Education press this week has been full of opinion pieces about the demise of the AQA A level in History of Art. If you missed the story, it’s that the last remaining exam board (CCEA stopped theirs a few years’ ago) to set examinations in Art History is to scrap it after the current cohort’s sessions, claiming that it was struggling to recruit ‘sufficient experienced examiners.’ AQA asserted that its decision had 'nothing to do with the importance of the History of Art,’ but that the 'complex and specialist nature of the exams’ was not sustainable.
There are two lines of attack and defence in the discussions raging … Some commentators are positing that the study of Art History is elitist and just for posh kids; the likes of Dr Janina Raminez
are arguing that this cut will make it more so, and that all art should be for all. In fact, if you look at her twitter feed you will see a recurring hashtag #whyarthistorymatters (trending on 13 October) and her support for a 38 degree petition
The other argument is that it’s a soft subject without academic rigour. Professor Simon Schama
tweeted: Art history A level axed as “soft”. SOFT?? tell that to Kant, Hegel, Ruskin, Burckhardt, Panofsky, Schapiro and the rest. Adding, 'Axing Art History deals another blow to the creative capital of this country … Art History is an exacting discipline: to engage with it needs history, philosophy, languages, literature, tools the next generation needs.’
I would agree. I ended up doing two Art History courses as part of my Degree in English and Related Literature. I had developed a passion for 18th Century Literature and had the opportunity to further understand the period when a young curator from the V&A, Malcolm Baker
was seconded to York for a year, offering a course in 18th Century Sculpture in England and France and a course in 18th Century Portraiture. Researching and writing essays on The Art of Death, the Landscaping at Stowe and on fountains at Versailles (in the pre-internet age, of course!) took a great deal of discipline and took me to some very interesting places, too ('you can’t just look at a sculpture on a page, you have to get behind it with a torch’, as Malcolm taught us). I like to think I know something when I am looking at Roubiliac’s Nightingale Monument
in Westminster Abbey or at anything painted by Hogarth or Gainsborough or Reynolds, and The Wallace Collection
remains one of my favourite places in London. Hmm … Learning for learning’s sake?
We don’t happen to teach it at Freemen’s, but with a new Head of Art in post, it’s certainly something we could have explored. Except now we can’t. Not for A level, anyway. It’s being culled alongside Anthropology, Classical Civilisation and Creative Writing.
I asked Bridget Downing, our Head of Art, for her opinion: “I think the tragedy is that, along with so many other areas of life, the arts as a whole will be an avenue only open to the well-off … a tragedy for all of us … to drop History of Art seems so incredibly short sighted.”
Furthermore, she said it is, “terribly sad. I feel that, without sounding hysterical, there is a push to steadily reduce the value of ‘culture’ within education, turning it into a series of competencies. I feel that it is time to take a stand but the rug is being rapidly pulled away. I am regularly asked if Art A level has a ‘value’ and once I explain to parents that not only does it have a clear intrinsic value but that it has an obvious academic value, well regarded by Oxbridge and Russell Group universities, there is an interesting shift in approach; but it rather needs to be shouted from the roof tops. Above all it is the value of studying creative subjects as a whole that needs to be begun to be recognised … I feel that there is no lack of coincidence that as a university education becomes increasingly expensive, subjects that do not appear to have a direct financial value seem to be being lost. I think that we shall all be worse off because of it, as our architecture, town planning, design etc will all suffer.”