Why Arts & Culture? A very old question

William le Cordeur considers the age old questions of why we do arts and culture in school and comes up with some suprising answers.


The caves and rocky ledges of the Southern Drakensberg are decorated with elaborately painted images dating back tens of thousands of years. Little is known about their meaning, or why they were painted in the first place, but there is a strong belief that a lot of the paintings began with performance and storytelling. Shamans used sophisticated paints to capture their stories and when the promethean firelight illuminated the cave the images would flicker into life. Spirits, animals, ancestors, and legends appearing through the cracks in the wall. Animated by the flames, dancing and singing from the world of story.

10 Incredible Ancient Cave Paintings
While this may look like your child’s nursary school art stuck on your fridge, it is actually cave paintings from the Cueva de las Manos, in Argentina and is around 10,000 years old.

There is a sense of awe that one feels wandering upon one of these sites, the view is often sublime, the paintings ancient, the rocks even older. One does not only experience a sense of self-transcendence, but also a sense of transcending time, a connection to humans who created art thousands of years ago so that we could create art thousands of years from now – a phenomenon known as cultural perpetuity.

The Republic v The Poetics

Often, when high school teachers of music, art, or drama (of which I am one), are asked, “Why study arts and culture?”, we ramble off a list of pragmatic endpoints. Your son will be a better entrepreneur, be able to solve tasks or think of creative solutions quickly. Your daughter will learn how to work in a team and think out of the box. Although these are actual benefits, they fall into the trap of justifying the arts by way of their contribution to the capitalist marketplace. To use only this frame of reference is to limit the capacity of art. Instead to harness the full primeval power of the arts requires a different paradigm. A full immersion. And as in most good art, it will involve more questions than answers.

Questions around the value of arts aren’t new. About 2,500 years ago, Plato questioned the role of arts and culture in “The Republic,” and his views were scathing, believing that imitation (all art) was morally flawed. His student, Aristotle, writing in “The Poetics”, believed the contrary, arguing that imitation was essential for our ability to make sense of the world, and a vital ingredient of the human character. I’m with Aristotle.

The right questions

This debate has also played out in the theatre of schools and education and comes to a head in the nitty gritty reality of timetables and budgets. Well over 100 years ago the founding headmaster of the school where I work was fired for purchasing a piano. Today have five grand pianos and twelve upright pianos. Not to mention marimbas and a new set of timpani. In fact, we have a full orchestra. If arts education was only a question of resources, the debate would be over. However cultural education is as much about our attitude as it is about resources. Like our ancestors our attitude should be open, curious, and awed. In that way we can ask the right questions.

It’s possible we need to start at the beginning and ask, what is Arts and Culture? If culture is our collective thoughts, language, beliefs, customs, achievements, and possibilities then art is slightly more subjective in definition.  Perhaps art is the expression of culture, usually through the artists perception of beauty or emotion? They are both complicated, fluctuating concepts.

Ultimately art and culture describe who we are as people and help us to understand the world we live in. This is done by reimagining our reality, often through symbols and metaphors that have ancient origins, showing us all the time that nothing is new under the sun and that, at the same time, everything is always changing. Arts and Culture is very much a changing entity.

Cultural perpetuity

The questions that arise when we enquire about arts and culture in our schools should come from a place of curiosity as to what it is to be human. Mindful of our context, our history, and the possibilities of our future. We should immerse ourselves in literature, art, music, and performance, realising that these practices have existed beyond our concept of time, way beyond our own cultures, and even further outside the framework of what practical value they bestow on our children after school.

Involvement in the arts, whether as actors or audience, is a spiritual and physical connection to our cave dwelling ancestors and to our children’s children in the unforeseen future. As participants in the arts, whichever side of the curtain we sit, we should continue to question. In our quest to produce future guardians of our world, all of our questions should be informed by the overarching question, ‘How are we shaping better humans?’

William le Cordeur has a Master of Arts in Drama and Performance Studies and has been the Programme Manager of Nanzikambe Arts. He is currenlty the Director of Theatre at an independent high school.


Want to read more about arts and culture in schools? Click on the links below.

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