“The past’, wrote the novelist L P Hartley, ‘is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
In this brief history I wish to consider just how different the world was over fifty years ago – what inspired art educators in 1951 when the idea of International Society for Education through Art (InSEA) was formulated? But first a caveat: ‘History isn't what happened. History is just what historians tell us. The verbal histories of the events of over half a century ago are becoming lost. It is becoming more urgent to order some insights into the past as a way of providing both a key to understanding the present and as a source for constructive speculation about the future.
InSEA, like its parent organisation the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), was founded in the aftermath of the 1939-1945 World War. Richard Hoggart explains how UNESCO was conceived in a spirit of hope, in a heady confidence that a new style of international relations could be developed:
The world had just come through a terrible and protracted war, one initiated by false philosophies working on ignorance through massive control of free speech. The impulse, in 1945, to try to ensure that it did not happen again, and that people should understand each other better through education and all forms of cultural and scientific exchanges, the passionate emphasis on truth, justice, peace and the importance of the individual – these impulses were irresistible.
At UNESCO’s first and second general conferences, held in 1946 and 1947, resolutions were adopted to inquire into art education. In 1948, Dr Herbert Read from the United Kingdom was appointed as chairman of a ‘Committee of Experts’ to look into this matter. This small group comprised Thomas Munro from the USA; the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly; two government education inspectors, Georges Favre from France and Edward O’R Dickey from the United Kingdom; a professor of philosophy from the Sorbonne, M Bayer; two aestheticians, Professors Souriau and Lalo; and Mme Langevin, an art teacher from France.
From these beginnings followed the UNESCO seminar on ‘The Visual Arts in General Education’, held from 7-27 July 1951 at the University of Bristol, England, at which some twenty countries were represented. The delegates included a significant number of people who continued to take leadership roles in InSEA as the organisation developed. For example Dr Edwin Ziegfeld from the USA, who was a ‘Specialist-Consultant’ at the seminar became the first president of the Society (as well as being coincidentally the first president of the National Art Education Association in the USA). Charles Dudley Gaitskell from Canada directed the seminar (he subsequently became the first president of the Canadian Society for Education through Art). The programme included general sessions, guest speakers and visits to schools and schools of art. One such visit was to the newly founded Bath Academy of Art at Corsham Court:
Through the kindness of Mr Clifford Ellis (Director of the Bath Academy) and Lord Methuen, the participants were able to make a thorough exploration of the academy proper, as well as of the experimental school for children. The programme of the school was admitted to be the most advanced and informative. Design in both art and crafts was highly original and ingenious, and the craftsmanship of the highest order. In the experimental school for children, the use of visual material, and the spirit of enquiry and intellectual adventure evident in the children’s work, drew forth much praise.
There is no doubt that the seminar was seen as a significant event at that time. Ziegfeld wrote, ‘The effects of this seminar will leave an indelible mark on our future’. Whether he was right in this assertion is one of the questions I wish to consider.