Paul Klee: vision, craft and art

firefullmoon_KleeToday we went to see the Tate Modern’s exhibition of Paul Klee. It closes on 9 March. If you haven’t seen it, and you enjoy art, I would urge you to go soon. I was surprised how much it moved me. It made me reflect on what art should be.

Paul Klee was born in 1879 in Switzerland, but took German citizenship from his father. His career took off when he joined the Bauhaus group in 1920. He was condemned by the Nazis as a degenerate in 1933, refused to cooperate with the Nazi government, and retreated to Switzerland. He died there in 1940 of an incurable wasting disease.

The exhibition starts in 1912 and works through Klee’s life chronologically. I am not an artist; I have no artistic training; symbolism usually passes me by. My enjoyment of art is entirely intuitive.The first few rooms didn’t get through to me at all, except some quotations from the artist in the commentary – which bespoke wonderful insight. Then, as it reached his Bauhaus period, it all came alive. From then on, I was entranced. It was at the Bauhaus that Klee started to teach. Perhaps the act of teaching brought clarity to his work. I certainly found the simpler colour compositions more striking (or at least, those with fewer colours!).

There is an astonishing variety to Klee’s work. It is all painting and drawing; the pictures are quite small; it has a hand crafted appearance. Apart from that, his range was huge. Flicking through the exhibition’s catalogue, I found the reproductions very disappointing. Perhaps his use of colour is so subtle than even modern reproduction technology can’t convey it properly. The right contrasts don’t come through. And he is very textural – which does not come over on a flat reproduction. That’s why it has to be seen in a gallery. Some of my favourites are from private collections – yet another reason I’m very glad I made it.

One thing struck me, beyond the beauty and power of the images: the trouble Klee took with the craft itself. He was forever developing new techniques, and he was able to produce a delightful variety of effects. In this era, the artist was seen as a craftsman. That has always been so historically, of course, but I fear we have lost this insight in the post-modern era. Modern artists seem to think that vision and creativity are the thing – and technique secondary, and even a distraction. I hope I’m wrong. My opinion is perhaps unduly influenced by a television series a few years ago, which was a sort of Masterchef for artists. A group of young artists were given a series of challenges, with the overall aim of attracting the interest of the collector Charles Saatchi. One of the early challenges was to draw a model from life. The young artists couldn’t see the point of this, and their results were awful. And they were right: it was most piss-taking of the contestants who won – because she had a creative idea which she was able to realise in a gallery with the use of no technique at all (it was part of a tree impaled on some railings). Have a bright idea; get noticed; you’re made. The rest is a distraction; that seems to be the attitude.

What a contrast with the great artists, including modern ones like Paul Klee! Of course none of Klee’s mastery of technique would have meant anything if he had not also had creativity and vision. But you have to be very lucky to be able to realise your insight without a mastery and love of technique and hard work. Or perhaps more strongly, surely all that hard work to render your vision in a work of art develops and deepens the insight. Klee exemplifies that idea.

Scotland: the problem is English complacency

The temperature is steadily rising in the debate over Scottish independence on 18 September this year. Today the three main Westminster parties will say no to a currency union between an independent Scotland and rump Britain. Last week the UK Prime Minister David Cameron made an emotional appeal for the union. But still not enough searching questions are being asked by the English on what this all means for them.

At least Mr Cameron’s remarks were directed towards the English, though the British media ignored this and only sought reaction from Scottish politicians and voters. He urged the English to support the union and tell their Scottish contacts that they did not want them to go. Unlike Mr Cameron, I have no Scottish family heritage. But I love Scotland and, like him, feel that if it went its own way an important part of my national identity would be diminished. But if such sentiments are to cut any ice north of the border, we English have to ask some searching questions as to how it has come to all this.

The problem is that Mr Cameron’s (and my) feelings don’t seem to be shared by many of our fellow English. Many seem to have a rather sour attitude towards the Scots, who should be less hostile and more grateful. This is all of a piece with hostility towards the European Union. Many English want to blame foreigners for their problems, and to inhabit a world where the English can ignore them except to the extent that they provide beach holidays (not something that Scotland scores on…). This reveals a paradox at the heart of the English identity. We see ourselves as an island nation, who should be control of our own destiny. And yet any greatness that the nation has aspired to has been achieved by the country playing a full part in the wider world.

We might ponder this as we approach the centenary of the 1914-18 war. There was a definite view in 1914 that we should just let the “Continentals” fight it out amongst themselves. And yet most people understood that German domination of Europe would imply German domination of Britain too. And so this country played a full part in a European continental war for the first time since the days of Marlborough 300 years ago (if you discount the largely naval and economic contribution o the Napoleonic wars), with results that can be seen in war memorials in practically every village in the country.

What has this got to do with the Scots? The Scots have always shown a better understanding of their place in the wider world – a sensitivity that comes from being a smaller nation, no doubt. They have contributed to the British nation as a whole, and still do. Can a lesser Britain, without Scotland, aspire to be treated as equals with France and Germany? Or will we take our place with the next tier, Spain and Poland? Or just be lame duck major power like Italy? It would not just be a loss of resources that would diminish the country, but a loss of prestige.

And yet Scotland is a very different place to England, with a separate identity that far outweighs that of any region of England, and which is more coherent than that of other parts of the Union: Wales and Northern Ireland. (Even if some Scots nationalists exaggerate these differences and their own coherence). The English nevertheless have a tendency to treat the place as a simple extension of England. This was at its most egregious under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and 1990s, when she used Scotland to pilot her pet Poll Tax idea. This problem persists, as we see from the imposition of the Coalition government’s benefit reforms (aka benefit cuts), to which Scots feel they have not consented.

Devolution has not a stable answer to this tension, though it has helped. The problem is that it is not symmetrical. There is no equivalent devolution of power to England, which is run directly by the UK government. Scottish (and Welsh) politicians aspire to run parts of the English government, like health and education, and they are thus drawn into English domestic politics rather than their own. This simply feeds English confusion and resentment as well as diminishing Scottish and Welsh domestic politics.

A new constitutional settlement is needed for the United Kingdom. I have already described what I think this should be (Time to Think of England: an English government and parliament meeting somewhere other than London). It is depressing that such ideas are not getting an airing. The biggest threat to our union is English complacency and conservatism.


The remarkable politcal success of Michael Gove

Shortly before the British General Election in 2010 a headteacher at a local school told me: “Well, however is the new Education Secretary cannot be worse then Ed Balls.” Mr Balls, now Shadow Chancellor, was then Labour’s Education Secretary. He had built up a reputation for political posturing and bullying, while presiding over new Labour’s muddled education policies. I have not asked that headteacher how she thinks the new education Secretary, Michael Gove, compares to Mr Balls. I don’t have to; her prediction was spectacularly wrong. Mr Gove is even more loathed by education professionals than was Mr Balls. But Mr Gove, unlike Mr Balls, counts as a political success.

Mr Gove has been in the news recently. Yesterday he gave a speech spelling out his vision for state schools; over the weekend there was a fuss over his failure to reappoint the Chair of Ofsted, the schools’ inspectorate. His spin doctors have been pushing out a story of his reforming zeal against an educational establishment referred to as “the Blob” after a 1950s sci-fi movie. This has received a lot favourable coverage in the right-wing press. More neutral observers, such as the FT as well as the BBC, seem content to faithfully report Mr Gove’s spin while not openly taking sides.

All this is in stark contrast to the government’s attempts to reform the NHS, led by former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. The government side of this argument hardly got a look in, as the picture of chaotic reforms took hold. This negative coverage stiffened opposition to the reforms, muddling them further, so that they have ended up being the biggest blot on the Coalition government’s record – though some good may yet come out of them. There has been little public support for opponents to Mr Gove’s education reforms, however. Mr Gove, an ex-journalist, is clearly a better communicator than Mr Lansley, an ex-doctor. The education system is also much simpler than the health service. But the political skills of Mr Gove’s “Blob” are totally lacking, unlike those of the doctors and nurses opposing Mr Lansley. The teaching unions have long been a bit of a comedy act, resisting basic workforce reforms, like performance appraisal, that non-teaching professionals have long since got themselves used to. Other educational professionals rarely raise themselves beyond the minutiae to give politicians and the public a clear vision of what they are trying to achieve.

Are and were British schools in a mess? Yes and no. International comparisons show a mixture of good and bad news. Overall performance is unspectacular but not awful. We have a long “tail” of under-achieving pupils that schools give up on too quickly. There is a lot of mediocrity, especially amongst rural schools, who “coast” by getting average performance from pupils capable of much more. But over the last two decades, the Blob has pulled off one of the most spectacular episodes in school improvement in the world: the transformation of London schools. This has given the lie to the standard line of the Left that the educational prospects of poor pupils will only be transformed once other social problems, like jobs and housing, have been fixed. The Borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the country’s poorest, regularly outperforms much wealthier districts outside London.

The transformation of London’s schools remains one of the last Labour government’s greatest achievements. But politically, it is problematic. It owes nothing to the various policies pushed by politicians and think tanks, such as creating semi-independent Academies. It was largely down to good old fashioned management: officials at national and council level holding school managements to account, and replacing heads of mediocre schools. As a result politicians are strangely reluctant to take the credit.

What of Mr Gove’s reforms? They are a mix of good, bad and ugly. On the good side, Ofsted’s remit has been sharpened up a lot. Previously it had expanded into such areas as “community cohesion”, which are highly sensitive to context, and inspectors did not show any great aptitude. Now they focus much more sharply on the quality of teaching. This gets to the core of what drives school performance. Some older teachers hate this – but it really isn’t any different to the pressures that accountants and lawyers find themselves under. Younger teachers seem accept the much greater level of accountability that is expected – and respond well to it. (My evidence on this is rather anecdotal though – based on my experience as a school governor in a London primary school).

Another good thing, though largely unremarked, is that Mr Gove’s Academy programme is putting private schools under real pressure. Many private schools outside the South East are now signing up to be state schools, run as academies. My local Free School is recruiting many middle class youngsters that would formerly have gone private. No doubt some on the left see this as a sinister subsidy to the middle classes – but a much higher level of social mixing occurs at these new state schools than would have occurred at private schools. And social mixing at schools helps the poorer children achieve more. It is worth noting that this policy works as well as it does thanks to two measures insisted on by the Liberal Democrats: a “pupil premium” giving extra funding for poorer pupils, and insisting on non-academic selection. Many Conservatives want to recreate academically selective Grammar Schools. These may once have been engines of social mobility, but now academic selection is simply used as a way of weeding out pupils from poorer backgrounds and reducing mixing.

The bad: there is a lot of wasted energy on changing things that don’t need changing. That particularly applies to changes to the curriculum. Mr Gove and his supporters seem to have an old-fashioned view on what should be taught in schools, to reflect a 1960s private education. Now it is true that the Blob has developed a lot of woolly curriculum ideas that don’t seem to be of lasting educational benefit (especially in “applied” qualifications), but they were gradually sorting out this mess by themselves. Mr Gove seems to have little idea as to what modern universities and employers actually want the product of a secondary education to be. A lot of the drive to turn state schools into academies seems a bit pointless, and will probably create problems of accountability in later years. It has a sinister aspect too: the Academy chains who are the main beneficiaries are politically well connected – and it is their political connections that seem to be critical in their success.

The ugly. We are getting more religiously founded state schools. Given religiously founded schools’ role in cementing toxic community relations between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and Scotland, I am very nervous about this. But it could be that making these newer schools conform to modern educational norms, and forcing them to engage with a wider civil society, will bring benefits. But I really would prefer it if our children went to schools attended by children of many faiths and none. But the alienation of some religious communities is such that they would not engage in such arrangements, and for them a state religious school is a second-best.

My verdict on Mr Gove is that he is not quite as evil as he cracked up to be. But he is wasting a lot of time and energy. What should be absorbing energy is teaching standards, establishing a broad curriculum appropriate to modern life, and establishing better systems of accountability which don’t tempt schools to game the system by neglecting “hopeless” cases. Fix these and Britain’s state schools would be world class. But alas, we are distracted by political gimmickry.