I have always believed that art is, in so many ways, a combination of every subject; biology, science, nature, history, geometry, geography, archaeology. It is forensic and fallible. It is something that puts a person into context, highlighting how one fills a space, as well the mass of the spaces between you and everything else. It’s metaphysical. Existential.
And yet, with all of China’s growth and economic prosperity, it is the one subject taught in schools which receives no value or attention.
I teach and lecture at an art college near OCT, the so-called creative center of the Shenzhen, and I use the word lecture quite loosely, because I have noticed a distinct vacancy during lectures in my students. Not necessarily because they are too tired or lazy, but in fact just because they have nothing to connect anything I am saying to. I have reviewed, simplified, scaffolded, and done as many things as possible to forge these connections, to build those bridges, and I do feel in some ways it is taking root.
But then it came to the practical component, and I just couldn’t believe my eyes. There they were, 18-year-old students, with wealthy parents, able to boast about all the crazy, diverse skills they have that are all the rage in contemporary China, and they couldn’t hold a pencil. Never mind a paintbrush. I became curious about this, as it seemed to be a common issue among the students, and went around asking them about their experiences with art. When I think of my own childhood, I remember things like making potato stamps, having paint in my hair, being punished for drawing with markers on the walls, gluing my hands together, and having glitter stuck on me for days. I always thought these were rites of passage we all went through when we were children, that somehow we all had a connection to finger-painting and macaroni art. But these students have had none of those memories. What they do know is that they have been learning math for hours a day since they were two. That soon after the piano lessons started. Then the English classes. One of them even said to me “I can fence, play the saxophone, speak three different languages, but I have no idea what colours make purple.”
I am not sure I am qualified here to make any vast statements about right or wrong, and I don’t know what future effect this kind of child rearing will have on the country’s development. All I can say, from my own experience and encounters, is that I have met 13-year olds who are more stressed and exhausted than I am. They have been so overstimulated that they are bored with everything. Overprotected, overpraised and pampered with bourgeois excesses. And despite all of this, the most simple skills and knowledge have been overlooked, and replaced with complex, decadent, impractical skills.
Still, I am glad that I can make a change, and possibly be a part of a future artistic revival. There has been something deeply moving about sharing techniques and exploring problem solving with many of these students. They do have a longing to tap into their latent creativity, to be open to possibilities, to share ideas and revel in curiosity. There also seems to be a more widespread awareness of the need to develop these independent and creative thinking skills. In many of the bigger cities in China, the acronym DIY is used with ever more frequency in conjunction with English language learning, a shift I think can only benefit this rapidly developing country.
In the future, I believe an artistic revival is necessary in China, not anything overtly revolutionary, but a change to more independent thinking, going outside of the box, nurturing crazy wild ideas that could somehow change the structure of our world. These students are going to be living and working in a world very different to the one we are in now, and to cope you have to be flexible, adaptable, and just a little bit creative. I am glad to be in a position to help even one student find their creative side, and I humbly hope I can foster that.