The Trials and Tribulations of Art History

Louis Shankar: Week Two

amazing Art art history column Louis Shankar yay

I thought I’d start my discussion of identity by looking at something simple and (relatively) uncontroversial: my choice of subject. 

Whatever subject you study, it includes a sense of identity; if you’re lucky, it also fosters a community, too. Many subjects have a stereotype about them, from the introverted and awkward mathematician to the edgy english student or artistic architect. These subjects are surrounded by a selection of preconceptions, which others will likely use to judge you based a choice you once made that seemed entirely obvious at the time.

When I tell people that I study the History of Art, the general response is: “Oh, that’s nice,” with an entirely unsubtle subtext along the lines of, “Lol, really?” Outside Cambridge, I tend to feel the need to quickly follow this up with where I study, in the hope that this will somehow legitimise my choice.

Here, though, self-deprecation tends to be enough: “We basically look at pretty pictures all day and occasionally read a book with lots of illustrations then write some words about beauty and whatnot.” Sometimes, especially when drunk, I tend to also reel off some pre-prepared spiel about “visual literacy” and “critical contextualisation” in the “visually-dominated postmodern media hegemony” that we live in. Or something like that.


One of the many picture books we get to/have to read

There are some strange idiosyncrasies in Art History, though, it must be said. We’ve spent many hours being lectured in the Fitzwilliam Museum instead of our lecture theatre (which can only fit around 40 people). Last term, we – the four of us doing my module – spent a whole week looking just at early Anglo-Saxon coinage.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words: last week I had to write twice that on a single artwork – and to make matters that much harder I chose some red blobs to write about (also known as The Seagram Murals by Mark “a six-year-old could do that” Rothko).

And I like to think we (mostly) work hard. I sit here writing this after two hours of lectures, one about Hegelian thought, the other on the paradox of Pop art and whether it is a form of cynical realism. It’s not all just the pretty pictures.

It’s also quite easy to identify an art historian (or architect) as, by the end of Trumpington Street, the only students still going are either engineers or art historians/architects. A game of ‘Spot the Art Historian’ is made somewhat harder by not knowing if an ill-fitting shirt is a personal choice or an absence of care, though, or whether a brightly coloured anorak is a fashion statement or just a mistake.


We had two(!) separate lectures on this chapel. Summary: it’s pretty.


But if you’re primary criteria for a subject’s worth is its usefulness, then all purely academic disciplines – the humanities, the arts, the social sciences – quickly go out the window. If education was purely about results, we’d all be studying something vocational, something practical: medicine, law, computer sciences, education.

Whereas, personally, I don’t actually want my politicians graduating with a degree in HSPS or PPE. I’d rather vote for someone who has gone out in the world and learnt about the country they want to run first hand, instead of reading about it in a textbook while cozying up with the elite.

I’m also perfectly happy reading a novel without also scouring over a 9,000 word dissertation written about the significance of birds or trees or death in chapter 4. Or listening to a piano suite at a concert despite not being able to pick out and identify the different cadences.

Most academic pursuits we engage in at university aren’t about being useful in themselves. They teach skills and techniques and ways of thinking; no one really cares about the stuff itself that you learn.

And someone has to run the art galleries.