Why Art History Matters

We read with distress the AQA Exam Board’s decision to drop Art History as an A and AS Level – this means the qualification will no longer be offered in any UK schools.  For those of us, who, like me have spent their adult lives working within the field, this decision is deeply worrying and suggests a lack of appreciation for the subject’s significance and impact at school level.

Professor Debby Swallow, Märit Rausing Director of the Courtauld, wrote an eloquent response to this news:

“The definition of Art History as a ‘soft subject’ and the demise of its existence as an A Level seriously misunderstands a subject which is enormously important to the economy, culture and well-being of this country.  History of Art is a rigorous interdisciplinary subject, which gives its students the critical skills to deal with a world that is increasingly saturated with images. It brings together visual analysis with history, languages, literature, chemistry, and art and design to name but a few inter-related areas of study and research. Those studying it at university level have a significant impact across the cultural sector, especially in public museums and galleries. Art History as a subject needs to be much better known and not denigrated. The Courtauld Institute of Art, the oldest higher education institution in this country dedicated to its study, is deeply committed to increasing understanding and enjoyment of the study of the history of art and to working with others to ensure that it is embedded across the school curriculum and is accessible to all our school students.”

We should be seeking to expand the subject, rather than, as the government’s policies with regards to school curricula have meant, reducing the focus on Arts subjects.  As our Head of Public Programmes Henrietta Hine comments, ‘In terms of widening participation young people can’t apply to study art history at university if they don’t know it exists as a subject; ceasing to offer the A level will surely only exacerbate the situation.’  Something leading Make Up Artist Kay Montano expresses in her comment:

kay-montano

Comments added to our Instagram posts citing Swallow’s statement and protesting this decision have shown the wealth of support for the subject in general – and the importance of maintaining, and indeed, working to increase its presence in British schools, opening it up to a broader range of young people.  As these responses from Theo Johns, a Fine Art Dealer and Agent, Farah Ebrahimi, Art Director at e15 and Philipp Mainzer Office for Art & Design, and Leslie Camhi, a journalist and author who has written for titles including Vogue and The New York Times show – art history opens our eyes to wider cultural significances and events:

theojohnsfineart farah-ebrahimi lesliecamhi

And, as Swallow points out, in an age of increasing reliance on images to communicate diverse meanings, cutting a subject that is predicated on developing an acute eye for representation’s significance and cultural resonances is wrong-headed.  This was something many of our Instagram followers commented on, including textile designer Peter D’Ascoli, and Art Historian and Costume maker Serena Foksaner:

peterdascoli serena_fokshaner

Art History as Gateway to Careers

Our alumni destinations demonstrate the breadth of experience and transferrable skills art history graduates have – in addition to those who find jobs in museums, galleries and academic, we have many who go on to work in law, banking, journalism, design, publishing and with the government, as well as many other fields. To illustrate this, here is the latest list of where our most recent former students were working six months after graduation – and remember, this is just from The Courtauld Institute:

  • Art Cuéllar-Nathan
  • Barbican Centre
  • Bloomsbury Publishing
  • Christie’s
  • David Chipperfield Architects
  • English Heritage
  • Frieze
  • Halcyon Gallery
  • Midas PR
  • National Trust
  • Peggy Guggenheim Collection
  • Pinewood Studios
  • Rijksmuseum
  • Royal Academy of Arts
  • Saatchi Gallery
  • Sotheby’s
  • Tate
  • The Courtauld Institute of Art
  • University of Cambridge
  • Victoria and Albert Museum
  • Yale Center for British Art

Source: Based on the latest Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey: 6 months after graduation

Art History, Dress & Fashion

My own students in Dress History, a branch of art history that again encompasses the subject’s breadth and diversity have an equally impressive range of post-graduation employment, ranging from museums and galleries, including The Museum at The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York to the Mode Museum in Antwerp and Tate Modern.  Others have worked within the fashion industry, as buyers, as journalists, for example at The Stylist, at Conde Nast and for fashion show producers.  Their success is indicative of the skills art history imparts, and the passion it instills in people to think creatively about historical and contemporary culture.

This relationship between understanding of art and dress history, again supports Hine’s comment about school level teaching opens young people up to the wider range of subjects that it is possible to explore at university level.  Something several of our Instagram followers commented on, including fashion historian Cassidy Zachary – @the_art_of_dress –

the_art_of_dress

Art History A Level also plays a significant role for many British fashion journalists and designers, providing early exposure to the ways art resonates within our culture, and how it has been and can be a key influence on designs – as seen in London womens- and menswear designer Phoebe English’s reaction:

phoebeenglish

Art History should be valued as a bridge between history, geography, literature and languages, and art and design subjects – it is a way to appreciate connections between arts and humanities and science subjects, and a conduit for creative expression in practical forms – as one commenter from New Zealand highlighted:

pamelajaney

Sarah Mower, US Voguerunway Chief Critic and British Fashion Council Ambassador for Emerging Talent has been ardent in her support for this campaign.  She credits her hugely successful career in fashion journalism to studying art history and benefitting from the myriad skills it equips us with:

“I was taught art history by Griselda Pollock and TJ Clark at Leeds University – it changed my way of being able to parse imagery, adding to what I had learned through history of art at state school, and It’s impossible to imagine being where I am without that. Fluency in art history and the ability to embed layers of meaning in clothes is a given amongst British educated fashion designers- I really believe it is deeply of the essence of our national character in fashion which others look at and envy, but cannot replicate, because these things start right back in childhood – and at school. High flyers in fashion who emerge in Britain constantly apply art history to their collections – they know how to research, and often backstage interviews are like art and fashion seminars today. Erdem’s spring collection was based on the discovery of 17th century clothes on a sunken ship, and his research in Bath museum of fashion; Mary Katrantzou quoted the art and archaeology of Knossos, Sarah Burton’s McQueen collection went into enormous depth about Scottish culture and includes a dress which uses the inspiration of a Victorian etching of a shipwreck, Phoebe Philo’s Celine quoted Yves Klein, JW Anderson borrowed from Henry V111’s portraits and discussed doublets and slashed sleeves backstage. This is just to skim the surface of the most recent round of shows – My point being: this level of creative practice is part and parcel of Britain’s commercial advantage in fashion. Fashion in the UK is worth £28 billion to the economy – take away the cultural alchemy of the creative intelligence which our designers turn into design, and you just have garments.  Whilst it is pure idiocy of a government to excise a crucial commercial weapon – if they want to look at it that way – we must look at their excuses for doing so. Firstly they complain they cannot find examiners – surely there are hundreds who are reading this who can volunteer? How do we do that? Secondly, supporting teachers and teaching – how can we, the creative community, do that in practical ways? Thirdly – I want to know how these decisions about A levels were made, and are only now being presented as a fait accompli. Frankly, it is to easy to sit around writing letters to the Guardian. Practical action has to be taken.”

We urge you to sign Courtauld alumnae Nerissa Taysom’s petition to show your support for maintaining Art History as an A Level subject and to campaign for a reversal of this decision:

https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-art-history-as-an-a-level-subject

Act:

Comment using the link at the bottom of The Guardian’s letter page: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/oct/16/a-level-art-history-should-never-have-been-given-the-brush-off

Click the link at the bottom of The Telegraph’s page to answer NO to the question ‘Do you support the decision to scrap A-level art history?’: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/16/art-history-cant-just-be-the-preserve-of-the-middle-class-in-a-n/

Read:

The Art Newspaper: http://theartnewspaper.com/news/news/uk-university-professors-condemn-axing-of-art-history-a-level-/

Association of Art Historians: http://aah.org.uk/campaigns

BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-37642722

Raoul Dufy for Bianchini Ferier, Gazette du Bon Ton 1920, no. 8

Raoul Dufy textile print “Longchamp” for Bianchini Ferier, Gazette du Bon Ton 1920, no. 8, Courtauld collections

Raoul Dufy for Gazette du Bon Ton, 1920, no. 1

Raoul Dufy for Gazette du Bon Ton, 1920, no. 1, Courtauld collections

Degas, Lady with a Parasol, 1870-72

Degas, Lady with a Parasol, 1870-72, Courtauld collections