Awakening the “Sleeping
The arts in the lives of Australian
Margaret S. Barrett
University of Tasmania
In 2001 a nation wide study (Costantoura, 2001) raised a number of questions in
relation to the arts and Australian families. This study used group interviews and
surveys to question people aged between 18 and 60 about their participation in the
arts. Results from this study suggested that the arts add ‘an important dimension’ to
family life; however, the ways this occurs and the nature of family participation in the
arts were not made clear. Significantly, this study did not include the perceptions of
young people under the age of 18. Here we report on one aspect of a complementary
research project that sought to provide more information concerning the ways in
which Australian families participate in the arts and to identify the meaning, purpose,
and value of the arts for children (ages five to fifteen) in Australian school and
community settings. Specifically, we focus on the ways in which children describe
their engagement with the arts in family settings using the voices of young people as
the primary source of data.
There is increasing recognition amongst policy makers and
political scientists that the arts contribute significantly to
the health, wealth, tolerance and civic governance of society
through the generation of social capital (Bolton, in Rogers,
1997, 64; Putnum, 2000). Social capital outcomes are achieved
through the arts in such areas as education, criminal reform,
therapy, youth at risk, community healing, and job training.
Researchers in the field of subjective well-being (Happiness)
assert that the arts are crucial in the maintenance of mental
health and well-being (Argyle, 1996; Csikszentmihalyi, 1992) with
subsequent implications for the ways in which individuals operate
in, and contribute to, society.
Despite this emphasis on the positive benefits of the arts to
individual and community well-being, there has been little
understanding of the ways in which Australians engage with and
value the arts. In an effort to redress this situation the
Australia Council commissioned a report Australians and the
Arts (Costantoura, 2001) seeking the views of adult
Australians (fifteen years and older) concerning three key
- how do Australians view the arts now?;
- how could they be influenced to have a more positive view of
the arts in the future?; and
- what actions would the arts sector need to take to bring about
any positive change?
The view of the arts that emerged from this study is a
disturbing one. Key findings of the report suggest that whilst
the arts are recognized as of social value ‘the benefits
are not enjoyed or recognized equally by all Australians’
(Costantoura, 2000, 18) with a substantial proportion of the
population described as a “sleeping giant” in
relation to the arts (Costantoura, 2000, 20). This situation is
attributed to a range of factors including the view that
…some members of the public hold out-of-date perceptions
of what constitute ‘the arts’ and what the arts can
mean to them personally and nationally. On the other hand, some
people in the arts sector apparently hold out-of-date perceptions
of who constitutes the Australian public, what motivates them and
how to deal with them (Costantoura, 2001, vii).
Whilst this disjunction between perceptions may be attributed
to a range of factors, a key aspect of the problem rests in the
ways in which individuals and organizations define the arts. As
Costantoura found (2001, 96), whilst ‘…the more
traditional arts are firmly a part of the current
definition’ (opera, ballet, art galleries, theatre and
orchestras) many respondents in the study did not view activities
such as reading or watching movies as participation in the arts.
In defining and explaining the arts the study found that four
main categories of answers emerged:
- A broad range of activities including any
- A simple, narrow definition focusing on the
- The higher arts including those receiving government
- The visual arts, primarily painting (Costantoura, 2001,
Costantoura suggests that Australians view the arts in two
broad categories, ‘Big A’ versus ‘little
a’ arts. In the former category are contained those
‘traditional arts’ normally practiced as part of the
Western Classical tradition (opera, ballet, symphony orchestras)
whilst the latter includes practices such as ‘popular rock
or jazz music’ or ‘painting and play-acting done by
small children’ (2001, 99). A recommendation emerging from
the report is the encouragement of Australians to view the arts
more broadly, to recognize the ‘little a’ arts as a
component of arts activity.
In relation to families Costantoura asserts that
‘Parents participating in this study were, on average, less
likely than non-parents to feel the arts have a high value’
(Costantoura,, 2001, 147). He attributes this to the existence of
‘two different mindsets’ in relation to
parents’ views of the arts, specifically that
‘…some people’s enjoyment of the arts is
diminished by the practical, logistical issues that go with
having children, others see that the arts add a dimension to
their lives which enables them to enjoy their relationships with
their families even more’ (Costantoura, 2001, 148). In
further discussion Costantoura suggests that:
A supportive family that encourages children to be involved in
the arts and finds ways to help them do this outside of school is
more likely to have a positive effect on the attitude that a
person has towards the arts than whether they enjoyed the way the
arts were taught at school (2001, 129).
The study report raises a number of questions in relation to
the arts and Australian families. Whilst it is suggested that the
arts add ‘an important dimension’ to family life, the
ways this occurs and the nature of family participation in the
arts is unclear. Respondents in the study identify
‘Supporting family and friends’ as an indication of
arts participation, however, the data suggest that such support
is largely in relation to audience participation:
Of the 45% of people who supported their family and friends in
some way in the past two weeks, the most common type of
involvement appears to relate to literature and drama, with 14%
of people specifically referring to this…about one in ten
supported someone in a musical pursuit (12%) and roughly the same
proportion gave support in the visual arts (10%). Craft, dancing
and other types of involvement were reported by only 4% or fewer
people (Costantoura, 2001, 122).
In order to understand how the arts can add ‘an
important dimension’ to the lives of Australian families,
more information is needed concerning the ways in which
Australian families participate in the arts. This paper reports
on one aspect of a complementary research project that seeks to
identify the meaning, purpose, and value of the arts for children
(ages five to fifteen) in Australian school and community
settings, and explores children’s descriptions of their
engagement with the arts in school and community settings (Note 1). Specifically, this paper
focuses on the ways in which children describe their engagement
with the arts in family settings.
The commissioned study Australians and the Arts
(Costantoura, 2001) involved the following research strategies:
discussion groups conducted in three states (NSW, Queensland and
Victoria); two national telephone surveys each administered to
1200 individuals (a preliminary survey and an extended 30 minute
questionnaire); and consultations with community members and
those working in the arts sector throughout the country. The
decision to limit the study to those aged fifteen and over was
based on the view that ‘…some of the questions being
addressed were considered too complex to expect reasonable
answers beneath this age…’ with the assumption that
‘…the analysis of younger people is, in part,
achieved by examining the attitudes among parents of young
children and teenagers’ (Costantoura, 2000, 371). This view
of the capacity of children to contribute meaningfully to
discussions of issues that impinge directly on their lives has
been challenged by studies that have sought to interrogate
children’s experiences and perspectives (Eder &
Corsaro, 1999). We suggest that the issue is less one of capacity
to deal with complex issues and more one of developing a
methodology that is sensitive to and values children’s
The omission of children’s voices from the commissioned
study holds a number of implications. First, children’s
views on the arts are ignored through the assumption that they
hold and mirror the views held by their parents. Increasingly
researchers recognize that children are ‘…a group
apart (largely from adults) with their own cultural lenses and so
deserving of attention in their own right’ (Matthews, Limb
& Taylor, 1998, 311). Second, developments in the sociology
of childhood highlight the ways in which children are not only
attendant to the cultural practices of others (adults) but also
active as cultural producers (Corsaro, 2000; James & Prout,
1997; James, Jenks & Prout, 1998). Third, the omission of
children’s voices discourages them from taking authority in
the ways in which they engage with the arts and use the arts in
meaningful ways in their lives. We are reminded that ‘A
society that avoids knowing about its children has already made
an ominous decision about is priorities’ (Graue &
Walsh, 1998, xviii).
Consequently the aims of the project reported in this paper
were both discipline-oriented and methodological. We sought not
only to explore the meaning, value, and purpose of the arts in
Australian children’s lives, including their descriptions
of participation, but also to develop research methods and
techniques sensitive to children’s ways of communicating
and constructing meaning.
The research approach was designed to explore children’s
perspectives and provide opportunities for the co-construction of
meaning. Special consideration was given to the most appropriate
and sensitive ways of generating data with this group of
participants and of acknowledging their expertise and unique
perspectives on the subject of inquiry, the arts. Our design
sought to build on children’s knowledge and experience, and
to value their engagement as co-researchers in exploring the
research questions. Through the lens of narrative inquiry we
sought to access children’s stories concerning their
engagement with the arts (Barone, 2001; Clandinin &Connelly,
In order to access children’s perspectives of the arts
in their lives the research is being conducted over two phases.
In phase one (2002) the research has focused on children in
school settings across Australia whilst phase two focuses on
children in community arts settings (2003). This dual focus not
only provides opportunity to explore children’s perceptions
of the arts in their lives, it also allows for an exploration of
children’s views of the arts in schools, and examines the
meaning and value of the arts in the lives of those children who
elect to participate in the arts beyond the school
In year one some 330 children aged between five and fifteen
years from across all states and territories in Australia (8)
have participated in the project. In year two approximately 240
aged between five and fifteen years from across all states and
territories in Australia (8) shall participate in the project.
The data presented in this paper is drawn from phase one of the
project. Participants in this phase were recruited through a
two-stage procedure. Each state and territory department of
education was asked to nominate four schools: two metropolitan,
one regional and one isolated, including two primary and two
secondary schools. The schools were subsequently approached and
asked to nominate two children from each year group (preparatory
– years 6/7; years 7/8 – year 10). We acknowledge
that this procedure may have resulted in system organizations
selecting the ‘best’ in relation to the arts.
Informal discussion with schools and teachers involved in the
project suggests that this was not uniformly the case. Schools
advised us that children were selected on the basis of their
capacity to contribute to discussion, not necessarily their level
of engagement with the arts.
Methods and Techniques
To accommodate the aims of the research project we developed
an iterative, multi-dimensional design that enabled us to work
closely with children in a collaborative co-construction of the
meaning, value and purpose of the arts in their lives.
Consequently data generation strategies included:
- small group open-ended ethnographic interviews (Fontana &
- photo generation techniques in which children were asked to
photograph the arts. This strategy involved children as
co-researchers as they recorded the ways the arts occurred in
- artefact elicitation techniques to facilitate individual
discussion with young children aged five to eight years;
- photo elicitation techniques to facilitate discussion in
paired interviews with children aged eight to fifteen years
In each school site the research was conducted over one day.
In primary schools, the day commenced with a small group
open-ended interview conducted with middle – upper primary
children (6 – 8 children) for approximately one hour. The
interview explored children’s definitions of the arts and
sought descriptions of arts experiences that were meaningful in
their lives in school, family and community contexts. Children
were encouraged to discuss the ways in which the arts contributed
to their lives, and to speculate on the ways in which they would
engage with the arts as they progressed through and beyond
schooling. At the conclusion of the interview children were
taught how to use a digital camera and then asked to work in
pairs in the school over the recess – lunch period to take
photographs of the arts in their school. Children were encouraged
to take a range of photographs but were instructed to
‘edit’ their findings to eight photographs that best
represented the arts.
During the recess-lunch period children from preparatory to
grade two/three classes participated in a small group open-ended
interview for approximately forty-five minutes. Over the course
of the interview children were engaged in discussion of the arts
in their lives and asked to draw a picture of themselves
‘doing’ the arts. These pictures became the focus of
individual discussions that explored the ways in which they
participated in the arts and the meaning and value of the arts in
In the final session of the school day children from the
middle-upper primary group returned in the research pairs to
participate in a thirty-minute pair interview. The eight
photographs were loaded onto a laptop computer and saved with a
title given by the children. Each photo then formed the basis for
a discussion that explored the reasons for taking the photo, what
it told about the arts, and the meaning of the photograph to the
children. This research procedure was employed in secondary
schools with the omission of the preparatory to grade two/three
All interviews were video-taped, transcribed, and
progressively analyzed. This analysis has involved two processes:
1. the identification of themes in children’s accounts of
their participation in arts experience and their attributions of
meaning and value in these experiences (thematic analysis); and
2. the re-presentation of children’s stories (narrative
analysis, Barone, 2001) to illuminate understanding of
children’s perceptions of the function and value of the
arts in their lives, and their beliefs concerning their future
engagement with the arts. The methodological approach has
generated rich data concerning children’s perceptions of
the arts in their lives as the emphasis on co-construction has
provided opportunity for the researchers and children to explore
issues at length and in depth.
In the following section of the paper we shall focus on the
presentation of children’s descriptions of their engagement
with the arts in family settings. The analysis process for this
paper has focused on the identification of themes arising from
the children’s narratives. These themes are specifically
related to issues of family and the arts.
Awakening the “Sleeping Giant”?
Children describe the arts in multiple ways and hold
‘open categories’ of definition for what constitutes
the arts (Note 2). Not only
do they perceive the arts in ‘Big A’ (opera,
classical music, ballet, drama) and ‘little a’
(popular music, films and television) categories, they also view
activities not normally associated with the arts as examples of
arts practice. For example, a common theme in many conversations
was the identification of “nature” as an art.
FIGURE 1 - Natural Art (upper primary pair)
FIGURE 2 – Cloud Art (upper primary pair)
Through discussion children also suggested that activities
such as sport, cooking, building, gardening, and home decoration
could be classified as the arts. In the following discussion with
an upper primary group the children describe the ways in which
nature and sport can be viewed as the arts:
Mitchell: Nature is there because we have kind of put it
there. We have planted it and stuff and it has grown up and we
can shape it.
Researcher: So it is something we have done. Okay, it is
something we like doing; it is constructive; it is something we
Hugh: I think that what Robert means as sport being
an art is because soccer – my example is soccer because I
play soccer – and it is sort of like the way we do it. You
have to think of different ways to create a barrier to stop the
other team coming through and you are creating something.
Researcher: So it is creative. You create something. It is
thinking; it is creating; it is making something together, or by
Robert: You have to be smart to play sport. It is not
– like say you have brilliant skills – you can run
past everyone in soccer – that is not playing soccer.
Soccer is using your head.
Researcher: Absolutely. So is the arts about being smart and
Robert: Abstract art – I don’t think you
have to think if it is abstract or if you had a pen and paper and
you scribbled – that is sort of abstract art.
Researcher: But is that art?
Hugh: You could create something out of scribble like
sometimes I like drawing a piece of scribble on paper and then
turning it into something like an animal or a tree.
Researcher: Okay, so just a scribble is not art but what you
turn it into is art – is that what you are saying?
Hugh: Yes, it is what you turn it into (upper
FIGURE 3 – Sport Art (Secondary pair)
FIGURE 4 – Slam-dunk (Upper primary pair)
The distinguishing feature of discussions such as the above is
a view of a common process across those activities defined as the
arts. Specifically, this involves processes of: reflective
thinking; problem-solving; skill development; applying a learnt
skill in new and unique ways; practicing; and hard work. With
this definition nearly anything that is “done”, done
well, and involves some sort of planning, can be the arts.
Children also emphasize the role of the arts as a means of
expressing and communicating thoughts and feelings. For
- ‘an expression of someone’s ideas and thoughts
– their perceptions’ (Simon)
- ‘art…It is a communication device’
- ‘art symbolizes your feelings’ (Katie)
- ‘…the way of being able to express yourself and
taking an idea and letting it stretch into something that may be
different …’ (Jessica)
The notion of the arts as a means to retreat or escape from
reality is also a feature of children’s definitions and
- ‘..it is a world that they have in their mind’
- ‘the arts are a way to escape the reality of the
world…the way to escape to a totally different world’
- I do that but not only does it give me a sense of achievement
but it also (gives) a sense of relief. If I feel like drawing it
is because I know that I need to draw. I need to get something
out of me. Something inside of me is telling me to do it. There
is some emotion there or feeling there (Michaela)
Others emphasize the ‘feeling’ of engagement with
- The arts are like…when you work really hard for
something and finally achieve it (Michael)
- ‘…nearly every morning my Dad and me and my
little brother we go surfing and that is all sort of flowing and
it feels like art’ (Alex)
- ‘When you are doing art it is like talking to someone
who won’t criticize and won’t say nasty things back
if you tell them. It is just like a thing that is there –
like a teddy bear that makes you feel really special and I like
all the arts because they just make me feel like there is
something in me that I can do and do it really well’
FIGURE 5 – Flowtion – the feeling of art
In many discussions children emphasize the all-pervasive
nature of the arts in the world, suggesting that the arts are
embedded in everything:
- ‘everything has a component of art in it…You
cannot build a building without art’ (Paula)
- ‘…everything you do, it is like the whole world
is a piece of art. There are patterns everywhere and everything
happens for a reason, and it is all part of art’
Overall, there is an emerging view in of the arts as integral
to children’s lives:
Karly: (the arts) It is very important.
Researcher: Is it important to you or is it important to
Karly: I think it is important to everyone. Like if I
get really sad about something and I moan about it and then I
make a joke about it and just start laughing over everything. I
try and get a good way out of it.
Marilen: It gives you a sense of being – being
able to express yourself. You can talk to yourself and it gives
you a sense of being. You are not just some ordinary person who
does regular things in the world today.
Karly: And all the feeling that you are going
through, such as anger and stuff you can act it out and then sit
really quietly and then go and do something normal (secondary
The arts in Australian families
For the children in this study the arts constitute an open
category of experience that plays an important role in their
lives. This is also evident in children’s descriptions of
the ways in which the arts are practiced in their families.
Children view a range of activities that do not fit traditional
categories of the arts as examples of arts practice in their
families. For example in the following conversations with
separate groups, hairdressing, interior design, brick-laying,
welding, carpentry, and sign-writing are put forward as examples
of arts practice in these children’s families:
Ashley: My mum had a really tricky decision when she
was in England because all my family, except for me, come from
England and she had to choose between becoming an interior
decorator or a hairdresser and my grandpa said she would make
more money being a hairdresser so she is a hairdresser and now
she really regrets it.
Researcher: Is it artistic being a hairdresser?
Ashley: Yes, like Jessica said before – the way
you have your hair done is art. People with really whacky hair is
art because of just the way they do it. My grandpa was a brick
Researcher: Is that art?
Ashley: Yes because you have got to have talent. Not
everyone can make a house.
Researcher: And I suppose it is the way you do it,
Ashley: Yes. He was also a cabinet maker and he is
making our cabinets for our new house in Wendara and I have got a
cousin, he is studying woodwork and I have got Michael, the
biggest cousin, he is in TAFE and he is studying welding and I
think that is an art because he made a plant stand and that was
really arty. It was all metal and swirls and stuff.
Researcher: But is it the welding that is art or is it what
you do with the welding?
Ashley: It is what you do with the welding.
Researcher: Would that be the same with hair and everything?
Do you think a cabinet-maker could make a cabinet that was not
Ashley: No. Well he could – he could just make a
plain old cabinet with a normal door or he could make a really
nice cabinet with a really nice finish and that would be art
(upper primary group)
Louie: …my Dad is making a door.
Researcher: Okay so he is making this door and is his door
different to other doors? Is it going to be special?
Louie: It is a door for our dog.
Researcher: Okay so it is a dog door. Is he being an artist
when he does that?
Louie: Yes, because he is decorating it (upper
Helen: My Dad is a crash repairer and he repairs cars
and he paints them and sometimes on the bonnets he just does
pictures and stuff and my Mum and Dad are pretty good drawers and
Mum sometimes does sign-writing.
Researcher: Now there is one we haven’t had.
Helen: And she just does like - for the kids clubs
sometimes, she organizes the crafts and that sort of stuff
The following excerpts highlight the ways in which
children’s perceptions of what and who is an artist do not
necessarily cohere with those of adults. Importantly, children do
not require the practice of the arts as a profession to determine
the identification of an individual as an artist:
Steven: In my family I have got five people - me, my
brother and sister and my Mum and Dad and my favorite arts is
visual arts because I like drawing and at home I do heaps of
pictures but some of them get chucked out. My uncle does little
cartoons and pictures and my great grandfather was an artist and
we have heaps of pictures around the house…My uncle does
really good cartoons in newspapers and always makes
things…and my mum doesn’t really do anything. She
doesn’t really do much art but sometimes my brother, Brad,
asks her to draw things because she is good at copying. She is
not good at art but she is really good at copying things.
Researcher: Is copying art?
Steven: Not really but sometimes she just copies ideas
from things and makes them grow bigger and draws them. She
doesn’t think she is artistic but she is (upper primary
Lillia: My sister, Shane, she is really into art
and crafts and we have craft days so we might go to Spotlight.
Like I bought a wooden frame and I painted it but we could paint
it or put gems on it for something different and Shane really
gets into that. My mum used to do a craft class and she is really
good at drawing so if she has a picture in front of her and you
give her a pencil and a sheet of paper she will look at it and
draw it and when you look at her drawing it is exactly the same
picture only in a larger form. I think that Shane might get her
love of drawing and craft from mum. And my best friend’s
mum, she bought wooden things and varnished them and she has a
talent for drawing flowers and painting them and they were really
Researcher: So she is an artist that you know? Would you call
her an artist?
Lillia: A floral artist and she is really good at
shading (upper primary group)
FIGURE 6 – Craft art (upper primary pair)
Katie: My mum doesn’t really do much. When she
was younger she liked doing singing and stuff and I think that is
where I got it from. My dad likes doing woodwork and he makes
lots of bowls and he wants to start selling them. My sister is
really good at visual arts and she has a way of doing it and it
looks good. She doesn’t think she is good but she is very
good. Art is what you make it – what you want it to be
Jessica: My mum does psychology and I think that is an
art because she has got to think what other people are thinking
and I think that this is an art form. She reads really thick
text-books and she has to know all about what is in these and she
has to pass all these tests and that and I think she is really
good. I think that is an art form because to be able to do
something like that and then be able to use it in a job so that
you can help other people – I think that is art because you
can use it and make use of it all the time. She uses it for her
job and she uses it in every day use. My brother is also a really
good artist. I find he is very good at his art. He might not draw
things as well as he can do other things – like he does his
colors really well – he makes up heaps of games and they
are really good ideas and while he doesn’t write them down
on a sheet of paper or draw them, he is still really good at the
ideas themselves (upper primary group)
Tammy: My Mum sells makeup and she does makeup on other
Researcher: So do you see that as being an artist when she
Tammy: Yes, I think so.
Petra: They are called makeup artists.
Researcher: They are too.
Petra: They change people’s faces.
Tristan: Can a surgeon be an artist - like a plastic
Researcher: A plastic surgeon.
Shaun: I think they could be (secondary group)
Many of the children’s descriptions of arts practice in
their families revolve around participation as a
‘maker’ in the arts rather than as an
Jessica: I listen to my CDs at home and my tapes and I
try singing with them as well and then sometimes I make up my own
songs and then at Christmas time I sometimes get my whole family
together and have a concert with all the songs I have been
Researcher: So do you play an instrument while you are doing
Jessica: Sometimes I play the piano.
Researcher: OK, right so you play the piano as well.
Jessica: I have just learned it from my brother’s
musical book. I don’t have lessons (upper primary
Researcher: Now we have someone whose Mum paints and we have
two Dads who play in bands or play guitar - any others? What
happens in your family, Ryan?
Ryan: I have a little triangle and my Mum has a big
Researcher: Your Mum plays guitar as well? Does she play by
herself or in a band?
Ryan: She plays by herself.
Researcher: Do you sing along with her?
Ryan: No, I play the triangle.
Researcher: Fantastic. So you play the triangle along with
her. Do you like doing that?
Ryan: And my sister has maracas and my brother has
got some little cymbals.
Researcher: So it sounds as though you make music of your own
with your Mum.
Ryan: Yes (early childhood group)
Petra: At home – well I am the oldest of five
children so I make up little things. Last year we had a music
phase and I made up all these dances for my little sisters and
brothers and then we invited the neighbors over and Grandma and
Grandpa and had this performance and stuff like that and Mum
plays the guitar and the bass guitar.
Shaun: And she is a good singer.
Petra: And my sister plays instruments and stuff and
I play the clarinet. We did four songs. The first one was like a
Bardot movement dance and the next one was an opera and the next
one was when we were all on instruments and the last one was a
Researcher: Great. And do you enjoy doing that sort of
Petra: Yes, we do little plays and ballets and we
have heaps of family photos (secondary group)
FIGURE 7 – Music (secondary pair)
Participation as an audience member is a feature of some
children’s descriptions of arts practice in their
Researcher: …Do you to go galleries?
Researcher: How often do you go to the gallery?
Sophie: I go there every Saturday afternoon.
Researcher: Do you, Sophie? What do you do in the
Sophie: I like it there. There are bright pictures that
other people have done.
Researcher: So do you go with anyone in your family?
Sophie: I go with my grandma.
Researcher: Your grandma sounds special. So you go and look
at all the paintings. Is it just you and your grandma?
Sophie: Sometimes my sister comes but usually it is
just me and my grandma.
Researcher: Your sister doesn’t like going as much as
you. So when you go to the gallery, do you have favourite
paintings that you go to look at?
Sophie: Not really because I like them all (early
However, the overwhelming emphasis in children’s
descriptions of the arts, whether in schools or families, is on
the practice of the arts. This is powerfully illustrated
in the following conversation in which children debate whether
viewing the arts (the specific example is watching videos) is an
example of participating in the arts:
Researcher: Tell us about the home movie theatre. What sort
of things happen there?
Troy: First we had to change our big garage and we
took everything out and then started putting the new door that is
like in the house because you used to have to go outside the
house and then into it so we had to block off the old door and
put a new door in our house and it’s got soundproofing
because our Dad has to have it as loud as he can and there is a
projector and surround sound and all that sort of stuff and it
took about four months to get it all done and new carpet for
Researcher: So it is like a little cinema?
Researcher: What sort of things do you show there? It sounds
Troy: We get DVDs from the internet. My Dad knows
all these Amazon people and everything so he orders DVDs from
there and most of them are from the US and England. Some of them
have come – we get them before they come out in cinemas
here and most of them are pretty good. Some – my Mum and my
Dad like better but they usually watch them Fridays, Saturdays,
Researcher: Fantastic! So hang on now – I want to go
back to something here because it is really interesting…we
have been talking a bit about the audience and we have all agreed
that it is an art to make a film. When you go and sit and watch
these films, are you doing the arts?
Troy: Not really.
Cassie: Just viewing the arts.
Researcher: What is the effect of viewing the arts? Why do
people view the arts?
Cassie: They get excited and they…
Reece: …and entertained
Jenna: It’s not a thing like “let’s
go and watch the arts”. You don’t really know if you
are watching the arts and that makes you part of the arts but it
has not really occurred to you that you are.
Researcher: OK, it makes you part of it but not really
– you are not really an artist?
Jenna: No because you are watching videos and
everyone watches videos (upper primary group)
The practice of the arts is not necessarily realized
through engagement in traditional arts practices. For example, in
the following excerpt a view of ‘arts practice’ as an
attitude (Note 3), a
‘way of seeing’ the world is put forward:
Ellen: My Mum makes web pages and she just grabs
little bits of real life and takes photos of them and she has a
camera where you can put it as a desktop and it is attached to
the computer and so she just takes pictures of the texture and
that…and my Step-Dad is a computer technician and my
brother is also a designer and my sister – she just
Researcher: Do you like doing that design stuff?
Researcher: How do you get your ideas when you want to design
Ellen: We just get our ideas from everyday life. Our
family doesn’t see a tree as just a tree but we see it for
the texture of what it is – like every leaf has a texture
and then Mum will take a photo and then she puts it through
Researcher: That is right, you were saying that. So are you
saying to me that your family – it is the way you see
things that makes you the artist, is it?
Researcher: So in other words I might see this as not the
arts but if you looked at it another way then it might be the
Researcher: So do you think that someone tries to be an
artist or do you think they – that is just how you see the
Ellen: Well my Mum decided to become a web-page
designer – it was her choice and the way she saw the world
Bree: Everybody can do arts – it is just the
way they think (upper primary group)
FIGURE 8 – Traditional art (upper primary pair)
Beyond the division of ‘Big A’ arts and ‘
little a’ arts, children participating in this study view
the arts broadly and include in their definitions a range of
activities that are not traditionally associated with arts
practice. For these children it is not ‘what’ you do
that defines the arts, it is the ‘way’ that you do
it, and the ways in which you ‘see the world’. As
Ellen puts it ‘We just get our ideas from everyday life.
Our family doesn’t see a tree as just a tree but we see it
for the texture of what it is’.
The arts sector in Australian is described as being plagued by
a range of problems including an aging consumer base, uncertain
future revenues and questions concerning the level of public
support for arts activities (Costantoura, 2001, 3). The goal and
remedy it is suggested is ‘ - to encourage more Australians
to see the arts as part of their daily lives and for them to
understand and enjoy the arts more’ (Costantoura, 2001, 3).
The findings emerging from our research project suggest that
Australian children do see the arts as part of their daily
lives, and that they understand and enjoy their participation in
these activities. The difference appears to lie in the ways in
which the arts are defined by (rather than for) these children,
and the nature of their participation in arts activities. We
suggest that the challenge for the arts community in awakening
the “sleeping giant” may rest in creating meaningful
links between children’s and family’s definitions and
practices in the arts, and those promoted by the arts community.
Rather than identifying ‘entry points’ to the arts
(Costantoura, 2001, 5) we suggest that the challenge is to create
‘connecting points’ between the arts practices of
Australians’ daily lives and those of the arts community.
In this way, the arts practices of Australian children and their
families may be seen to inform, and in turn, be informed by
‘Big A’ and ‘little a’ arts
I think the arts is a thing that you have to make in your own
world and do it in your own way. Art is a place you can go but I
suppose you can't go deeper unless you do what you haven't done
before. I tried bull riding and it is one of the best things I
have done in my life and rugby – that is great. I haven't
tried bungee jumping and I reckon if I tried that it would be
great. They also change people - almost like an artist
(Patrick, grade 7).
1. The project
Australian children and the arts: Meaning, value and
participation (2002 – 2003) is funded by the Australian
Research Council under the Linkages scheme in partnership with
the Australia Council for the Arts.
2. This use of
open categories of arts definitions may be linked to
Dickie’s (1974) institutional theory of art.
3. This may be
linked to Bullough’s notion of a
‘disinterested’ stance when engaged in aesthetic
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About the Authors
Dr. Margaret Barrett is Director of Research and Senior
Lecturer in Music Education in the Faculty of Education at the
University of Tasmania.
Dr. Heather Smigiel is Senior Lecturer
Teaching and Learning in the Office of the Pro-Vice Chancellor
Teaching and Learning at the University of Tasmania.
Heather have worked as co-researchers on a number of innovative
research and teaching projects. They have published in key
journals in the field of arts education and presented their work
at national and international conferences.