Hello to Mr Silicon Chips - Can technology prevent pupils from ever producing real art?

by Martin Robinson, 18 October 2017

Martin Robinson asks whether the rise of ed tech is having a particular effect on the quality of education preparing our next generation of artists, who he fears are being prepared for an ‘inauthentic future.’

"Everyone can have the very best teacher…" so said Sir Anthony Seldon talking about the potential impact of technology and the ‘teaching machine’. We are waving goodbye to Mr. Chips and saying hello to Mr Silicon-Chips. Seldon added that these machines would be: ‘extraordinarily inspirational’. I'm not sure that a robot teacher can truly inspire a human being... I think being in a class taught by Mr Silicon-Chips would be rather dispiriting, a bit like being at the automatic checkout at Tesco for hours on end. It would be the ‘inauthenticity’ of the relationship that would wear a pupil down, imagine a machine teaching a child to sing, how would an inauthentic breath inspire?

In his piece ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ Walter Benjamin suggested that technology has made art lose “its… authenticity.” Instead of being for contemplation, he suggested that artworks in our age have become mere distractions due to their ubiquity and even the original ‘authentic’ pieces of work have lost their original aura.

Authenticity is an important concept for art. In order to become an artist I need to engage in the messy business of making. I can mime to a backing track, but that wouldn't make me a singer. The outcome is not all. If my singing teacher would, instead of helping me sing in tune say: ‘Don’t worry we have some autotune software which can sort it out,’ I would not be learning how to sing. Art is human expression, the more it loses its connection with us, the less ‘authentic’ it is. Teaching the arts is about human expression.

We have already begun to lose an authentic engagement with learning by our uncritical use of technology ‘as a good thing in itself’ in the classroom. This is most obviously a problem when technology is used in the name of ‘creativity’.

Heidegger wrote that: “the will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control.” With advertorials proclaiming ‘25 Of The Best Apps To Promote Creativity In Students’, the act of creation is seen as a transferable skill rather than an in-depth engagement with a disciplined art form and the apps that do more and more of the ‘creative’ work for the pupil, might create work that looks or sounds immediately impressive but the creativity going on is done more by the machine than the man.

Heidegger suggests: “…we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological… we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral.” Great artists need to practice their craft, they need to do an apprenticeship, by getting to know their art with rudimentary tools. Technology is not neutral, we should introduce it into our classrooms with care.

If a child’s first use of tools is an iPad and some drawing software, think how different her experience might become. Even if the child were to make better art because of the technology, it would be lesser art because of the reduction in the amount of human creative input. David Hockney’s superb iPad art is a result of him having done an apprenticeship over years in drawing and painting, if he had been handed an iPad as a youngster he would not have learned his art in the same, great, way. According to Hockney: “Even though some of the tools may be too advanced for the novice or amateur, they are still extraordinary and well worth exploring.” If the tool is too advanced for the novice to understand the underlying principles then her future art will be compromised. By all means play with the software, but a true artist needs to learn and that learning needs to be authentic, involving the pupil in a direct relationship with her materials.

Arts teachers should not throw their lot uncritically into league with the technology that has slipped, imperceptibly, beyond human control. We should not introduce digital art techniques too early, they are not neutral. Ask: ‘How much am I developing the child as an authentic artist or how much am I destroying her creativity by making her a mere passenger of the machine?’ Teach a child carefully to appreciate the complexities involved in the making of great art. And, preferably, have them inspired by having a great artist as their teacher rather than a mechanical robot intent on replacing art with paint by numbers or its equivalent, let us say goodbye to Mr Silicon-Chips and the technology that is preparing us for an inauthentic future.

Martin Robinson
Educationalist and author

A teacher with 20 years experience of working in State schools in London, Martin was an Advanced Skills Teacher, Head of Department, Head of Faculty and an Assistant Head Teacher. Martin is interested in developing teaching and learning by building on the tradition of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. You can read more from Martin on his website and he is active in the Twittersphere @Trivium21c

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