A personal viewpoint from Jonty Claypole, the
Director of Arts at the BBC

Growing up

It’s fair to say my parents were under the moon when I told them I wanted to study Art at A-Level. With English Literature, History and Philosophy already lined up, it was clear I was never going to find the cure for cancer or save the British car industry. But having encouraged me to while away many an hour in art galleries throughout my childhood, they were aware it was their fault as much as mine, and it would be hypocritical to stand in the way.

I was lucky enough to go to a school that was supportive of arts subjects, but was still aware of that strange hierarchy which so often puts more value on the sciences and mathematics. There was even a first division class for those who excelled at those subjects. I couldn’t explain why this was the case: the arts were what I was good at, while my brain shut down at the mere thought of Double Physics. Why should what one child is good at be valued differently than another? There is ample space in the world – and need – for us all. 

Art is what survives, telling future generations what it was like to be human”

And if this sounds a bit airy-fairy still, let me be more material: the arts taught me how to write, by which I mean construct an argument and articulate complex ideas rather than flowery prose (although I’ve time for that too). Over the last 20 years of my career, I have come to believe this most elementary of skills is also the rarest and I’ve seen individual after individual soar because they are able to do what so few others can: express themselves clearly and persuasively.

If my parents were concerned I would spend my life making collages in the attic room or contemplating, like Heidegger, ‘the thingness of the thing’, they needn’t have worried. On emerging from school or university, most of us have to quickly shape our interests into skills and tasks somebody might want to pay us to do. The important thing is that you are good at it and studying the arts enabled me to excel in ways I could never have imagined if compelled to plug away at science and maths. Education is surely about listening, watching and encouraging children to follow their talents as much as pedagogically plying them with the stuff we think they ought to know – it’s the former that will ultimately help them to fulfilment and success.

What has the arts done?

Through the arts I learned two essential skills that seem to me as indispensable as anything else. The first is how to empathise. I was drawn to books, paintings, music, cinema because they presented alternate realities, different ways of being. The arts made me feel empowered, like I could make choices; that I could live simultaneously in the world, in my head and in the minds of others. The arts take you out of yourself and allow you to look back at your own life – and when you do that you can escape the ruts and stride out on new paths. Yes, better career paths, too.

I bring this conviction to work every day at the BBC and see it as my job to use broadcasting to ensure children, teenagers and adult learners like me don’t get left out. BBC Childrens does with programmes about storytelling, music, craft and film-making. And it’s the spirit behind Civilisations – a major series presented by Mary Beard, David Olusoga and Simon Schama looking at the history of art from the dawn of human history to the present – which launches on BBC Two in March. 

Art is what survives, telling future generations what it was like to be human at a certain place and point in time. It is, more than anything, at the heart of our human story. While my A-Level art work, boxed away in that attic room where it belongs, may not be part of that story, it was central to my discovery of the developmental and mind-expanding vitality of art and culture – and that’s as worthy as anything else of a place in our syllabuses.