all our conceptions about childhood, play, innocence and violence. It disturbs us by crossing boundaries and mixing categories which we want to separate; by pollinating the safe world of childhood with the violence and chaos of the global disorder. The promise of childhood is the promise of culture in broadest terms: of growth, of becoming, of potential nurtured and realised: these are promises whose burden is largely carried, in our culture, by education. Yet both in Banksy’s image, and perhaps also in the photo of the children looking at the image, this promise risks being doubly short-circuited. The stick-child is not nurtured, but rather inhabits a dangerous world of anarchic forces, where play is violence and violence is play. Perhaps this inversion is why the child is represented through the too-short, abrupt lines of a child’s drawing: art itself assumes the failed development which is sketched for the child, and by implication, for the world she inhabits. As a child’s drawing produced by an adult, the Banksy work is a regression against cultural expectations of development, expertise, maturity. Art here is impeded, it is not cultured: it does not lead towards a promised future, an ideal, but is arrested. But at the same time, even though it is before its time, the image produces an effect in arresting and shocking us. It transcends its limits: it is more than what it is. Like a child, it gestures beyond its own form, to a possible achievement of what it might be. Graffiti art, like the child, is already what it hasn’t yet become.
This traumatised or broken art – an art which has regressed to childhood, but which remains art – is, in the news photo as a whole, placed in dialogue with the on-looking school children. With their backs to us, faces not visible, only uniformed bodies, the children are as de-personalised, as anonymous, as the stick-child herself. The fact that these children are organised in the collective act of looking at the Banksy art suggests the work of culture, of education: the scene is staged for the study of culture. The children are perhaps about to copy the art work, replicating its childish art with their own. Their regimentation in the processes of education and acculturation reassures us, and softens the threat of the starkly drawn image which they contemplate: the children represent an attempt, perhaps the best we have, to heal the broken world with whose anarchic forces they are being confronted. This, Matthew Arnold (school inspector and son of a head teacher) might have said, is what culture is for, but as staged here, the confrontation appears a potentially troubling and dangerous one. What is going on in this cultural lesson - what meanings might these children glean from their study? It is impossible to tell, and it seems significant in this regard that, due to the foreclosed perspective from which the photo is taken, we cannot see the space between the children and the artwork. What exists between them and it, what is taking place between them and it, occupies an unseen space, beyond representation.
In the short news clip from which this photo is taken, the primary school head teacher described the Banksy work as ‘beautiful’. An almost imperceptible hesitation, followed by a too-confident insistence on the word, betrays his realisation that this word doesn’t fit, because ‘beautiful’ is the last thing the Banksy is. Nevertheless, the word is valuable, because the teacher’s use of the word marks the Banksy as ‘art’, and enables cultural work to take place. As that process begins, we might hope that these children cannot fully see what Banksy has made visible, in disturbing ways, on their school wall: that they do not discern, between the childish lines, something of what it might be like to be that child, playing with fire, in a world which is also their world; or consider that that child is in fact each of them, and each of us, and reflect on the conditions of our world, in which innocence and violence, safety and danger, precariously co-exist. Something here has been writ large, if only they can see it, and the work of culture is certainly asking them to look.