The A Level may have been scrapped but the study of the subject must continueby Claire Coveney / October 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
On 13th October, the examining board AQA announced that it will drop History of Art as an A Level, as well as a host of other subjects including Archaeology and Creative Writing. AQA was the only remaining board to offer History of Art and thus the last sixth-formers will sit exams for this qualification in June 2018. The AQA has stated that this was a “difficult decision” made primarily because of a shortage of “experienced examiners.
As someone who not only studied History of Art at A Level, but also at degree level, and topped it off with a Masters in Visual Culture, you might assume that my starting point here would be my personal experience. I could explain that, before choosing the subject, I had never considered that History of Art could tell me so much about the world, about different cultures, histories and politics; that I could learn to write analytically on a subject just through what I had learned from an image. But although this is true, since the announcement there have been numerous well-written accounts like this (you can find many of them on Twitter via the hashtag #WhyArtHistoryMatters). Instead, I want to focus on what it is about art history that seems to get under people’s skin, and how we at the Association of Art Historians (AAH) are challenging these misconceptions.
Since the announcement, there has been a passionate outpouring of support for the subject, including from well-known artists and other public figures. Almost a third of UK universities offer art history as a degree, in some guise or another, so its academic credentials should not be in dispute. Yet an image persists of the field as elitist, posh and old-fashioned. It is not difficult to understand why people who have no idea what it entails to study art history see it that way. “It’s a hobby, not a qualification,” is the kind of statement we frequently hear. With the small number of schools offering the subject you can appreciate why the public might think that there is no demand for the study of art history aside from a privileged few.
But this position is a slippery slope. Art history is not the only liberal arts qualification to be getting a bad rap at the moment. Subjects that were once considered strong degree prospects, that could give you a well-rounded understanding of the world and a range of transferable skills, are now in the firing line. Even History and English, once the cornerstone of a good university, are deemed to not be career-orientated enough. In the current financial climate the focus is on STEM subjects, with young adults and their parents having to weigh up what degree is worth getting into debt for. The media reinforces this message: “Science, technology, engineering and maths top the list of highest paying degrees,” explained the Independent in 2015, and then earlier this year, “Graduates in creative arts and mass communications might find that their three years at uni are not worth the cash.
I am not suggesting that English and History are in danger of being scrapped at A Level too. However, the dropping of History of Art sends a message: that liberal arts subjects don’t matter as much. That if you don’t make “smart” choices for A-Level and degree courses, you are destined to lead a frustrated, penniless existence. It places all art and humanities subject at a worrying “sub” level.
It is this kind of warped message that the AAH are trying to counter with our campaign and ongoing activities. Our long-term approach is to support art history in education from primary to postgraduate level and beyond, utilising wider learning settings such as museums, galleries and other cultural organisations. We hope to teach all children how to apply creative and analytical thinking; to see the world differently and understand histories, cultures and societies through arts, objects and materials. By supporting and championing the subject, we hope to encourage a renewed respect for art history that has been missing in education for too long.
You can the find the AAH’s full statement plus details on the campaign here.
Claire Coveney, Association of Art Historians