Yes, History of Art is a real subject – so stop asking

And no, I don’t want to work in a museum


From afar, History of Art sounds more like a holiday than a degree. People think that ponce around looking at paintings all day, go on loads of free gallery visits and spend our lives pondering whether Mona Lisa is really smiling, when actually the biggest question on our minds is: ‘How on earth is my degree worth £9000 a year?’.

We may be good at recognising the difference between Monet and Manet, but the real picture is far from perfect. In reality, our departments usually don’t receive much funding from the university and we spend most of our time reading incomprehensible articles on JSTOR.

So please spare us with the typical questions that are guaranteed to annoy us all.

The typical set up

‘Are you going to work in a museum?’

This is the classic question that every History of Art student will hear at least once a week. It can be a completely innocent assumption, but it implies that there is nothing else for a History of Art graduate to do. Obviously some people do go on to working in art galleries, but there is a thing called transferable skills, which makes us as employable as anyone else who did a BA. So no, you won’t find me guarding a room in the National Gallery next year.

‘So what career prospects will you have?’

This question already plagues our mind on a regular basis, hearing someone else say it out loud, is not helpful in the slightest. Also, stop undervaluing our degree, there are many successful writers, entrepreneurs and celebrities that studied it.

‘Isn’t that pretty irrelevant in the modern world?

I bet you’re one of those people that thinks studying History is useless when we’re living in the present. Visual Culture is an important aspect of History of Art that is extremely relevant to our current world. Art surrounds us more in the 21st Century than ever before and being able to identify and analyse art in the modern context is a sought after skill.

‘You have seven contact hours?! It can’t be that hard’

I don’t think you understand how much reading we have to do.

‘What’s your favourite painting?’

When you’ve analysed hundreds of paintings, this question may give you an existential crisis. Do you want us to base our answer purely on aesthetics or the whole composition? Is this including context?

‘So you’re a bit like Kate Middleton?’

Is this just another way of asking whether we’re posh? Unfortunately studying the same subject as a royal doesn’t give us royal privileges.

‘What do you really think of the Mona Lisa? Is she smiling?’

Most of us don’t even bother looking at her face, instead we will probably focus on Da Vinci’s innovative use of blue shadows in the background.

‘Do you look at pictures all day?’

Evidently we do a lot of visual analysis, but predominantly we have to read lengthy texts that stop making sense beyond the first paragraph. Art historians have this strange desire to stretch out a simple idea into a whole 29 page article.

‘Do you colour things in for exams?’

Don’t get us confused with Geography students.

‘So you look at paintings and say whatever you want about them?’

Well wouldn’t that be nice? Unfortunately it’s not as easy as that. We have to learn about hundreds of paintings and be able to identify them with the correct name, date and artist. Then we do the visual analysis, tie in context, add art historians’ opinions and try to make sense of what we just wrote.

‘I heard that the History of Art department is pretty druggy’

Wait, doesn’t everyone snort lines in their lectures?