Norman Cornish, culture, education and value

A blue plaque has been unveiled at Norman Cornish’s Spennymoor home in County Durham.
Cornish

Norman Cornish was a contemporary of the internationally renowned Ashington Group of coal mining artists, who are the subject of Lee Hall’s hit play, ‘The Pitmen Painters’.

While Cornish is associated with the Spennymoor Setlement, the other pitmen painters’ story began in a Workers’ Educational Association art class taught by Robert Lyon in 1934. Lyon, a master of painting at a Newcastle college, was engaged to teach Art Appreciation to colliery workers in their own community. Finding that his slide-based lectures weren’t being well-received, he adopted a ‘learning by doing’ approach and encouraged his students to create their own art. The impact of his teaching and their talent has been astonishing.

Notably, the painters didn’t seek to make their fortunes out of their art. Money was not a driving force. Neither was a change in employment. They became friends of some of the most avant garde artists of the day and were feted by the British art world, but they still kept on working in the pit.

The Pitmen Painters’ work is now displayed at the Woodhorn Museum in Ashington.

The Museum’s website says that, “Today the Ashington Group is acclaimed worldwide, yet back in the 1930s none of them would have dreamed that a few evening classes would bring them such fame and international attention.”

The Ashington Group showed what can happen when we recognise that adult education and culture are not just for an exclusive élite or for direct financial return. That said, the small investment into those Art Appreciation classes has been returned in ways that could not have been imagined.

How many people across the world have been employed because of Lee Hall’s play about the group – arising from his own creative talent as a writer – and how many people have been inspired because of the pitmen painters’ examples?

Why does cultural education matter?

“Arts Council chief accuses Gove of abandoning cultural education.”

This headline in the Guardian caught my eye earlier this week. You can read the full article about Dame Liz Forgan’s farewell to the Arts Council as Sir Peter Bazalgette prepares to take over as the new Chair at http://bit.ly/S7P3uB.

Interestingly, Melvyn Bragg is also exploring the ‘The Value of Culture’ in a current BBC Radio 4 series examining the idea of culture and its evolution over the last 150 years. Podcasts are available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/tvoc

Culture is one of the WEA’s four main educational themes and we have been mentioned in the Radio 4 programmes. Our other three educational themes are Employability, Health and Wellbeing and Community Engagement. We have distinctive approaches to each of these themes and work collaboratively to develop our curriculum. All the collectively developed text below explains why we think that cultural education is important in the WEA.

What do you think?

The WEA’s ‘Culture’ Theme

“WEA cultural education broadens horizons through understanding cultures, identities and environments embodying our commitment to social purpose”

Students on the WEA's 'Digability' community archaeology project

Students on the WEA’s ‘Digability’ community archaeology project

We believe that exploring culture helps people to understand the human experience, learning from the past, understanding the present and giving us resources to imagine and shape the future.

‘Culture’ is a very broad term and includes philosophy, music, literature, history, arts, religion, archaeology, science, economics, politics, media – and other subjects from cultures across the world. Studying these subjects enriches our lives and helps us to think creatively and critically as well as providing a basis for thinking about moral and ethical questions.

"Create a Radio Play" - a WEA course run in partnership with the homeless charity St Mungo’s

“Create a Radio Play” – a WEA course run in partnership with the homeless charity St Mungo’s

The notion of ‘art for art’s sake’ is of great value and learning about culture enriches lives regardless of any other benefits that result from such learning.

A journey through local history on the 'Pride of Tyne' ferry last year

A journey through local history on the ‘Pride of Tyne’ ferry last year

We know that learning about culture can cause life-changing personal development, teach us to engage with ideas critically and independently. Through such learning, students develop the skills, understanding and resilience to deal with change.

The insights we gain from history, drama, fiction, poetry, paintings and music can be transferred into other aspects of our lives. Learning about other cultures, achievements and experiences in different places and ages help us to understand the world.

Studying other people’s creativity challenges our students to develop their own creative thinking skills, which can prove useful for solving problems that they might encounter in the future. Creativity also promotes well-being.

Through ‘culture’, students can learn from each other and imagine the ways that other people live, or have lived, their lives. This encourages a greater ability for people to understand and learn from others’ experiences as well as about themselves.

Lee Hall based his 'Pitman Painters' hit play on a WEA art coursein the 1930s

Lee Hall based his ‘Pitman Painters’ hit play on a WEA art course in the 1930s

Our tutors are enthusiastic experts in their subject areas, who continue to learn and share high levels of academic expertise. Many are practising artists, writers, musicians and / or academic specialists in their subject areas. They nurture students’ creative instincts and curiosity.

It is important that understanding culture does not become exclusive or seen as ‘belonging’ to any dominant group or class so, as with other aspects of our activities, we work at neighbourhood levels creating accessible and affordable learning opportunities for people who might otherwise be marginalised.

We work in many partnerships for example with galleries, museums, theatres and archives. Our educational activities are part of the cultural fabric of England and Scotland and maximise wider cultural opportunities and access for WEA students and strengthen the voice of those who value cultural education.

Learning about Culture with the WEA can take many forms including study circles, events, seminars and visits as well as courses.