Make no mistake, art history is a hard subject. What’s soft is the decision to scrap it

15 October 2016

So: art history A-level is to be scrapped in 2018. However much they protest the fact, the decision taken by the exam board AQA seems related to the Conservative government’s policy of ranking subjects by perceived relative difficulty, using an analogy of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ that seems designed to belittle students and teachers who’ve apparently taken the easy way out. AQA deny this. Their claim is that art history – ditched along with archaeology and classical civilisation, whose demise has raised much less of a public fuss, for which you can provide your own punchline – is too difficult to mark successfully in an exam setting. It’s too ‘complex and specialist’, apparently. Too ‘hard’, in other words.

Yes, art history is hard. As a former teacher of the subject, I’m familiar with the moment a student realises, with sinking heart, that he or she will have to spend more time reading than looking, more time writing than analysing. Anyone who’s ever taken art history at any level understands this: that art history is History in drag. ‘Historical context’, whatever that actually means, is foregrounded, with close looking at and discussion of objects secondary at best. Imagine studying English literature but spending most of the time talking about the economic, political and sociological context of King Lear, and only briefly discussing the way the thing was written: that’s art history. I’ve known people taking degrees in art history who barely ever look at art. That’s art history.

So, the hardness of art history could not be in doubt to anyone actually reading an art history syllabus, let alone a teacher or student. The skills gleaned in an art history degree are as widely transferable as those used in the study of history, or, to be honest, the sciences and maths, those apparently impregnable mainstays. To group art history with, say, art, is to misunderstand the way the subject is taught. Art history is to art what architectural history is to bricklaying. Most professional art historians I know would balk at the very notion of making a drawing, would never dream of making art themselves. Transfer that to English literature and you see the distinction. Which English teacher isn’t a part-time novelist or poet?

What hurts about this decision is the timing. The Association of Art Historians has been making a point of opening the subject up to state schools through their active campaigning and the publication of the first (ever) art history textbook, Thinking About Art. Art History Link-Up is currently providing free AS-level art history teaching at the Wallace Collection for state educated students, with outstanding results. (‘Currently’: what a sad thing to have to write.) And AQA, the exam board whose decision it was to drop the subject, had developed a new, more global and culturally diverse syllabus to drag the subject further into the 21st century.

We seemed to be on the verge of opening the subject up, of redefining what the subject means. Not now. A subject traditionally associated with a rarefied economic background will, in the face of this decision, remain that way. Children raised in an environment where visits to sites of cultural interest are commonplace will continue to have that opportunity, gaining all the cultural advantages and intellectual and emotional pleasures such visits afford. And those who aren’t? Well, they won’t. And so the culture of the unpaid internship, of the gap year grand tour, of the network of the old school tie – the art world’s funhouse mirror of social inequality in the world beyond – will be more intractable than ever. That’s why this matters.

Lead image: used under public domain licence


  1. Laura Archer Oct 16 2016 at 9:58 pm

    I completely agree. I was lucky enough to have Art History offered to me as an A-Level option at my state comprehensive school. So many pupils took it up, many going on to read it at university – myself included. Had the subject not been introduced to us at school, it’s unlikely we would have chosen it for our degrees. Thanks to Art History, I worked for three wonderful years at Sotheby’s Institute and am now at the Museum of London. Through the subject I have learnt about the cultures and politics of civilisations from Ancient Greece and Rome to contemporary China and South America – and not from the approved party line but from the everyday observations and responses of the artist. I have made friends and worked with people from all over the world and my understanding of history and politics no longer begins with Western Europe at the centre of everything. Not to mention the visual literacy skills that Art History teaches, which have allowed me to comprehend a multitude of ideas and beliefs regardless of time or geography. A very sad decision and, as you say, one that will only narrow such an open understanding of the world to a privileged few.

  2. The loss of art history is one step closer to society wearing a dull grey tracksuit and going to work in matching pods. Art=culture and culture=life. Embrace it, fight for it, or loose it.
    The author touches on a separate problem; how art history is taught. Having spent four superb years studying art history in Trinity College Dublin, I was flabbergasted to learn that students from the same course in other colleges graduated without knowing or understanding basic concepts or even correct terms; one colleague couldn’t tell me what a cornice was!
    Forget the canon; students should be taught to look and keep looking, to devise meaning from observation; and only then concern themselves with the economics of art history.

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