StArt Up

Why do students from privileged schools dominate the Year 12 art work exhibition?

Is artistic ability only found in students from wealthy backgrounds?

We like to believe that artistic ability is a kind of natural gift. In fact, the cliché is great artists are dirt poor, live in garrets and only become ‘recognised’ when they are dead. If artistic ability were a gift and nurtured by poverty it would seem unlikely that it would be clustered amongst those of us with the most wealthy parents.

However, the exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, StArt Up of the best artworks submitted for the subjects Art and Studio Arts from the 2014 Victorian Certificate of Education VCE shows exactly this.

StArt Up is an annual exhibition and is very successful. Students and teachers love it, as does the public generally. However the exhibition displays more than just the artistic ability of students. What is also on display is our highly hierarchical education system which helps to concentrate cultural capital  in schools that are at the very top of the socio-economic ladder.

Well-known Australian academic, Richard Teese, has conducted research into the inequalities and social power that exists in our schools. Part of his research allows us to see the socio-economic background of the average student studying various Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) subjects in their final year of school. According to Teese, the average student studying either Art or Studio Arts is very close to the average Victorian student overall.

However, that is not true of the average student in the StArt Up exhibition. The average student in this exhibition attends a school that is over one standard deviation above the national average school, that is, the average student in the exhibition, rather than being in the middle of all Victorian students is very nearly at the very top, in fact, in the top 15 per cent of all students in the state.

Similarly, while 70 per cent schools in Victorian are government schools, only 36 per cent of the schools represented in the exhibition are government schools, providing a near perfect inversion in favour of non-government schools.

Renowned French philosopher and public intellectual, Pierre Bourdieu, helps us to explain this skewing of ‘artistic ability’ toward the most elite schools. For Bourdieu, artistic merit is related to social position. What makes someone particularly good at ‘art’ is not what tends to be taught in schools, but rather the tastes and dispositions students already have due to their social class and how well they can display these tastes and dispositions in ways which surprise the judges. Access to the tastes and dispositions that ensure success is restricted to those with the right cultural, social and ultimately financial capital.

There are two unequal paths open to gain access to this exhibition. One is the ability to ‘break the rules from within the rules’, to present an artwork that is a display of aesthetic taste and one that matches the taste of the judges in its display of the right kind of cultural capital.

The other path is harder. It involves the display of technical virtuosity, rather than formal flair. Here one’s technique, rather than one’s taste, is fully on display.

Both of these paths are more open to students from high Index of Community Socio Educational Advantage (ICSEA) schools. (ICSEA is a measure used by the My School website to score schools on their socio-economic and educational advantage.)

When the artworks in StArt Up are arranged according to their ICSEA fascinating patterns emerge.

Firstly, the higher the ICSEA of the school the more likely the artwork will have been completed in a traditional medium – all but one of the oil paintings in the exhibition were submitted from the highest ICSEA schools. Abstract art works likewise all come from students in higher ICSEA schools, that is, where the student’s taste can be asserted over technique. Photography and pencil drawings came mostly from the lower ranked ICSEA schools.

Photo-realistic drawings also mostly came from students from the lowest ICSEA schools. These students are fully exposed in terms of their drawing technique – with a student from one of the lowest ICSEA schools presenting a fast-motion film showing her drawing a portrait, literally in a display of technical virtuosity. Whereas a student from one of the highest ICSEA government schools spoke of her even incorporating accidents into her highly abstract art works and thereby being able to assert her taste over technique.

These young artists also offer advice to future students and this too is differentiated according to the ICSEA of their school. The lower the school’s ICSEA the more likely the students advise ‘time management’ as their main (if not only) piece of advice. The higher the ICSEA of students the more likely their advice to future students is to follow their passion. This difference – with lower ICSEA schools reinforcing the need for discipline, and higher ICSEA students focused on self-realisation – is a constant theme in the Australian education system generally.

Art ought to be more than a mere social ornament: rather it should provide us with our culture’s deepest means of expression, giving us ways to understand who we are, to make sense of our world and to find our place in it.

In Sleepers, Wake! written over three decades ago, Barry Jones said that we can predict a child’s future by asking three questions: Where do you live, which school do you go to, what do your parents do?

We should be ashamed that today a young person’s artistic ability can equally well be guessed by asking these same three questions.


TrevorTrevor McCandless works as a researcher for the Chair of Education at Deakin University where he is completing his PhD.  His thesis considers how class, gender and race are represented in school marketing materials and what this says about the construction of the ‘ideal student’.​