Why we should all be disappointed by the end of Art History A-level
Not just a subject for private-school girls
When I first started studying Art History at A-level it was like finding the name for a subject I’d always loved.
My favourite part about going around galleries as a kid was being told tidbit facts about the meanings of objects or elements in pictures.
Looking back on my weird childhood obsessions with the Ancient Egyptians’ hieroglyphs, the Victorians’ big skirts, and Monet’s – well, his art– my now studying Art History at university seems pretty predestined.
I would not have applied for this subject without first being introduced to it at A-level.
Studying it at school opened my eyes to how much I enjoyed discovering new artists, encouraged me to make use of all the galleries near my home in London and taught me how fun it could be to analyse different paintings, or learn about a period of history through the art and architecture it’d produced. Without it, I certainly would not have considered applying to Cambridge.
I am aware that my subject is considered – fuck it, it is – a subject for privileged white girls. It’s considered useless, so of course only girls can study it. The stereotype of the pretty Sloane girl who’s at uni solely to find a nice young man is definitely still present: Kate Middleton was studying Art History when she met Prince William. For the record, every one of my fellow art historians is extremely driven and hard working and I can easily see all of them becoming very successful.
After telling someone what my degree subject is, I’m often asked, ‘So what do you plan to do when you graduate?’, as if studying art itself gives you any fewer practical skills applicable to the wider job market than studying literature, or the ancient Greeks and Romans, or plain old History. Are all arts and humanities subjects worthless?
In answer to this, let’s start by putting aside my belief that studying something because you enjoy it is an entirely valid reason to go to university, which in an ideal world would not be reserved for those with wealthy parents. Let’s instead come at the closed-minded anti-intellectualists who seem to think that ‘soft’ subjects are not worth public money because they may be less practical within society.
The preservation, research into, and plain old enjoyment of art, architecture and artifacts is integral to upholding our cultural identity. I completely believe in the importance of learning about your past and of society being able to analyse itself in comparison to how it once was, both in order to speculate on where it might go and to a certain extent in order to morally check itself. I believe in the importance of respecting, admiring and being inspired by a long-gone craftsman, designer, or artist’s work.
Such inspiration is vital to the continued creativity of many modern artists. But how can inspiration come without understanding? How can understanding come without education?
Fundamentally, cold statistics show that the gross value creative industries added to the UK economy in 2014 was £84.1 billion – 5.2% of the economy – whilst the retail sector accounted for 5.7%. Shopping constituted only 0.5% more than creative industries, and let’s not forget that studying History of Art does not mean you have to work in a job specifically related to academic art, providing you with visual analysis and research skills that could be applied to design, advertising, publishing, architecture, performing arts, film and TV.
Without Art history A-level increasingly fewer people will choose to study it at university which long-term will surely have a negative impact on industries related to art and creativity. I would love for art galleries and museums to be places that everyone visits and I am extremely proud of how many of our major national galleries have free entry.
An interest in art ought to be as commonplace as interest in films. A painting can be just as moving as a film and, if anything, looking at one or a few takes way less time.
But without Art History in schools, as a subject it will become even less diverse, and art itself will remain a luxury for the rich.