History of Art: a posh girl’s soft subject or invaluable cultural education? This question seems to be on the mind of many in the art world this week after the news that the A Level in the subject is to be axed.
This troubling decision has been made by AQA, the last exam board in England to offer the subject as an A Level. The reasoning behind this seems to be manifold. Firstly, it comes after Michael Gove as Education Secretary announced, over two years ago now, the need for A-Levels and GCSEs in arts subjects to become more “rigorous and demanding.”
As one who studied Art History A-Level I can say with hand on my heart that it was most certainly a rigorous subject to learn. We covered centuries of history, learning dates of artworks by heart and biographies of artists by rote. Furthermore, this history not only focused on paintings and sculpture, but on the context behind these works of art. At the same time as studying the history of the artistic canon, we were studying the French revolution (all of them); the Napoleonic Wars; Victorian class boundaries; Nietzschean philosophy; the rise of Communism; the American depression; and waves of Feminism. This was a multi-faceted education, as it continues to be so at University level.
Earlier this year, in following Gove’s lead, AQA set out to rewrite the History of Art A Level syllabus. Their proposal was met by great approval, especially in the widening of its course content to include a great deal more of non-Western art. This in itself was fantastic news in the step towards educational institutions in History of Art dealing with the problem of only following the long-accepted, traditional canon of art history laid out by the likes of Ernst Gombrich, author of ‘The Story of Art’, that ignores historical minorities, whether other races or genders. Thus AQA should have been applauded and encouraged in this teaching.
However, after only some months, the exam board decided it was too much of a struggle to recruit the specialist examiners needed to continue this A Level, which is already taught to the minority. This past year only 839 students sat the A Level, in comparison to the 43,000 and above that sat A-Levels in art and design. Surely this is a problem that is part of a cycle? Few students have access to art historical education therefore few move into it professionally, meaning fewer have a chance to start on this path. Rather than giving up, should we not address this now and fix it for future generations?
Indeed, the Association of Art Historians released a statement expressing their concerns with the future of the wider art industry. The loss of this early education, which they described as “a unique opportunity to engage with and to think differently about the world around them”, will discourage interest in the area as a whole. The counter-argument is that the A Level is not needed in anyway for University degrees in the same subject. But what about the other subjects that would have benefitted from some background information? There are many students in art and design who wish they had had the chance to study the history of their discipline.
Another counter-argument that is hard to ignore is the fact that History of Art is considered a posh subject to learn, taught only to the elite at their private schools (only a handful of state schools offer the A Level currently). Jonathon Jones of the Guardian certainly ties it to its stereotypes as a “posh person’s leisure activity”, where as he studied “proper history”: but he also praises Gombrich’s one dimensional art history as the crème-de-la-crème of introductions on this subject. Besides, axing this A Level only pushes it into a further elitist area of those lucky enough to develop an interest in their spare time.
It is clear that improvements need to be made in the teaching of History of Art before University level, in the widening of its availability (some schemes were beginning to encourage cross-school teaching of the subject to do so) and in the broadening of its subject matter. This is not going to be done by running away from its teaching full stop.