A-Level art history axed (ctd.)

October 17 2016

Image of A-Level art history axed (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian

There has been a commendable response from art historians to the news that art history will no longer be an A-Level subject in the UK (ie, taught from the ages of 16 to 18). Some suspect it has been culled in response to former Education Secretary Michael Gove's aim to reduce the number of 'soft subjects' available at A-Level. Gove has strongly denied this, and says he loves art history.

Here's Deborah Swallow (Director of the Courtauld Institute) in The Guardian's letters page:

The definition of art history as a “soft subject” seriously misunderstands a subject that is enormously important to the economy, culture and wellbeing of this country. History of art is a rigorous interdisciplinary subject that gives students the critical skills to deal with a world that is increasingly saturated with images. It brings together visual analysis with history, languages, literature, chemistry, and art and design to name but a few inter-related areas of study and research. Those studying it at university level have a significant impact across the cultural sector, especially in public museums and galleries.

And here's Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times, making a passionate case for the subject absed on his own experiences:

It saved my life, if you must know. Art history lifted me out of a dark immigrant’s existence, where people washed their dogs in our communal bath, and turned me into a graduate. I was eight months old when my father was run over by a train in Basingstoke. I never knew him. I couldn’t speak any English till I was six. But I could look at paintings, at sculpture, at books full of pictures of beautiful things, at all the glorious art-historical evidence that survives from the story of humanity, and I could enjoy it and learn from it.

It soothed me. It educated me. Not just about my own world, but about all the other worlds out there. It filled my head with hopes and dreams. If it weren’t for art history . . . well, I dread to think how that sentence should end. One day I even found out that Picasso’s astoundingly intimate image of two enraptured blobs going at it like the clappers on a sandy beach was painted on my birthday — January 12. Who needs family photos when you have art history?

I agree with both Waldemar and Deborah Swallow about the wonderful merits of art history. And also that art history should be retained as an A Level subject. The more kids who do it the better.

But there are some big questions we need to address if we're actually going to reverse the subject's decline in schools. We need to do more than just sign petitions.

In the Telegraph, Adam Sammut looks at the numbers of those taking art history:

Only 839 students took the A-level this year, compared to over 43,000 who took art and design. History of Art was offered in 2014 by a mere 107 schools, the vast majority of them fee-paying. Whatever abuse might be hurled at the former Education Secretary by the intelligentsia, little of their weight was lent to encourage the subject’s tuition in schoolrooms. “Philistine” pursuits like athletics or woodwork make for sounder investments in your “bog-standard comp”, or so conventional thinking goes.

He also looks at the type of people who study it:

Britain is a nation of art-lovers, with London the art capital of the world. Its world-class museums and galleries draw vast crowds, free of charge – from every stratum of society. While a diverse mix go to art college, the stereotypical art history student is straight out of Made in Chelsea, more likely to buy art than read about it. Why is this?

Much of this 'art history is for poshos' theme may be a caricature. And you may even laugh that someone with a name like mine can say that with a straight face.* But the narrow social base of children wanting to study art history as an A Level is certainly a puzzling question, given the abundance of free to enter art collections in every city in the UK. It's not possible to say that in a place like Hull, with its wonderful Ferrens Museum, that people from working class backgrounds in the North have no access to great art.

To that extent, the lack of people in state schools wanting to do art history is a terrible indictment on the failure of art history as a whole - and especially the UK's museum sector - to broaden 'access'. This, after all, has been the defining policy of successive governments. If broadening young people's access to art history through local and national museums had been a success, surely more would want to study it at A-level? 

Or is the problem simply that for all the youngsters who may want to study art history, there is a lack of infrastructure in how we teach it? Why are state school head teachers not offering it more widely? Why are state schools not full of teachers enthusiastic to teach the subject? To a certain extent the problem must lie with the constant stream of Education Secretaries, like Gove, who have insisted schools focus endlessly on maths, English and science. Even history is now under threat. Then there is the fact that our exam boards in the UK are now private companies. Offering art history as an exam promises less profit, if few schools offer it. 

So will art history now increasingly be the preserve of the middle classes? Obviously, we must hope that is not the case. But as AHN has pointed out before, if UK museums continue to offer such meagre salaries to curators and other staff, then a career in art history is only ever going to be attractive to those who are already well off, and whose social background has already exposed them to art.

In other words, just worrying about the end of the A-Level is not enough. The abolition of the A-Level, sad as it is, is a symptom not a cause. There are many things we need to address if we want more youngsters to study art history. 

And dare I say, but the elephant in the room is (at least in part) art history itself. That is, the subject, and the way it is too often taught. Now you may think that art history is a fascinating and worthwhile subject. Who does not want to know about the history of some of the most wonderful objects mankind has ever produced? But these days 'art history' is not simply about the history of art. Here, I find myself agreeing with Jonathan Jones in the Guardian, who argues that the scrapping of the A-Level is the inevitable result of academic art history, as a discipline, disappearing up its own backside:

Art history has become an obscurantist, elitist subject. It is remarkable that while theoretical physicists are constantly communicating their latest whacky ideas in popular books or on TV, none of the readable popular books on art history you will find in shops are by academic art historians. They are more likely to be written by art critics such as Martin Gayford or Andrew Graham-Dixon. Why is this?

It is a perverse spasm that results from the (not entirely unjustified) perception of art history as a posh person’s leisure activity. In the 1980s, a generation of art historians styled themselves “new” and “radical” – just like literary critics at the time they embraced “French theory”. Ever since, art history at the research level has abandoned any idea of elucidating the story of art in a humane and cogent way. In other words, the drive to prove art history is neither posh nor soft has resulted in a dry Byzantine academicism that can’t communicate outside a secluded seminar.

On the one hand, art history produces the well-groomed salespeople who make Frieze Masters go with a swing. On the other it creates tedious discourses of no interest to anyone, or deconstructs its own intellectual purpose.

Meanwhile, the hole in our culture that was once filled by the great art historians gets ever larger. Abolish the A-level? This entire subject needs a shake-up.

Perhaps Jones' point is unwittingly re-inforced by the art historian Ben Street's otherwise eloquent defence of the subject (in Apollo):

Yes, art history is hard. As a former teacher of the subject, I’m familiar with the moment a student realises, with sinking heart, that he or she will have to spend more time reading than looking, more time writing than analysing. Anyone who’s ever taken art history at any level understands this: that art history is History in drag. ‘Historical context’, whatever that actually means, is foregrounded, with close looking at and discussion of objects secondary at best. Imagine studying English literature but spending most of the time talking about the economic, political and sociological context of King Lear, and only briefly discussing the way the thing was written: that’s art history. I’ve known people taking degrees in art history who barely ever look at art. That’s art history.

I think Ben is right. That is art history - at least, much of the time. But it doesn't have to be. And certainly not at A-Level.

The way forward, therefore, is not just to demand that the government 'brings back' the A-level as it currently was. We need to change the courses on offer. And we need, for example, better liaison between local museums and local schools. Sure, local museums have school trips in all the time. But that's not the same thing as building academic links between teachers and head teachers, so that art history can be taught in front of masterpieces, rather than small photos in books. 

The irony is that all this was starting to happen, with the likes of Art History Link Up. We need to make sure that it's not too little too late.

Update - more pro art history thoughts from the great and the good here in the Guardian. 

Update II - Jones' piece has struck many a nerve, see here for example.

Update III - Mary Beard has joined the debate, and raises many interesting questions. Not least is why we feel we have to endless 'test' subjects in the first place. Why not include art history as something we teach in a general school syllabus, without obliging kids to take an exam in it?

And may be we should look at the definition of some of these examinable subjects. How about a history syllabus that included special options in art history or archaeology? Maybe too we should think harder about the relationship of school subjects and university subjects. Back in the day (sorry to sound old and nostalgic) there would have been no possibility that universities would be looking for Art History A level from those wanting to read Art History (because there wasnt an Art History A level -- it's a relatively new invention). Even now, no one imagines that potential doctors or lawyers will have done Human Biology (another AQA casualty) or "Law". In fact medical courses are keener on Physics etc. Why do we invest so much in the beaten track from A level to degree.

The important issue here is how we let as many children as possible experience and get enthused by a range of subjects, examined or not. Blaming AQA for what, I am prepared to admit may have been a short-sighted decision, just reveal how enthralled we have all become to that link between between teaching and public testing.

That is what we should be challenging.

*As regular readers may know, I did not study art history at school. I wish I had done. But for some reason at my school it was only offered to those deemed less academically able (and by the way, I wasn't especially able, just below middling). I always found this rather odd.

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