Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Gradgrinds and the Yahoos have triumphed - as of 2018, History of Art will no longer be an A-level subject

As Jemima Lewis pointed out earlier this week in her Telegraph article, "Studying history of art is more than a posh hobby",  pupils will still be able to study for an A-level in drama, PE or media studies, none of which (I'm reliably informed) require more than two brain cells to pass and none of which could be even vaguely described as academically rigorous - but they won't be able to study Art History, which - as the title of the course suggests - is basically history studied through the prism of art, and which involves writing lots of essays, reading academic books and articles, committing to memory a shedload of dates and artists's names and the names, nature and significance of tons of art movements, and knowing what was happening culturally during a number of historical periods: from what I can gather, it had nothing whatsoever to do with "art appreciation" - you were meant to study cultural artefacts as historical rather than aesthetic objects to be swooned over (although swooning wasn't exactly prohibited, neither was it encouraged).

Any way you look at it, History of Art is a proper academic subject, requiring students to demonstrate an ability to read, learn, inwardly digest and regurgitate what they have learned in a lucid, orderly manner which shows that they have understood the significance of what they've been taught. Here's Ben Street, from his comment piece "Make no mistake, art history is a hard subject. What’s soft is the decision to scrap it", which was published on the Apollo website on Sunday:
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.
It also - or it should - "gentle" the ignorant young people who study it by freeing them from the contemporary, semi-comical Horrid Histories view of the past (they were just like us, only dead thick and like well primitive innit, and thank God we aren't like that now) - or the equally soul-deadening Marxian tendency to present history as an endless economic struggle between noble lower-class victims and vicious, greedy upper-class oppressors (thank God for the Russian Revolution, Lenin, Stalin, the Labour Party, the NHS, the welfare state, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, JFK, and wasn't the British Empire utterly horrible and aren't the Americans just as bad what with dropping nuclear bombs on Japan and still treating black people like slaves and what about women etc. ad bloody nauseam).

I expect there's a bit of that in History of Art courses at university, but my impression was that the approach at A-level was hard-headed, but essentially sympathetic to the past. This is unsurprising: it must be difficult to study the evolution (devolution?) of European art, without becoming aware of the shallowness and silliness of most contemporary work. I cant be sure, but I'd be surprised if two years of well-taught art history at school doesn't leave youngsters with at least a suspicion that the societies, political systems, religious beliefs and technical abilities of the people who both commissioned and created such breathtakingly beautiful, sensitive and meaningful drawings, paintings, sculptures, jewellery, poetry, musical compositions and buildings were, in many respects, superior to our own. By studying the history of art, young people might begin to understand what many adults seem never to have grasped: when it comes to art (as opposed to technology, commerce, medicine and science) the contemporary artists we lionise really are pygmies compared to the giants of the past.

I didn't study art history at school or university. The only skin I have in this game is courtesy of my son, who has an A-level and a degree in History of Art. From what I saw of the work he did at both school and university, it was more academically rigorous and exacting than anything I was ever asked to do. He could have done History, of course - but I doubt if it would have brought the best out of him. Yes, most of his fellow art history students at school and university were female, and, yes, quite a few of them were posh, but I didn't get the sense that they were treating school or university as the modern equivalent of a Swiss finishing school -  they seem to have been very bright, and they certainly put in the hours (my son was "stepping out" with one of them during his last term at university: she not only topped the charts, results-wise, but went on to do an MA in the subject in America). My son is decidedly unprecious and unpretentious and his best mate on the course was a heterosexual bloke from a state school in Liverpool: judging by them, it evidently isn't the exclusive preserve of Judy Garland fans.

It's often claimed that studying History of Art will lead straight to the dole queue, but my son doesn't seem to have had any problem finding a proper, well-paid, commercial job - he's had three job interviews since leaving university, and each one has resulted in an offer of employment. None of the jobs had anything to do with art - and that might be where the unemployability myth has arisen: there are relatively few jobs available in the art world, which presumably means that many of those art history graduates who want to begin their working life in a gallery, museum or auction house probably face a bit of a struggle - but the same is true (and always has been) of English graduates wanting to work in publishing, journalism or broadcasting, and of philosophy graduates wanting to work in anything. Fortunately, my son had no interest in doing unpaid internships just so he could be around paintings: he works in Central London, so has access to some of the best art collections in the world.

One problem with the subject at school level seems to be that it had gained an entirely underserved reputation for being soft, and this, inevitably, has led to members of The Blob claiming that it has been another victim of Michael Gove's determination to undumb the curriculum when he was Education Secretary. He immediately and vehemently denied the charge (his sequence of tweets are probably best read from the bottom up):

Fortunately, the lack of a History of Art A-level won't mean students can't study it at university: several of the undergraduates on my son's course had come from state schools, where the subject has been allowed to die of neglect. So why are so many people (including myself) exercised about it not being available as a Sixth Form subject? For a start, students  committing to the course at university looking forward to three years of swanning around art galleries in various European and American cities will be in for a nasty shock (as Ben Street explained above). And, given that universities now apparently have to spend an inordinate amount of time teaching undergraduates grammar and spelling, it seems unfair to add insult to injury by sending them students without any knowledge of the subject they're about to study (Philosophy is different, I'm told - early exposure to its mind-bending subtleties can often be counterproductive, whereas it's never too early to learn who Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael were and just what the hell they thought they were playing at).

If you're a Mr. Gradgrind who believes that universities should provide nothing but three-year job-training courses, you probably think that subjects like Philosophy, History of Art and English are a load of poncey nonsense which people who are interested in that sort of thing should study in their own damn time after doing a proper day's work. Personally, I tend to view university as primarily being a place where the best of our culture is studied, preserved, understood, judged, and passed on to the next generation so that our descendants won't be "after-comers" who "cannot guess the beauty been." Our universities might have lost sight of this key function as they silt up with hordes of high-paying foreign students demanding an immediate return on investment and who couldn't give a fig for European - let alone British - culture. But as a confirmed optimist,  I live in hope that our institutions of higher learning will at some stage stop turning themselves into glass-and-concrete technical colleges and go back to doing what they're supposed to do.

An education system that allows pupils to opt for an A-level in Media Studies but not one in History of Art has gone very wrong somewhere.

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