ArtisTree Voices features Hong Kong’s arts and culture experts discussing the most pressing issues in the city’s creative landscape. Here, Vivienne Chow – journalist, cultural critic, university lecturer and founder of Cultural Journalism Campus – discusses the importance of arts education
Recently at an art workshop held at On Tat Estate in Kwun Tong, a primary school girl stared at the blank drawing paper scratching her head. The workshop’s instructor invited the children to draw a picture of their home city Hong Kong, but this girl, with a piece of oil pastel in her hand, did not know what to do. She did not want to draw a city of buildings that did not look right, without straight lines and the right colours. She even asked if she could borrow a ruler so that she could draw the perfect straight line of skyscrapers. She was afraid of making mistakes.
It was one of the CJC Outreach workshops organised by Cultural Journalism Campus, an arts and culture non-profit I founded in 2014. I sat next to this girl, trying to encourage her to imagine a story, no matter how hideous or unrealistic it might seem. Eventually she proudly painted a picture about people rescuing each other living in high risings from alien invasion.
Arts education is just as important as subjects such as languages, mathematics, science and history.
It is through arts that we can learn about humanities, history, culture and the world. The arts expands our horizons, and more importantly, inspires our creativity and independent thinking.
The inadequacy of arts education in Hong Kong is not news. Critics often lament the city’s poor education system, that students are burdened by school exams, endless homework and extracurricular activities that they take part in only to make their CVs look good. Arts education has never been a priority, for what is taught isn’t able to earn students a place in the university or a job upon graduation, unless they study fine arts or other art-related subjects.
Generally speaking, arts education can be divided into the training of artistic crafts and art appreciation.
Training of artistic crafts such as painting, playing the musical instruments and dancing is ideal to begin at a young age for a professional career in the arts. Music and visual arts are among the elective subjects available for the Hong Kong Diploma for Secondary Education (HKDSE) exams. But among the 61,669 exam candidates, only 172 signed up for the music exam while 3,775 chose visual arts in 2017 – accounting for only six per cent of students.
But the exam-oriented training limits students’ creativity and courage to explore the possibilities of the arts. At a recent encounter with arts students preparing themselves for next year’s HKDSE exams, they confided in me about their discontent with the exam structure, and how they had to follow their teachers’ orders in order to earn good grades, despite not believing what the teachers told them.
Not everyone has the ambition of becoming a professional artist; art appreciation is a much more broadly utilised skill. It helps build a critical and sophisticated audience for the future amid the vast public investments in cultural infrastructure such as West Kowloon Cultural District and Tai Kwun while inspiring them to be more creative. The government tries to make it available to more students through Other Learning Experience, with the latest amendment introduced to the new senior secondary school curriculum in 2013. It “encourages” schools to organise visits to art events and develop students’ critical thinking in response to artistic works.
The intention is honorable. But a big question mark lies in the execution. While art teachers were reportedly not equipped to teach the visual arts curriculum, teachers responsible for the art appreciation segment under Other Learning Experience face a bigger issue in giving students guidance in appreciating and analysing a piece of artwork, for few of them were previously trained in this area.
Art is subjective to a great extent. Young students should be given the freedom and encouraged to articulate an art story with the support from facts and logical arguments, for there is not absolute right or wrong, particularly in contemporary art and performances.
But if they were led by teachers who lack such training, there is a danger of leading students to fall into the trap of either right or wrong, defeating the purpose of such education, which is to inspire students to be creative and imaginative while developing independent critical thinking.
Children are born to be imaginative. But under Hong Kong’s education system, creativity and ability to think outside the box are ruined from a young age. Children are trained to follow the model answer, and are afraid of making mistakes, just like that primary school girl from On Tat Estate.