Earlier this week, my twitter feed—heavily populated by British academics that for some reason seem to use the format more than our American counterparts—exploded around the announcement that, from 2018 on, art history would longer be offered as subject for A-Levels in the United Kingdom. A qualifying exam often required for entrance to University, the closest equivalent we have in the United States would be Advanced Placement (AP), which while still offering Art History has faced positive and negative challenges in recent years (see for example the 2015 article “Rewriting Art History” published by The Atlantic). The decision is, according to The Guardian, “the latest in a cull of perceived “soft” subjects following the curriculum changes begun by the former education secretary Michael Gove.” This news, so specifically related to secondary and post-secondary education in the UK, perhaps seems irrelevant to those of us working on the other side of the Atlantic, but we can all-too-readily relate to the accusation of our discipline being “soft,” frivolous, elitist, irrelevant, etc.—we need only look to the unfortunate mention of art history degrees by President Barack Obama in 2014, among far too many swipes and jabs coming from politicians, entertainers, and administrators in recent years. Thus, the ensuing public outcry from scholars, teachers, curators, students, or those who have simply had the pleasure of taking an art history course/module has both been inspiring and a cogent reminder, if not outright impetus, to articulate #WhyArtHistoryMatters.
As a professor, curator, and scholar, I am often asked a variation of this question by everyone from random members of the public to students and (concerned) parents of students to even fellow colleagues in the departments or broader campus communities in which I have worked. I do not think I am unique in this regard. While there are certainly those in my discipline who resent the question altogether, seeing it as the result of the commodification of higher education or a detrimental shift to skills/ goal oriented demands within that system, I both have given it a lot of thought and thoroughly believe that we in art history, and the humanities more broadly, need to do a better job of clearly, loudly, and publicly stating our answer(s).
Art history is an exacting discipline: to engage with it needs history, philosophy, languages, literature: tools the next generation needs
— Simon Schama (@simon_schama) October 12, 2016
Art history A level axed as “soft”. SOFT?? tell that to Kant, Hegel, Ruskin, Burckhardt, Panofsky, Schapiro and the rest
— Simon Schama (@simon_schama) October 12, 2016
Now more than ever it is vital that we understand how imagery works to construct and deconstruct ideas & ideologies. #WhyArtHistoryMatters
— Lucy Bradnock (@lucybradnock) October 14, 2016
Scrolling through the numerous tweets answering the call #WhyArtHistoryMatters this week, I was struck by the consistency of the answers from people around the world. Over and over again, the same characteristics, skills, features, and justifications appear. Art history:
- teaches visual literacy and critical thinking
- encourages close looking and observational skills
- helps us understand the world but also question and interrogate it
- forces us to question the power of images – not just how they look but also how they can manipulate and be manipulated
- powerfully connects past to present
- is inherently cross- or inter-disciplinary
I am not sure what else I can contribute or that anything I claim is original [and please see some of the other long-form statements and essays including the official response from the Association of Art Historians and “My Art History Isn’t Soft!” from Anonymous Swiss Collector, but I might just reiterate then the following. We live in a world bursting with images and things, and while art history provides skills absolutely critical to navigating such an inundation, a simple, undeniable fact supersedes this: in every culture, in every age, there has been the impulse to create aesthetic (and also until very recent history simultaneously functional) objects, to express, explore, and visualize the human experience. In view of this, art and the study of its history is not a joke or frivolous or soft, but at the very heart of the human condition.
Now, art history as a discipline certainly has problems and issues, especially those related to elitism and narrow demographics, but as Griselda Pollock so brilliantly articulated this week,
The killing off of art history at A-level is a blow against democratisation. A lack of art history will deprive all young people of opportunities for new kinds of knowledge of the world they live in. It will close down the chance to acquire an understanding of the past and of the present through image and object, place and building, powerful patrons and craftspeople and makers…
We need to insist that the way art history is conceived and taught now expands horizons and is not just the old story of European white men. We should be trying harder to give more opportunities to young people in state education to have access to art and culture as the means of learning about themselves, their histories and their worlds through its study.
As a discipline, major, or as I largely teach it at my current institution a humanities elective, art history also helps our students critically see and question extant power structures, to grapple with controversial issues like cultural repatriation, censorship, iconoclasm, and the visual representations of minority groups in both the fine art and mass media spheres.
All of the attributes discussed above validate art history as a methodology, a discipline, and a way to critically think about and function in the contemporary world, but I would be remiss if I did not also take this opportunity to reiterate that art history is not a useless humanities degree, inadequately preparing students for 21st century careers. Beyond the fact that a liberal arts education, by design, is not about specific professional preparation, such stereotypical dismissals are not only incorrect but also outright dangerous. Looking back over the past decade, there has actually been an increase in articles, features, and opinion pieces in publications like Fortune, The Daily Princetonian, The New York Times, and Time extolling the virtues of humanities degrees, and even illuminating “How Art History Majors Power the U.S. Economy.” Medical schools and hospitals are integrating formal analysis skills into their curriculum, and professionals as diverse as first responders, educators, and social workers are utilizing skills inherent to art history to better observe the world around them. In both the US and the UK, creative industries including galleries and museums accounted for hundreds of billions of dollars within the economy. Students with art history degrees to not just advance to MA/ PhD programs or become academics, but go on to careers as curators, museum professionals, arts advocates, conservators, litigators specializing in art law and law enforcement, consultants, art therapists, librarians and archivists, auction professionals, gallerists, exhibition designers, educators, writers and critics, art authenticators or appraisers, and entrepreneurs.
Very little of what I have described here will come as a surprise to those involved in the discipline of art history. Such arguments or answers are frequently shared and expressed on social media, at conferences and symposia, in the classroom and office hours, in committee meetings, and perhaps even at familial gatherings and social events where we often find ourselves grilled over our professional purpose. We also should not kid ourselves; disciplinary relevance in an age of austerity and increasing budget cuts will only continue to be an issue. We know #WhyArtHistoryMatters. To #SaveArtHistory we simply need to a better job explaining why.