Brian Sewell on the state or art history education

May 23 2013

Writing in Times Higher Education, the Great Brian weeps at the state of students' art historical knowledge today:

The bare bones of art history are linear studies of painting, sculpture and architecture, the simple first-this-then-that sequence that connects the painted image on the flat gold ground to the bucket-and-slosh business of the contemporary abstract painter, the iconography of Christ crucified painted for the devout veneration of the peasantry, to the Mapplethorpe photograph of a naked male with another man’s fist thrust into his anus. With experience, the student will recognise that the history of art is far from linear, that its threads are looped and tangled in cat’s cradles that may never be undone, and that it has always been affected by the external forces of political and social history. Art and its history are inseparable from the patronage of monarchs, popes and despots, from the propaganda of church and state, from the effects of famine, plague and war. They are inseparable from historic theological and philosophical debate, even from Marxism, capitalism, feminism, race and other modern orthodoxies. They are inseparable from music, literature and science - even from maths (in terms of perspective and proportion) - and from the wider cultural background of their day, and of all these the student must know almost as much as of his core subject. Thus to understand the history of art we must understand history itself, the history of political ambitions and the conflicts of religion, the history of nations, dynasties, the rich and powerful, the middle classes and the poor. The most inclusive and wide-ranging of academic disciplines, it opens many doors.

Students in my day had the necessary background for it. Now they do not. The history of art is now taught in all sorts of universities; and in an attempt to compare the requirements of a student at the Courtauld in Blunt’s day with those of a student at a provincial university now, I probed a professor at a far more ancient seat of learning. Asked about their knowledge of the Bible, his response was “The Bible is a worrying problem - knowledge of it is not to be taken for granted” - yet without that knowledge and the theological distinction between the Old and the New Testaments, without the Apocrypha and the Golden Legends of the saints, how can students recognise the subject and the iconography? To my enquiry about classical mythology, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Roman history and other sources of the painter’s imagery with primary and secondary meanings, the glum response was: “They may be utterly ignorant. We cope with the school- leavers we get.”

Update - Dr Ben Thomas from the University of Kent writes:

While I read Brian Sewell’s description of art history as the ‘most inclusive and wide-ranging of academic disciplines’ with cheerful agreement, I could not help sighing in weary exasperation at his characterization of today’s art history students, and also at the notion that they should be as well-read as Dr Johnson before looking at a picture. 

Today, my students – a mixture of second and third-year undergraduates - have opened Two-Faced Fame: Celebrity in Print 1962-2013 in the University of Kent’s Studio 3 Gallery. This exhibition, which they developed and curated themselves, manages to be professional, scholarly and fun. The catalogue can be found online here

In my opinion art history students have never been more creative and ambitious, nor more curious and passionate about art. That opinion is not just based on the experience of teaching at Kent, but also of acting as external examiner at ‘all sorts of universities’ including the Courtauld.

I fear the Great Brian would be shocked at my lack of the general art historical knowledge he describes above. I know very little of the classical world, for example. While it doesn't stop me knowing a thing or two about, say, British portraiture from 1500-1830, I wish that I had been taught everything Sewell suggests. More fun than triple maths.

Update II - another reader writes:

Surely it is an overtly “Panofskian” and old fashioned art historical way of thinking to suggest that unless you read the bible inside out you are not going to understand/appreciate a single art work? I agree with Sewell’s concern that art history students of today are not well enough informed in other spheres such as politics, literature, history and classics and I couldn’t be more worried about this aspect. However I fail to see that you need to know the entire bible or all of Ovid.

In fact, the emphasis he puts on the bible in his final paragraph is worrying… It seems to imply that Western Culture and Christianity is the sole contributor to art and culture and just goes to show how flawed Sewell’s own art history teaching was…

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.