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Painting is a language outside words

I’ve been thinking about decolonising the curriculum for a while. Our education system is still dominated and assessed by the written word.

Back in the 1990s, art colleges were consumed by universities – their new academic boards demanded word-based research outcomes. This was at odds with practice-based, hands-on art degrees taught in studios.

We’ve been living under this for too long

Our academic system puts many students at a disadvantage, especially creatives like artists, designers, illustrators, animators, film makers, and photographers. Many of these talented and highly intelligent people have been limping through their education, sometimes labelled with ADHD, dyslexia, or autism. Their confidence can get crushed. Many who make it to art school need time to heal and grow in confidence. They have so much to contribute to society.


I’ve been reading George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, OUP, 1975. This is a controversial study of translation. Steiner proposes that all communication is a form of translation, and that deception is the cause of our many different languages around the world. He proposes that all languages come out of the human instinct to protect and that our multi-lingual world is based on a desire for privacy and territory. Therefore, any text will be tainted by the translators’ individual cultural beliefs, knowledge, and attitudes.

As an artist, I have always felt outside of this Babel. The language of a painter, like that of a musical composer, should stand outside of any verbal and written language. Simply put, art and music are languages that any human being around the world can access if possible. This is because art and music are separate from the confusion and division created by word-based languages. A painting can be just materials, dirt, and texture on surface, wherever you are in the world. We can empathise with the paintings of other cultures (and them with us) because there are no words getting in the way.

We need to move away from this word-dominated culture if we want to be inclusive and more creative. Anyone should feel free to make and express themselves through languages that surpass words. This was amplified beautifully by the exhibition Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters about an unbroken painting tradition of thousands of years.

When a student makes a painting, why should they then have to translate what they’ve done back into the written word? This visual language is already a hugely complex process, and then they’re expected to write about it! Why? This human expression of drawing, painting and printmaking should be celebrated as an outcome in its own right.

Are things changing fast enough?

Academics embrace equality, inclusivity and diversity and we talk about decolonising the curriculum. In 2018, I went to a conference in Bristol about this. I felt excited for change. However, when art and design is a lonely department amongst many word-based degrees, the chances of change are minimal because many academic and research careers are invested in this system.

We need to explore and find new, innovative ways to assess and liberate creative talent. When students learn to present, debate, and articulate verbally, they’re developing relevant transferable skills for the future. We just need to find a balance without compromising on standards.

Our progress

I teach at Arts University Plymouth – a university run by artists for artists. We teach only art and design, so we really understand. We’re small enough to do something about this and we are doing something, because we believe that the world needs creatives now more than ever.