Who’s standing up for History of Art?

October 14, 2016 by Minerva Tutors,

Okay AQA, this is going to get personal.

And not just personal for me. I’ve just come off the phone with Viccy Coltman, professor of History of Art at Edinburgh University. She has a few words to say on the subject. But for now, for those who don’t know what’s just happened:

Art History students and graduates across the UK woke up to the ridiculous news on Thursday morning that their subject was going to be scrapped at A-level.

In a blisteringly short-sighted cull of ‘soft’ subjects started by Michael Gove when he was Education Secretary, it was announced that those sitting the exam in 2018 will be the last to take the History of Art A-level. It is only currently offered by one exam board?—?AQA?—?and they will no longer be offering it, as of next year.

Here’s the so-called ‘logic’:

  1. History of Art has ended up as an ‘elite’ subject, offered predominantly at private schools and very few state schools, and that is a problem.
  2. It is not obviously linked to many careers (wrongly), which people see as an issue in an increasingly employment-driven education system.
  3. It suffers from an image problem, being inextricably linked to poshness, privilege and all that is ‘rah’.
  4. Only 839 students sat the A-level last year, which is not that many, and makes it an expensive course for the exam board to run (although 839 is more than those who sat archaeology, anthropology, 3D Design, Bengali, modern Hebrew, citizenship studies, electronics, environmental studies and statistics, among others).


All of this is, of course, to totally and utterly miss the point.


I was one of only two people in a year of 180 to study History of Art at my school, which was generally speaking academic and highly results-driven. I was the only person who studied it that didn’t also study Art. I decided to study it at university because, after two years of the A-level, History of Art had opened more doors for me than any other subject had done in my whole school career.

Having also studied History, R.S. and English at A-level, I can say 100% for sure that History of Art is the most interesting course. It is not ‘soft’ just because it is not impossibly dry (British Politics from Pitt to Peel during History A-level?—?that was dry).

Robert Peel more relevant than Warhol’s Marilyn?

It is also not ‘useless’ because History of Art is not tied to a single career path. It gives you skills.

Within six months of leaving university, I know Art History graduates from my year who, beyond getting jobs in the art world, are now bankers, journalists, studying Law, working in the city and starting their own companies. Much like people who study English. Or History. Or Politics. Or Architecture.

History of Art is?—?contrary to popular belief?—?a degree with high employability, certainly no different to comparable humanities subjects. It is a brilliant degree for anything in creative and cultural industries, or requiring visual and verbal skills?—?that’s a lot of jobs. The fact this is happening to a notably female-dominated subject also suggests a latent sexism in the decision, devaluing something women tend to excel at more than men.

In studying History of Art, I have learnt about:

  • Greek philosophy
  • ancient Roman culture and Imperial propaganda
  • the Renaissance across Europe
  • the Scottish Enlightenment
  • European court culture
  • generations of cultural exchange between Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas
  • the ‘degenerate’ art banned by the Nazis, and the art they used to promote their cause
  • the visual traditions and practices of several religions
  • the revolutionary feminist art of the first half of the 20th century that has been written out of mainstream history
  • the social and cultural upheaval of fin-de-siecle Europe
  • a thousand years of Islamic architecture
  • the art of the Qin and Han dynasties

You get the idea.

‘Interesting’ does mean ‘soft’?—?or worse, ‘pointless’. History of Art is a documentation of human expression over thousands of years. Art means painting, sculpture, architecture, religion, design, politics, fashion, music and literature. Art is everywhere, across all times, all cultures and all people, and it feeds into every other aspect of the human experience. It is understanding your surroundings. The real question is not why it is now being scrapped as an A-level, but why it isn’t more widely taught to younger years. It is a fantastic outlet for arty students, and those who may not feel themselves so academically inclined, irrespective of their background or schooling.

Understanding how and why the thousands of strands feeding through the history of art have developed is not futile. It is fascinating, and it is important.

It has made me think differently, act differently and see the world differently. It has made me more inquisitive, sharpened my analytical skills, my problem solving, and made me closely observe the world around me, and become alive to historical discourses I otherwise never would have encountered.

It taught me how to think. And that is a hell of a useful skill.

The good news is that as a degree, History of Art has no pre-requisites. It helps if you’re used to writing an essay, and enjoy looking at art, but otherwise you can come to it for the first time at university. The bad news is that to remove it from the A-level curriculum is to undermine its value as a subject, inevitably leading to fewer people who would consider studying it. It closes off options, possibly for life, and undermines the value of the arts as a whole.

And that is bad news.

Now onto my conversation with Viccy.

(I am a twenty three year old tutor, so I thought it would be a good idea to ask for a professional opinion. As well as being a Professor of eighteenth-century History of Art at the University of Edinburgh, Viccy is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and has published two books, one on neoclassicism in Britain, 1760–1800, and the other on classical sculpture and the culture of collecting in Britain since 1760, and edited a volume, which we should all read, about making sense of Greek Art.

Viccy started by saying that the notion of a ‘soft subject’ is really probematic, and that by no means is art history an ‘easy option’:

It is every bit as meaty as history, just not so text-based. Your data-set is much more eclectic, and comprises so many more forms of cultural expression?—?and that’s what’s really exciting.

Can you compare it to history?

Art history [is] a media or moderator of history, a cultural agent. It gives us access to the past, but how we choose to access that is part of the challenge.

You didn’t study History of Art at A Level… and you’re a Professor, so maybe there’s hope for those who want to study it at university level?

At Edinburgh, a high number [of students] will transfer their History of Art A-level into degree, and they’re often among the most motivated, and plugged-in to what the subject requires. Without the A Level, we may have a problem and it could affect our recruitment.

What about the social politics, the idea that it’s just for the privileged?

The elitism aspect points to a much larger problem about the curriculum and the way it’s developed, teaching priorities, and state schools vs private schools. History of Art has never been taught at state schools in Scotland, and now it looks like it’ll be the same in England.

What about the numbers, only 839 people studied it at A Level this year?

I would be very interested to know the statistics for Classics, which I don’t imagine has hundreds of students?—?they’re endangered, but they’re not ‘soft’ subjects. But you can imagine the national uproar, from Boris and Mary Beard, if it was under threat! Who’s standing up for History of Art?

Have you ever got to the bottom of why it’s studied, predominatly, by woman?

It’s taught at so many of these top girl’s schools, it’s part of the curriculum that’s really nurtured. It is a very creative subject. It comes back to ugly prejudices. It’s to do with the gendering of prejudices, and that is really really sad. Are we in the 19th century? Is history for boys and art history for girls?

AQA are saying that they can’t find sufficent, qualified markers for the exams, what do you think about that?

How many markers do you need! Think about all the postgrad students who might take on this sort of task? Short-term work, hourly pay, it’s ideal. And if the syllabus is too wide or complicated, it’s your bloody job to change it! History of Art is not an expensive course to run, especially compared with the studio time and practice Art requires…

Any final thoughts?

Studying history of art is a fantastic springboard for a life, and we need to stand up and do something about this.

Thank you, Viccy.

By David Bard


David is a Minerva Pro Tutor who specialises in humanities subjects at A Level and is a trained expert in the 7 + and 11 + exams. Outside of tutoring, David writes blogs about creative writing and everything that’s trending in education.

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