The 1951 Seminar

>It seems evident from all accounts of the 1951 seminar that Sir Herbert Read (1893-1968) was central to proceedings as a leading figure in the avant-garde of art, literature and aesthetics (7) . Read had been a soldier in the 1914-1918 World War and was decorated with the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order, but he later became a pacifist and a self-proclaimed anarchist. He regarded himself primarily as a poet, but literary and art criticism became his predominant activities.

Read spoke of the human need to strive toward self-realisation, of the importance of developing full human potential, the need of individuals to be active and productive, true to themselves, and to relate to others in a spirit of mutuality. Read set out his view of the aims of aesthetic education:

  • To preserve the natural intensity of all modes of perception and sensation.
  • To co-ordinate the various modes of perception and sensation with one another and in relation to the environment.
  • To express feeling in communicable form. 
  • To teach children how to express thought in required form.

The UNESCO report of the seminar summarises Read’s conclusions:

… Dr Read said that in order to communicate human reaction as completely as possible, it is necessary to employ not only ‘the infinite subtleties of verbal expression, but also various forms of symbolic expression’. Our educational systems have tended to ignore the various types of symbolic communication. However, we are beginning to question the adequacy of our verbal modes. The movement which has led to the liberation is beginning to recognise the fact that human beings are dependent upon symbolic as well as conceptual means of thought. Since the purpose of education is to liberate the force of spontaneous growth, and since growth is only made apparent in expression, then education is a matter of teaching children and adults how to express themselves in sounds, images, tools and utensils. In other words, ‘the aim of education is, therefore, the creation of artists – of people efficient in the various modes of expression and communication’.(8)

 In 1968, shortly after Read’s death, Ziegfeld wrote fondly about his impressions of Read and the Bristol seminar:

To all his utterances he brought clarity of thinking and brilliance of insight. Added to this was the impact of his delivery. The clear, thin, and only slightly modulated voice seemed at first a model of understatement. But as one listened one was 3 aware of an almost incandescent intensity which burned behind it, and hearing Sir Herbert Read became both an intellectual and aesthetic experience. …The highlight [of the 1951 seminar] however, which gave the whole show its impetus and meaning, was the address delivered by Herbert Read. We all remember the occasion vividly. We still see him, slight, unobtrusive, modest, his manners friendly and courteous, his humour quiet, introverted, his speech quietly voiced, but flowing, in words and phrases that brought out all the beauties of the English tongue. His delivering [sic] in itself was a work of art.(9)

The idea of an international organisation for art education was not exactly new. An international congress was held in Paris in 1900 and the ‘International Federation for the Teaching of Drawing and of the Arts Applied to Industry’, which had aims that were not so disparate from InSEA, was founded in 1904. A further seven congresses followed between 1904 and 1937 when its activities were suspended until 1955. The organisation adopted the shorter name ‘Fédération Internationale pour l’Éducation Artistique’ (FIEA) in 1957. After a good deal of wrangling the FIEA merged with InSEA in 1963 at the Montreal World Congress. (It is the existence of the FIEA, overlapping as it does with InSEA, that partly explains the curious numbering of InSEA tri-annual world congresses – for example the Brisbane event in 1999 was designated as the 30th World Congress. The congresses are numbered from 1900, not the 1950s, but there is also some dispute about which events can properly be designated ‘World Congresses’). 

Read’s seminal text ‘Education through Art’ was published in 1943. The British Society for Education in Art (SEA) was founded in 1946, springing from what had been seen as a temporary merger of existing organisations during the 1939-45 war: Read was its chairman and president for 28 years. The title of the British organisation, the Society for Education through Art, was only adopted in 1953 after a protracted debate – at much the same time that InSEA was coming into existence. While it is evident that Read influenced the name of the international organisation, it is not clear how much this was a matter of debate in the international forum. The idea of ‘Education through Art’ is now often taken for granted but Read saw it as revolutionary. He wrote in the SEA context:

We declare that our foremost aim is ‘the establishment of an education in art which will develop the imaginative and creative powers of children’, and that, to the outside world, must seem as harmless as any cause that ever brought two or three people together. But those who have followed through the implications of this aim know that it is packed with enough dynamite to shatter the existing educational system, and to bring about a revolution in the whole structure of our Society.(10)