The Village Pump Soapbox

Ron Watts

Isn’t it nice for a change to have a government minister say something with which you agree. What was it that Kim Howells said of the Turner Prize offerings? “….British art is lost…..(it is) cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit………particularly pathetic and symptomatic of a lack of conviction.” Hooray! Well said Kim. (You can tell he’s the Minister for Culture)

What was it that inspired him to such language? Something called ‘Arse woman in wonderland’, a word description of a pornographic film written on a wall in red, a black block about 8ft tall entitled ‘The Thinker’ and a ceiling of different coloured perspex squares, lit from behind.

Personally I am tired of being presented with such ‘works of art’. We have had, among other things, a pile of bricks, a flashing light, an inside-out house, and Tracy Emnin’s unmade bed, and we have been told that it is art. Not just any old art, but prizewinning art.

Of course you are told that “This is art and if you reject it you are a Philistine” but the truth is it is work that anyone could do, it exists only to draw attention and that is not art.

(I believe that ‘My Bed’ was actually purchased by Saatchi for £150,000. Surely the world has gone mad. Personally I liked the graffiti that was sprayed on the inside-out house, it simply said “Wot for?”)

And why would Marc Quinn want to make a sculpture of his own head in his own blood? It was reported that it took 9 pints of his blood, which he extracted over a period of 5 months. Of course it had to be kept frozen at all times. This too, I understand, was bought by Saatchi and subsequently was ruined when the freezer was turned off accidentally.

Not that I mind too much being called a Philistine. I have never been able to understand the value placed on some pieces of art, especially a painting. If it is for its beauty or the way in which it moves you or stimulates your thoughts, why is a print of the same painting not equally as good? Truth is it has nothing whatsoever to do with its artistic appeal it is just the fact that it is unique and irreplaceable that gives it its value.

In recent years GCSE’s and A levels have produced an amazing amount of controversy, but this year it was a complete fiasco with the squabbles about actual grades awarded. Each year there has been accusations of lowering standards and we now seem to have reached a stage where the standard required for passes at given grades may have fallen. Certainly the number of students achieving good grades has increased, with the proportion achieving A grades in particular becoming so great that it is no longer a satisfactory means of selection for the better universities.

In my view the recent fuss by some students and their schools through insisting that their grades were not what they expected was rather a storm in a teacup. In the event the resultant regrading was for a very small proportion of the total. I suspect that a regrading attempt in any one year would produce a few changes, however undesirable that may be. The marking of examinations and assessments is not an exact science, especially when it is subjective marking. The fuss that was made this year and the media hype was out of proportion to the problem and did much harm to the A level system.

It would be far better, I believe, if the proportion of students obtaining each grade should remain roughly constant from year to year, with the examiners seeking natural breaks in the marks at the grade boundaries if possible. This is similar to the method used in the universities for determining levels of honours. If it proves difficult to separate out the more able students then one can only conclude that the assessment method is at fault. If the proportions obtaining the different grades was kept fairly constant then it would mean that the grade A’s were the very best of their year and a grade A would have more significance for the university admissions tutors. Far better than the present situation where the proportion obtaining A grades seems to increase year on year. Of course there might be some disparity between A grades from one year to another, but there almost certainly is at present as there always was.

Another aspect of the A level scene that disturbs and disappoints me is the falling numbers of students taking mathematics and science subjects. Mathematics is fundamental to so many fields of human endeavour, especially, but by no means exclusively, science and engineering. Without doubt the prosperity and standard of living enjoyed by those in the western world owes much to the scientific and engineering developments over the last 200 years, and the last 100 years in particular. A very high proportion of the inventions, discoveries and developments that have made so much difference in the world originated in the UK (a Japanese survey put the figure at 50%), although, sadly we failed to properly exploit many of them, leaving that to other nations. Unfortunately we no longer appear to be keeping up.

In France, Germany, Japan and the US scientists and engineers are held in higher esteem than in the UK, their industries and their governments see their value and provide better rewards and more support for research. The result is that more of their able students elect to study the relevant subjects whereas many of our students from A level onwards are opting for subjects that they see as soft options such as media studies, history or politics.

Art and A-Levels take a beating

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