Is history of art only for poshos?

January 10 2013

Image of Is history of art only for poshos?

Picture: British Museum

No, of course it isn't. But we Brits love to be chippy about this sort of thing, so in this country there's a feeling that art history is an elitist subject. That said, it is undeniably the case that a lot of posh people study art history, including, most famously at the moment, the Duchess of Cambridge. In The Guardian,* art history student Joy Starkey writes:

As a history of art student at Cambridge University, I have had direct experience of the stigma attached to the subject. I am regularly confronted with the attitude that, as one recent Cambridge graduate put it: "History of art is a niche subject, one that isn't particularly relevant or useful for future life."

The public and students alike regard it as a subject reserved for wealthy students from top private schools. This belief has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a student who came to the subject from a state school background, I am in the minority.

The subject's elitist image has been exacerbated by the long list of royals who have studied it – Prince William, Kate Middleton and Princess Beatrice to name a few. This not only gives the impression that you have to be from the right background to study it, but also reinforces the notion that this subject is not useful in the current barren landscape of graduate recruitment.

In 2011 25 people from state schools and 38 from independent schools applied for history of art at Cambridge University. Just five of the available 16 places were awarded to state school students. Admissions tutors have to select the best applicants. These are most likely to be those who visited art galleries when they were children. They will also be those who studied the subject at A-level, something often only offered by private schools.

But strip history of art of its seemingly pretentious finery and it's clear that it's anything but elitist. In my three years at university I have discovered that art is one of the most vivid ways of viewing history — it is an intimate glimpse into someone's world.

I'm not entirely sure how we 'strip art of its pretentious finery'. Take paintings out of their frames? Display them in industrial warehouses? When we had our connoisseurship debate on this site a while ago, some commentators said that words like 'connoisseurship' are elitist and even intimidating. I don't agree. But what do you think? Can readers suggest ways of making the subject more accessible? Should we stop saying, for example, 'sfumato', and instead say, 'blurry bits'?

Incidentally, I'm delighted that our future queen studied art history (and has become a valuable patron for the National Portrait Gallery), not least because our future king, William, gave it up to do geography instead...

* via Hannah Williams

Update - a reader writes:

Always surprising that such a broad subject like Art History is considered niche compared to, say, English Literature.

Another reader writes:

I think the issue highlighted by Joy Starkey is one of class and wealth as opposed to academic elitism i.e a suggestion of not understanding art historical terms like sfumato, imprimatura or chiaroscuro because you're from a state school might seem incredibly patronising! Those can be learnt.

In my experience, I grew up in a council flat on a sink estate, I did a full time degree in art history supporting it by working 35 hours a week in a petrol station, whilst living at home. The other students on my course apart from one or two others came from privileged backgrounds, had their fees and rent paid, and had the opportunity to spend more time in the library and visiting galleries etc (whether they did or not I've no idea). I could never afford to do an internship, and have attempted a Ph.D (no chance of funding for 16th century Flemish) whilst working two jobs, but that was doomed to failure from the start. In the rare instances where my skills (as opposed to my background) have been noted, such as being offered the opportunity to curate an old masters exhibition (obviously unpaid) I've washed dishes in a restaurant in order to do so, which is far worse in reality than even Orwell makes out.

In the rare instances I've been offered job interviews I get asked why I haven't done an internship. I wouldn't have afforded a weeks worth of suits and shirts let alone the bus! I've discovered unknown paintings in public collections, increasing their value ten fold, yet try to get a job in one of these intuitions when your peers have had the opportunity to do internships at the Met or the Frick or the Prado or their father is on the board at Christie's....banging your head against a brick wall is an understatement. 30 or so years ago you could get a job as a porter at a London auction house, with relatively little qualifications and work your way up the ladder (the same can be said for the BBC and other institutions), those days are sadly over. I would be very surprised if anyone working at the top London commercial galleries (apart from Front of House) came from state schools or lower class backgrounds. 

The way we make it more accessible is by employing on merit, and acknowledging there is a problem (particularly nepotism). If I walked into the door of [several London art dealers] asking for a job, I'd expect to be ushered out the door at the earliest opportunity. These galleries seem to employ anonymously through elite agencies who must have a special furnace reserved for my CV. It's as if the very act of advertising their need for an employee is deemed uncouth, so they cloak it in mystery. (Sotheby's also do this). It's sewn up.

All too often true, alas, and a shame to read. With regards to the job problem, it is not necessarily one of elites or class, but a more straightforward market-related fact that there are (and always have been) more candidates than vacancies in the art world. It's a tiny industry with a very large appeal. An equivalent is all those media studies students hoping to be journalists - few of them ever can be, and when was the last time you saw a correspondent's job at The Times publicly advertised?

So for employers in the art world, particularly the auction houses (tho' please note I make no specific allegations), there is little incentive to pay interns - there's a ready supply of free, if privileged, candidates desperate to do the job. As internships are a major route into art world jobs, the problem becomes self-perpetuating. And it's not just in the art market that this happens. We recently had an example here on AHN about the National Portrait Gallery offering a long-term unpaid internship, albeit one that was part-time.

Incidentally, I'm pleased to say that we have a good record on employment and internships here at Philip Mould & Co; we recently took on an intern, whom we paid. He proved so successful that we offered him a full-time job. I won't embarrass them by revealing what school they went to, but it wasn't Eton.

PS - For what it's worth, I never studied art history, anywhere! 'And it shows!', you all shout... In fact, I don't think I could have got a job in the art world had I studied art history, at least not the sort of job I have now. For me, the key skills I need were learnt by training as a historian - for example, the ability to look for and evaluate evidence. These, and much else besides, are not taught properly in overly theoretical art historical courses. But that's a whole different debate...

Update II - the above reader adds:

Amusingly I was once asked by one of the elite agencies 'what experience do you have with high net worth individuals?'

I didn't realise they were a different species, but nevertheless I would have told them everything they wanted to know about the painting they were buying....!

Update III - a reader writes:

You wrote "For me, the key skills I need were learnt by training as a historian - for example, the ability to look for and evaluate evidence."  Right on! Those skills are indeed crucial, and not at all only for art history or history generally, but they much less common than they should be.  At the same time, some 'analytical' disciplines short-change students by treating imagination and artistic sensibilities as unimportant if not disreputable. Are there universities/colleges which encourage one to combine art history with exposure to disciplines that emphasize analytical skills, not only history but even (don't scream!) basic economics? 

Update IV - a reader writes:


I don't believe that technical vocabulary is a serious barrier, at least to primary school-age children, who pick up vocabulary effortlessly: I suspect it's more their teachers who have the problem with technical terms. (Though I can see why some may find 'connoisseurship' a bit irritating, as it's an ugly combination of French and English: perhaps the 17th century French 'connoissance' would be preferable?)

However, it may be possible to teach terminology by linking 'high art' with the digital arts, in particular films and video games. For example, Glennis McGregor's blog 'Rennaisance for Real' explains sfumato, chiaroscuro, cangiantismo and unione by comparing examples from Renaissance artists with stills from 'Monsters Inc.', Tim Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland', and other films. See

I'm interested to see that Michael Daley of Artwatch UK has recently (and surprisingly, at least to me) adopted a similar strategy, by comparing techniques in Burton's 'Frankenweenie' with those of Michelangelo. See

On your suggestion of taking pictures out of their frames or displaying them in industrial warehouses: while the thought of the first makes me shudder, I do like the notion of the second, if it were done in a comparative setting. It seems to me that comparative exhibitions like the National Gallery's 'Metamorphosis: Titian 2012' or 'Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present' were misguided, because they were in the wrong location: anyone who visits the NG will not need any encouragement to view Renaissance art. They'd be more useful in the context of an industrial warehouse or modern equivalent like the Tate Modern or the Saatchi Gallery, where those visitors who already appreciate the art of Chris Ofili and Mark Wallinger may be helped by seeing 'high art' treatments of similar subjects or using similar techniques. Although a comparative 'hang' has the danger that it may be too diverse to make much sense, this could I think be avoided by restricting the traditional artworks to a few examples which can easily be compared with the modern works. I'm thinking of something like Tracey Emin's exhibition 'She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea', where she selected a few erotic drawings by Turner and Rodin to hang among her works: see

(I suppose the ratio could be reversed: for example by displaying Damien Hirst's 'For the Love of God' amongst an exhibition of traditional 'vanitas' works,  but I don't somehow see this as so focussed.)

Finally, It seems crucial to encourage the practice of painting and sculpture to the very young: it's a cliche that we are all artists at the age of 5, but very few of us still are by the age of 15, when active participation in drawing and painting has usually become peripheral to our lives. There's a musical parallel here: I'm thinking of the phenomenon of El Sistema currently sweeping the world, which has led to the foundation of hundreds of classical music centres, targetting children from deprived backgrounds in 22 countries including Britain. Most of its alumni will not have careers as professional musicians, but all will have developed a love of the music, and will no doubt enthusiastically attend classical concerts for the rest of their lives. And by active participation in music, they will have picked up the vocabulary painlessly. No doubt the same applies to visual art.

Ultimately, all this comes down to our government's education policy. If schools are not encouraged (or required) to set time aside for art classes and visits to galleries, whatever is done by art teachers, historians and curators will still affect only a minority of the population.

Another reader writes:


In response to your recent post ‘Is history of art only for poshos?’, and with regard to art history’s profile in higher education, we can ask three questions:

Is the subject itself inherently elitist?  Yes, insofar as it is, vicariously, about the study of elites.  This fact is only slightly qualified when we consider the study, by no means widespread, of subjects such as the popular print.  (I’ll put aside the long-standing debate about whether art history is, or should be, ’visual culture’).

Is subject studied by elites?  It follows that art history will be more attractive to those who are familiar with the kind of art and cultural milieu studied on art history degrees, than to those who are not, just as degrees in a foreign language tend to contain a disproportionately large number of students from that country, or with connections to that country of one kind or another.  Pupils exposed to art, and also to art history, whether at school or at home, are more likely to know about the subject and want to study it, and to be supported in turn by parents and teachers.  (I myself only came into the subject through the enthusiasm of an A-level art teacher, Mr Cooper, who supplemented our lessons with enthusiastic talks on artists such as Hogarth, and annual school visits from Rotherham to the galleries in London).

What can be done to change things?  This begs the question of why we think people should want to study a subject so closely associated with ‘elites’ in the first place.  A greater co-ordination of effort among interested parties in answering this question would be welcome, starting perhaps with a serious study of the key issues affecting widening participation in art history. 

Update V - on the language point, another reader adds:

Regarding making the Art History degree less formal, could not disagree more. A degree is not a workshop! If people decide to get a degree they are seeking specialization and professionalization. So, simplify what exactly? I do not even consider Art History very challenging concerning technical vocabulary, especially if compared with Medicine or Law. 

A completely different thing is, afterwards, to adapt the speech according to the public and the language used should vary depending whether it is addressed to the museum, the gallery or auction house. May be considered patronizing, but it seems only logical that a museum guide do not mention to a group of school children the provenance of an artwork, information that may be interesting to an adult audience which, in turn, probably is not interested in its number of inventory. Those speaking have to adapt, nevertheless, those speaking are the Historians, the Curators, the Gallerists and should know all about the art they are representing - That is professionalism.

Those seeking for a more informal environment can always try Contemporary Art as a work field - Not being ironic, it is less formal...



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