In Defence of Studying Art History

Art history at A-level is amongst the subjects to receive the axe by the government as part of Michael Gove’s cull of ‘soft’ subjects. AQA is the last exam board to offer the subject and students wishing to take the subject will see the last of it in 2018.

Indeed, Michael Gove’s opinion on the subject is not unfounded. As a final year art history student, it is a common opinion amongst those who fail to understand what the subject is truly about. From ‘all you do is look at paintings all day’ to ‘surely it’s all about your personal opinion, that makes it so easy’ – proves a great level of ignorance around the topic in question. To more intellectual insults by the likes of Jonathan Jones, who took his opinions to the Guardian determined to assert that “art history has become an obscurantist, elitist subject” by recollecting his days at Cambridge.

History of art not only deals with sensitive and highly intellectual subjectivity such as performativity and psychoanalysis, but is an interdisciplinary subject which can answer for a lot of the world’s history than most subjects can.

As the Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art said: “The definition of Art History as a ‘soft subject’ and the demise of its existence…seriously misunderstands a subject which is enormously important to the economy, culture and well-being of this country.”

However, due to its importance to the economy and cultural heritage of the world, this does not mean it is the last of art history. The subject is entrenched in our everyday living and to insist that axing it A-level is cementing the eventual death of the subject is incredibly dramatic. Indeed, less access is been given at an earlier stage to learn and be enriched by what the subject has to offer, but it does not mean the opportunity to learn at a later stage is no longer there. But, to insist that it is not just for the ‘posh’ and the ‘elite’ would be neglecting an element of truth; as the subject is offered at 17 state schools out of over 3’000 nationally which is a staggering difference of the subject being offered at over 90 fee-paying (private) schools.

Amongst the outrage, with art historians such as Griselda Pollock stating that “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” only exemplifies the very problems with art history. Throughout the last two years of teaching, all I have experienced is the narrative of the European white male. The subjectivity of colonialism and ‘primitive art’ is studied through the white male gaze. Did any art historian ever seek to find out how the female subjects of Gauguin’s paintings felt about a white intruder within their community? No, because quite frankly the white intruder is a common and apparently important motif in history, as they are either praised or dismissed all together.

Additionally, as the only black student on my course, I have found art history to be exclusive to the history of the western world – a predominantly white history.

Over my course of study, I have found that queer and black art are only spoken about in order to meet quota. Indeed, when they are spoken of its almost an attempt at making sense of ‘the unknown’ and only speaking of the problems of said topics and by this I mean a continuous narrative on slavery, as if that is all black history is about.

It is important that students feel represented and included – but by only speaking of such topics for three hours in one week and then moving back on to the subject matter of the heterosexual white male artist over a course of three years is problematic and shows a great lack of care in important narratives within our society. AQA’s very own specimen greatly deals with the western art world thus the European white male. So, we may insist all we like but we cannot deny a great deal of change is in order if art history is to survive.

Art history as a subject is mainly about revisionism and observation and by having our backs up against the wall about its removal at A-level, is counterproductive to actually seeing why that is the case and the very problems at hand. However, I’m inclined to agree with Griselda Pollock, that ‘it is intellectually challenging, historically sensitive, and, above all, it trained me to look analytically and think historically’ as it has completely moulded my general perspective in life and allowed me to mature in my thought process.

I am deeply sympathetic as I think it is certainly an invaluable subject to study but a revision of the specification would have been the more appropriate solution to its bad reviews than a complete axe. This should be a wake-up call to current and future art historians because as a subject it has a lot to answer for in its teachings, as art history still upholds elitist traditions which label it posh, elitist and specialist.

Words // Graca Mutseyami
Image // Frans van Mieris the Elder, Pictura (Allegory of Painting), detail (1661).