Why art history matters…..

I haven’t written anything on the campaign  that has been running in the UK to raise the profile of art history as a taught discipline. The prospect of the extinction of Art History A- level appeared, and then disappeared, at the end of 2016. I did not feel I had much to add – the arguments were already being made. After all, as Michael Baxandall, always ahead of his time, almost said in 1972; ‘Money is very important in History of Art’.  Not quite what he meant, I know; but it was no surprise when it turned out that money, rather than any pressing academic issue, was behind the exam board AQA deciding to drop the subject.No doubt Pearson are stepping into the breach because they believe there is money in it.

I am going to add my piece now purely because today, as happens intermittently, I see something which reminds me why I am an art historian.  Something that makes my soul leap, and moves me to tears.  Something that makes all those freezing mornings trying to make my camera work with numb fingers in ancient churches worthwhile. More of that in my next post.  But it also moved me to wonder why on earth the debate about the worth of art history is happening at all.

No-one, as far as I know, even in these straightened times, is suggesting that we ditch English Literature from schools – are they?  The subject may have been ‘dumbed down’ in recent years, but it’s still taken as a given that the study of our written culture is ‘A Good Thing’.  Can anyone explain to me why the study of our visual culture is any different? It has the same ability to inform us about the time, and the place, in which it was produced, and to teach us about ourselves, as human. When did Art History become a subject just for posh people? It didn’t start out that way. For hundreds of years art was the medium through which Church and State projected their view to the majority of the population. Elizabeth I was as careful with her reproduced image as Kim Kardashian. Wherever you stand on the ‘Art as books for the illiterate’ debate, it is clear that fresco cycles in medieval churches brought Christian texts and ideas to life for many in a pre-literate and pre-photographic age. Art enabled communication on a large scale to those who could not read. Art really was for everyone.

Why is it now only studied in private schools, when literature is on the National Curriculum?

There.  I knew I could get quite angry about that when I thought about it properly…….


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