I made my best academic choice more than 30 years ago, when I opted to study Art History for A-levels. At the time, several people tried to discourage me, telling me to choose a proper subject instead. I’m not a specialist and I’ve never worked for a gallery, but the cultural literacy that I gained sitting at the feet of my teacher Paul Kilsby and Charlie Mussett gave me a foundation on which to build a lifetime of looking at visual arts. I wish every teenager could have the same experience.
Art, particularly contemporary art, often feels intimidating. An art gallery can be like a maze without an obvious entrance. I do not think we should assume that huge visitor numbers at galleries like Tate Modern mean a corresponding relish for the avant garde. Although more than five million people have visited the Baltic Gallery in Gateshead since it opened ten years ago, it has always been my hunch that many of them go up to the top floor in the lift, look at the wonderful view of Tyneside, descend, and walk straight out again. I hope I’m mistaken.
I’m not blaming the visitors. Often galleries don’t have good interpretation to help viewers understand what a particular artist is trying to do. I know it’s a difficult balance. You don’t want too much interpretation, because it risks overwhelming your response. But you need something. I remember visiting a show by the Dutch artist Mark Manders. I couldn’t find a way in. Then the invigilator saw me puzzling and mentioned the artist’s obsessive compulsion about the number 5, and I suddenly got so much more from the installations. But this is one of only a couple of times in my experience that I’ve had help from gallery staff.
Mostly, it feels as if you should lower your voice, rather than discuss the work. Sometimes, curators seem to be creating exhibitions to impress other curators, rather than to inspire their visitors. I suspect that many people living in the shadow of one of these great Lottery-funded ziggurats of high art never dream of going inside, despite the fact that it has been almost entirely funded with their own money. They’ve got better things to do, or they feel it isn’t for them. If I’m right, this must be partly about the atmosphere of many galleries, and partly about the image of contemporary art and partly about the lack of good art education. Education in art and music is about sharing cultural capital, and enabling people to enjoy their birthright. So cancelling Art History A level is a sad and retrograde step.
What does a citizen of Britain need to know? The government is rightly keen for us to be literate and numerate and to know something about science. I also think that young people should know about sex. And I think they should know about art. These are the languages in which a good life is lived. Everything else can be learned later.
Tom Shakespeare, Professor of Disability Research, UEA