100 Books: 100 Texts that Influenced my Thinking and Scholarship–Herbert Read

Herbert Edward Read (1893-1968) was a British art historian, poet, literary critic and philosopher, best known for his books on art, which included influential volumes on the role of art in education.  Read was co-founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Read considered himself an anarchist, in the English quietist tradition of Edward Carpenter and William Morris. Nevertheless, when in 1953 he accepted a knighthood for “services to literature,” he was ostracized by the anarchist movement.

Read saw art, culture and politics as a single congruent expression on human consciousness. His book To Hell With Culture deals with his disdain for the term culture and expands on his anarchist view of the artist as artisan, as well as presenting an analysis of the work of Eric Gill.

In his philosophical outlook, Read was close to the European idealist traditions represented by Friedrich Schelling, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which held that reality as it is experienced by the human mind was as much a product of the human mind as any external or objective actuality. The mind is not a camera recording the reality it perceives through the eyes; it is also a projector throwing out its own reality. This meant that art was not, as many Marxists believed, simply a product of a bourgeois society, but a psychological process that had evolved into consciousness. Art was a biological phenomenon, a view that pitted Read against Marxist critics such as Anthony Blunt.

Read was influenced by developments in German art psychology. His Idealist background led him towards interest in psychoanalysis. Read became a pioneer in the English-speaking world in the use of psychoanalysis as a tool for art and literary criticism. Originally a Freudian, Read later transfer his allegiance to the analytical psychology of Carl Jung, eventually becoming both publisher and editor-in-chief of Jung’s collected works in English.

Read took interest in the writings of the French Existentialists, particularly those of Jean-Paul Sartre. Although Read never described himself as an existentialist, he did acknowledge that his theories often found support among those who did. Read perhaps was the closest England came to an existentialist theorist of the European tradition.

Read developed a strong interest in art education. Read’s anarchism was influenced by William Godwin, Peter Kropotkin and Max Stirner. Read “became deeply interested in children’s drawings and paintings after having been invited to collect works for an exhibition of British art that would tour allied and neutral countries during the Second World War. As it was considered too risky to transport across the Atlantic works of established importance to the national heritage, it was proposed that children’s drawings and paintings should be sent instead. Read, in making his collection, was unexpectedly moved by the expressive power and emotional content of some of the younger artist’s works. The experience prompted his special attention to their cultural value, and his engagement of the theory of children’s creativity with seriousness matching his devotion to the avant-garde. This work both changed fundamentally his own life’s work throughout his remaining 25 years and provided art education with a rationale of unprecedented lucidity and persuasiveness.

Key books and pamphlets resulted: Education through Art (1943); The Education of Free Men (Read, 1944); Culture and Education in a World Order (Read, 1948); The Grass Read, (1955); and Redemption of the Robot (1966).

Read “elaborated a socio-cultural dimension of creative education, offering the notion of greater international understanding and cohesiveness rooted in principles of developing the fully balanced personality through art education. Read argued in Education through Art that “every child, is said to be a potential neurotic capable of being saved from this prospect, if early, largely inborn, creative abilities were not repressed by conventional Education. Everyone is an artist of some kind whose special abilities, even if almost insignificant, must be encouraged as contributing to an infinite richness of collective life. Read’s newly expressed view of an essential “continuity” of child and adult creativity in everyone represented a synthesis’ the two opposed models of twentieth-century art education that had predominated until this point

Read did not offer a curriculum but a theoretical defense of the genuine and true. His claims for genuineness and truth were based on the evidence of characteristics revealed in his study of child art.

From 1946 until his death in 1968 he was president of the Society for Education in Art (SEA), the renamed ATG. Read established the International Society for Education through Art (INSEA) as an executive arm of UNESCO in 1954.

After his death, Read was neglected due to the predominance in academia of theories of art, including Marxism, which discounted his ideas. Yet his work continued to have influence. It was through Read’s writings on anarchism that Murray Bookchin was inspired in the mid-1960s to explore the connections between anarchism and ecology.

In 1971, a collection of his writings on anarchism and politics was republished, Anarchy and Order, with an introduction by Howard Zinn. In the 1990s there was a revival of interest in him after an exhibition in 1993 at Leeds City Art Gallery and the publication of a collection of his anarchist writings.

There was a Herbert Read Conference, at Tate Britain in June 2004. The library at the Cyprus College of Art is named after him, as is the art gallery at the University for the Creative Arts at Canterbury.  The Institute of Contemporary Arts in London staged an annual Herbert Read Lecture, which included speakers such as Salman Rushdie.