The uncertainties of arts education : between democratization and generalization

by Marie-Christine Bordeaux, lecturer, head of program Masters in scientific communication, Université Stendhal, Grenoble

Arts education is caught between two tendencies, according to Marie-Christine Bordeaux: democratization, in essence bringing culture to as wide an audience possible, and generalization – of the targeted audience and of the methods of reaching this population. However, Bordeaux asks the following question, which she attempts to answer throughout her discussion: “Is generalization of arts education the final step in cultural democratization?”

As of 1983, arts education is perceived as a mission shared by several Ministries – of Culture, of Youth and Sports, of Agriculture, of Municipal Politics. In 2007, the inter-Ministry collaboration is founded on the co-construction of common policies, which transcend individual limitations with regard to public action. The hope is that a wider audience of children be targeted through each of the Ministry’s competences. The group reaches out to arts specialists to expand children’s interest in culture beyond the boundaries of the school. Despite dynamic cultural decentralization efforts in arts education, the inter-Ministry initiative leaves these regional programs out of the conversation. This is in part due to the historical tensions between the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education, as well as the DRAC’s (Directions Régionales des Affaires Culturelles) inability to monitor all local art education efforts. Finally, regional municipalities sought to develop urban regeneration efforts, and placed cultural action initiatives in the background. That being said, in 2013, the Ministry of higher education and the Ministry of Culture signed an agreement promoting arts education in universities. Today, arts education measures are focused on the belief that schoolteachers and professors should transmit, and generalize, culture in the classroom.

Initially, arts education measures were distanced from pedagogical practices, considered too distanced from contemporary art, aesthetics, and experience. However, even to this day, amateur arts specialists are deemed less qualified than professional artists solicited to intervene in the classroom. Furthermore, art education initiatives face heavy competition with the preponderance of mass culture and consumption. Jack Lang, former Minister of Culture, defends pedagogical excellence “exception éducative”, referring to the “cultural excellence” fervently protected by French policy. However, arts education is not conceived as a defensive project, but rather one that carries values: sharing cultural practices, through a reinvented pedagogical system that is both active and creative. Arts education has the additional value of not resembling any discipline studied in class; it is the extension of cultural lessons learned in class, and turns the school setting into a place of experimentation and artistic creation. Students learn how to experience art and culture, to think about the artistic process and then put their knowledge to practice; they are both active listeners and practitioners. Arts education thus combines Malraux’s vision of cultural transmission through an encounter with works of art, with the public education movement’s defense of artistic practice. Finally, arts education respects the Education nationale’s credo of transmission of knowledge. This triple mission is shared by the artist and the schoolteacher: the arts specialist is meant to disrupt the school setting, while the schoolteacher is meant to widen his/her pedagogical perspectives.

Bordeaux explains that the development of arts education in France between the 1960s and today was completed in five steps. The first phase, between 1960 and 1970, was one of experimentation during which the schoolteacher is a militant advocate of arts education, and is in close touch with local professional theater companies. The second phase, during the 1980s, pairs institutional innovation with the professionalization of the arts education practice: the national education board allows arts specialists to work in school and the DRAC institutions integrate cultural action into their agendas. The third phase in the 1990s emerges simultaneously as the discourse on “the failure” of cultural democratization: this territorialization phase intends to expand the targeted audience of arts education initiatives. Furthermore, local communes and the Conseils Généraux (departmental councils) begin supporting these efforts. The fourth phase appears in 2000 with the Lang-Tasca plan: for the first time in history, the Ministry of national education allots a significant budget to arts education. The mission is that all students benefit from at least one arts education PAC (projet artistique et culturel) course in kindergarten, primary school, middle school, and high school. These two former Ministers of Culture (Catherine Tasca and Jack Lang) defend that it is in school that students should be exposed to art, as such an encounter cannot be guaranteed outside of the classroom for all students alike. This plan will be abandoned in 2002 with the arrival of a right-wing president, however its impact is long lasting. The fifth phase, beginning in 2010, is that of decentralization. Regional governments are the principle supporters of arts education programs.

However, in 2013, the centralized government mandates the Loi de refondation de l’école de la République (education reform) which regulates that all students must benefit from arts education programs, each academic year. This law makes it seem that generalization will be achieved, as each student has a dedicated cultural program dedicated to him/her. Furthermore, local delegates are integrated in the Haut conseil de l’éducation artistique et culturelle to ensure that these key actors have a voice in arts education decisions. That being said, the current financial crisis and consequent budget cuts make Bordeaux doubt the legitimacy of the law. In any case, it is clear that the cultural democratization “failure” bolstered the arts education movement, as a possible solution to this crisis. In 1992, it is mandated that arts education initiatives be spread to ZEP (zones d’éducation prioritaire) schools to foster cultural democratization. However, the quality and cost of these programs is constantly put into question.

Finally, despite cultural democratization being a pillar of the Ministry of Culture, this institution only allots 1% of its budget to arts education. Nonetheless, Bordeaux notes that the percentage of students benefiting from arts education programs has increased from 3,23% in 1994-1995 to 11,54% in 2010-2011. Though these numbers are far from representing the success of cultural democratization, the number of students receiving access to the culture through arts education increases on an annual basis.


[Read the full text in french]


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