Disruptive collage … and why schools need to be more honest about this radical art

I think I expected something different when I agreed to go to ‘400 years of collage’, an exhibition at the Scottish Modern Art Gallery Two … in fact, embarrassing though it is to admit, I know I had a vague expectation of some pretty pastels and cut up magazines. On reflection, this was not unsurprising, given that this has largely been my (clearly very peripheral) experience so far of collage as taught in schools. There was nothing pretty or pastelly about this exhibition, however; this exhibition was all about disruption – of art, of reality and society. And it really made me wonder how I had never worked this out before.

Containing examples of the earliest collages known, this is an exhibition peppered with a number of Picassos and an Andy Warhol, together with the iconic 1980 anti-war collage by Peter Kennard that merged cruise missiles into Constable’s Hayswain. Collage, we were reminded throughout the rooms displaying the work, is by its nature a disruptive art – which is obvious, if you think about it – and so it makes perfect sense that it should be adopted by artists who sought to challenge the status quo.

The questions that it prompted in me, however, were … how many school students who have done a topic involving collage actually understand the disruptive nature of the art? And does it matter? Given the energetic responses of the young person with whom I visited the exhibitions, I would venture to say that it does, because it suddenly gave a deeper meaning to the art, and answered for her the question of why this is important, with the answer not simply being ‘because the teacher says we should’.

Tasks in school should never be because ‘the teacher says we should’ – time spent in school is, quite simply, too precious for this. If schools and teachers are uncomfortable about the historical role of collage, then that is another question … but if we choose to teach it, at least let us put it in context.

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