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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