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Roland Martin - Issue #34

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#whyarthistorymatters - Raminez, Schama, Ruskin and the rest ... 
 

Roland Martin

October 18 · Issue #34 · View online
Headmaster - City of London Freemen's school; Chief Officer - City of London - '...write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing' Benjamin Franklin

#whyarthistorymatters - Raminez, Schama, Ruskin and the rest … 

History of art teachers devastated as A-level axed - BBC News
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.”
Last art history A-level axed after Michael Gove cull of 'soft' subjects | Education | The Guardian
The move has come about as a direct result of Michael Gove’s call to prioritise ‘more challenging, more ambitious and more rigorous’ subjects.
There is still a Pre-U available, that claims to 'develop a high level of visual and/or other forms of awareness and develops the critical understanding of works of art, placing them firmly in the context in which they are found.’ But of what use is that to a comprehensive school duty-bound to follow the A level route? Out of the 165 schools listed as offering Pre-U, the majority of those are selective schools - independent or grammar, or high-achieving sixth-form colleges. There’s an interesting exploration of the Pre-U from back in 2018 in The Guardian, asking if the Pre-U courses are 'merely elitist?’
So is the decision to cut Art History classist, elitist, both or neither?
According to (state educated) Oxford University lecturer and course director Dr Janina Ramirez (The Independent) dropping Art History as an A-level will have 'serious consequences for the art industry … To not give students the opportunity is a disgrace and it makes me extremely concerned …There are some wonderful state schools who offer the A-level where it’s really popular, but the subject has been gradually pushed out of secondary education … By dropping Art History, the art world will remain the domain of the wealthy elite. There’s no way state school pupils will be able to get the same level of access without it. It’s classist.’
The following two pieces - one from The Telegraph, one from The Guardian - offer points of view on the elitist argument.
Studying history of art is more than a posh hobby
Goodbye art history A-level, you served the elite well | Jonathan Jones | Opinion | The Guardian
The Association of Art Historians has duly, and convincingly, responded: ‘Like many of our colleagues across education and culture we don’t hold with the notion that creative subjects are ‘soft’ subjects nor that they lack criticality or analytical rigour. The draft specification for the new History of Art A level in particular is engaging, modern, diverse and relevant … Its themes offer students the potential insight into the problems and creative solutions found by past and present societies across the world. As a consequence we believe that the specification not only supports the development of core skills in writing and communication and the ability to read and research widely and effectively but also encourages empathy, tolerance and mutual respect.’ Hmm … I believe I blogged about the importance of empathy a few editions ago … But to end, here’s a final (perhaps more edgy than normal?) piece to ruminate upon, exploring how the cull might well affect the future of our schools, according to a chosen few critics:
How Will Scrapping 'Soft Subjects' Like Art History Affect British Education? | VICE | United Kingdom
But for now, unless the petition grows legs, even if we won’t get to teach it at A level any more, at least at Freemen’s we can look for light where we can find it, and enhance cultural awareness in Free Minds; at least we can still take our children into the many free galleries available to us; at least post-18 students can still hope to study it at university too. For now …
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