Yesterday, the last exam board to offer the History of Art A-level announced that it was going to axe it, in a last ditch effort to scrap all ‘soft subjects’ from the classroom.
It was the latest in a series of punches delivered to the British art community, after first bleeding the scene dry of any funding.
Presumably, this is a move by the government to turn us into a country of lawyers, doctors and mechanics. Because, after all, creative types have no use in society at large, right?
History of Art is really the UK’s only ‘liberal arts’ subject – meaning that it’s completely interdisciplinary. Contrary to popular opinion, HoA students don’t just sit around talking about our favourite paintings wearing all black and inhaling espressos and vogue cigarettes.
And that’s because Art History not only looks at art in its aesthetic form, but also explores a range of topics across the humanities spectrum like history, religion, architecture, and literature (the black and cigarettes thing is obviously accurate).
Even more surprisingly, there’s actually a heavy social sciences and philosophy of science focus.
How can you expect someone to learn about Renaissance and Enlightenment art without studying Descartes and understanding the Cartesian coordination system? You can’t.
During my History of Art degree, I spent many boozy evenings defending the subject to pompous PPE students who assumed that our classes where full of lovely but thick, posh totty.
And sure, it was a heavily female course – many of whom where from privileged backgrounds. Maybe that’s because Art History isn’t a surefire way of landing a specific or well-paid job, and so appeals to those who have financial safety blankets.
But we still all found work.
All of my friends landed jobs in their chosen careers pretty much within months of leaving York – be that in curation (at the Whitechapel Gallery no less!), PR, recruitment, teaching, charity, and, of course, journalism.
And we all say that our degree has helped us.
I always used to say that Art History was a qualification in bullsh*t. And by that, I mean it teaches you to argue any point from any point of view. It teaches you to be as critical and opinionated as any law degree – but unlike law, it’s open-minded. Law qualifications teach the extent of the law and nothing more.
When it comes to critiquing art, you can never know too much.
‘I did it for A Level and fell in love,’ Jess – now a senior PR account manager – told metro.co.uk.
‘It enhanced all my other subjects because it deepened my cultural and historical knowledge which I applied to psychology and English lit.
‘It’s the best training ground for writing both freely and academically. And that’s a skill you just don’t learn in most other subjects – particularly at A-level.’
In a completely different field, I have a friend who currently works with refugees in camp in Jordan. And she claims that she uses the stuff she learnt during our final year – which looked at the ethics of war photography – every day.
‘All the stuff on the humanitarian context of philosophy is extremely useful to me now,’ Nikki says.
‘I’ve got to consider the ethics of photographing our beneficiaries every day.’
Few of us actually studied it at A Level because it wasn’t offered at many state schools when we were there. Those who did study it at during the sixth form definitely had a head start over the rest of us, especially when it came to things like visual analysis.
What message are we sending to potential HoA graduates by scrapping the A level?
That art is meaningless ‘fluff’? That to be interested in art history is to be ‘soft’?
Perhaps its use is best explained best by Terry Eagleton – the literary critic and theorist, and Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University – when he said: ‘Because subjects like literature and art history have no obvious material pay off, they tend to attract those that look askance at capitalist notions of utility.
‘The idea of doing something purely for the delight of it has always rattled the grey-bearded guardians of the state. Sheer pointlessness has always been a deeply subversive affair.’
So, what did I learn from studying Art History?
Aside from tightening up general academic practices (sort of), I was able to explore my own concepts of morality and my own racial identity through artists like Chris Ofili and Sonia Boyce.
I was given the opportunity to develop political allegiances (Art History is the narrative of the underdog, unlike History). It helped me develop my sense of gender politics. It exposed me to philosophies and schools of thought I’d never come across or understood at galleries.
It gave me a renewed appreciation for classical architecture and gave me a firmer interest in medieval European history than any history course could ever hope to do.
We visited galleries in Yorkshire. In London. In Leeds. Our department paid for us to spend weekends milling around classical chateaux and medieval cathedrals in Paris. We sojourned to Florence to study patronage. Previous years even headed to America.
Go to Europe with an Art History graduate, and you’ll see cities in a completely different light – particularly if they’re into cloisters and columns.
So if you want a country which goes to university to chase the money, by all means, scrap the ‘soft’ subjects. We’ll soon rue the day we allowed our generation to be sapped of any creativity.
And if all else fails, there’s plenty opportunities to create Art-based memes.
You can sign the petition to save Art History A Level here. Who knows which creative subject might be next.