R.I.P. A-Level Art History?

Last week, the news broke that AQA, the only examining board to offer Art History as an A-Level, has decided to axe it as a subject in schools from 2018.


Annnnd breathe. I know. Heart shattering. Jaw dropping.

Whilst this may not be the main 10 o’clock news headliner, this decision will certainly have significant consequences for many working in arts education, whether they be the students or the teachers.

But before I go head long into why, let’s take a step back and consider the question:


What, exactly, is History of Art?…

Believe it or not, I have been asked this question a number of times so let’s try and set things straight.

Art History, put simply, is a bit like English Literature. Instead of the poems, plays and texts, however, you examine paintings, sculptures, drawings etc. There is no practical element to History of Art, i.e. we don’t paint stuff. It is an essay subject.

Objects produced at a certain time reflect the period in which they are created. This makes Art History an interdisciplinary subject, as Deborah Swallow, Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, emphasises in her response to the news.

Let’s take an example: Joseph Wright of Derby painted the below image during The Age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was, broadly speaking, an 18th century philosophical movement that encouraged the enlightening of oneself with more knowledge (ooh la la). It also went hand in hand with rapid scientific developments that took place in the second half of the 18th century.

Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768 (National Gallery, London)

There are so many symbols and all sorts of fascinating details in the painting which I won’t elaborate on here, but essentially the painting is commenting on the development of modern science and its effects on society.

Here, art, science and philosophy are sitting at the same table.

Whilst the painting is engaging on an initial, visual level (mood lighting supplied by the single candle and the moon outside), someone studying Art History would also look into the painting’s position in History and tap into the other disciplines which are linked to the image before them.

Now, for those of you reading this who may have studied the Social History of Art, fear not, this is not a theoretical essay on T.J.Clark and his Marxist interpretations of Art (for those of you reading this who haven’t – lucky you! It’s not exactly a light beach read!)

If I still have your attention, let’s now approach:

Why is History of Art being axed in schools?

So, AQA have stated that there are not enough experienced specialist examiners to continue the subject at A-Level and that no university requires applicants wanting to study the subject at a higher educational level to have done an A-level in Art History.

Some have declared that History of Art is a ‘posh’ subject taught only to those in fee paying schools. Jonathan Jones comments that the decision isn’t an attack on Art History but “the end of one of the privileges of the public school elite.” The statistics would seem to support this: in 2014 Art History was offered by 17 state schools and 90 fee paying schools.

So it would appear that one line of argument would be, to use Simon Schama’s comment on Twitter, a “classroom war between private and state school students.

History of Art has been dubbed a ‘soft’ as well as a ‘posh’ subject, being perceived to belong to a list of subjects culled as a result of a measures put in place by a certain Mr. Gove.

Number crunching, Art History style…

Money, of course, plays a part too: According to Nick Ross, Director of Art History Abroad, the entry fee for sitting AS Level Art History is £168.75. There are about 900 people taking the exam per year. This creates a revenue of £150,000, i.e. not much when you compare the 15,468 who took AQA English or 16,266 who took Maths in summer 2016…

This does not mean to say, however, that the interest in Art is non existent: according to the BBC, more than 43,000 pupils took an A-Level in Art and Design in summer 2016.


So, what is the crux of the problem?

Despite his rather prejudiced attack on the subject, Jones does argue that it needs a shake up. This is unlikely to happen by harking back to the somewhat dusty figures of E. H. Gombrich and Kenneth Clark and the saintly light in which Jones casts them. The real problem lies in making History of Art more accessible, more approachable (my own personal mantra, as you know). 

To do this, we must look forward and bring new ideas to the table and, like the best artists of their day, break the mould and step away from what has preceded. Gombrich and Clark – been there, done that. What can our generation offer the subject and how can it build on what has been said before?

Art History must rise above the prejudice of being a “posh, soft subject”. Posh or not, soft or not (whatever that all means) you do not need anything but an open mind to stand in front of a work of art and think “why?” or “how?” or “who?”

Art is created to be looked at, admired (or not) and discussed. By anyone and everyone.

To deny this study to students is heartbreaking. Especially in an age where visual literacy and the dissemination of images has never been so important or vast.

img_4453Yes, it is true that you don’t need an A-level in it to apply for it at uni, but is that all it counts for? What about those who are curious but perhaps wish to read something else for their degree, (that is, if they choose to go to uni)? Certainly, it should feature more in the syllabus’ of state schools – so why is the answer to cut it completely?

From the very first human drawing hunting scenes in his cave to Tracey Emin’s Unmade Bed, art has continued to inspire debate and encourage cultural exploration. It seems that to remove the chance of studying such a subject as Art History in schools is detrimental to later generations and short sighted by the current one.

One saving grace is that Art has existed for many years and the study of it will never truly die out as Art continues to fascinate. It is such a shame that we should see the day that it is considered unworthy of a classroom when, really, that is the subject’s natural environment.

Let us hope that with the end of this chapter, opportunities will arise for galleries and museums to co-ordinate with schools in their attempts to engage young minds with Art History and enable the subject to grow in new and exciting ways.


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