In 2016, the exam board AQA announced that the Art History A-level was to be dropped from 2018. In light of this sad news, five friends told us why they believed the decision was such a huge loss for young people.
Cancelling Art History A-level is a sad and retrograde step
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 five, 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
My Art History isn't 'Soft'! On the culling of difficult, meaningful subjects in secondary education
In the late 1990s, in central Georgia, I sat the US equivalent of the Art History A-level: Advanced Placement Art History. It was incredibly difficult. We alternated between rote memorisation of ancient Greek pottery forms, and the sorts of analytical discussions of 'meaning' that students in their late teens are rarely pushed to engage with in a structured, academic way. I don't remember how well I did on the exam and, really, it doesn't matter. That Art History class inspired my ambition and gave me direction. It didn't change my life, it gave all the things that I was interested in context and meaning. I entered University filled with confidence about what I wanted to do with my life and Art History has always been part of it.
So much of the discussion of the elimination of the Art History A-levels has focused on how enriching the subject is for learners who eventually work in unrelated fields. That is absolutely the case. Those analytical discussions of intangibles make students better writers and communicators. If art is a proxy for culture, the exposure to and exploration of art from around the world opens students up to alternative ways of thinking and is a reasonable avenue for challenging xenophobia and racism. Great stuff... but what about those of us who, quite literally, use the contents of their secondary school Art History education every day? That's me. As I sat in 2007 on a beautiful Greek island, logging beautiful archaeological finds from the week's excavations, I cannot even begin to describe how thankful I was that I had memorised those pottery forms when I was 16 years old. Every time I wrote down 'kylix handle fragment', I felt amazing.
I found a career in Art History and I don't think anyone would call my work soft. I study antiquities looting and smuggling and, these days, art crime, thanks to my Advanced Placement Art History class which was followed by a PhD in Archaeology from Cambridge and a research fellowship and now a Lectureship at the University of Glasgow. Because of Art History, I've hacked my way through Central American jungles with a machete to inspect looted Maya sites, picked my way through earthquake damaged temples in South Asia, and driven over dry riverbeds in the dead of night in the rural Andes because the roads were covered in fiery blockades. Art History has brought me salmonella, ringworm and athlete's foot, severe sunburn, a torn eardrum, and a 'high altitude thing' (to quote my doctor in La Paz) that was never fully diagnosed but produced constant fever and kept my at-rest heart rate at 130 bpm. Art history has caused me to live in a tent for six-month stretches and stay in the kinds of 'hotels' where turkeys (two of them!) fall into your bed through an open window at dawn. Art History has me engaging with policymakers in the UK government, in other governments, and at an international level at the UN, UNODC, and UNESCO. My specific work in Art History, I'm told again by the UK Government and others, is part of our international fight against global terrorism.
Where does that leave students like me who see the Art History A-level as their pathway into a rewarding career? With this latest cull, we really are not offering them anything. Yes, it is hard to design tests for Art History and hard to assess those tests. By 'soft', critics don't mean 'too easy', they mean 'too fluffy'. Aside from regurgitating Greek pottery form names, which I promise you IS useful, writing about art is challenging, even for those of us who do that for a living. But so what? Isn't that exactly why we should be supporting students who choose this 'soft' but difficult topics of study? To paraphrase Kennedy here, shouldn't we encourage subjects like Art History not because they are easy but because they are hard?
Dr Donna Yates, Lecturer in Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime, University of Glasgow
Pallant House Gallery introduces free entry for students to increase access to art
It saddens me to hear of the plans to axe the teaching of A-level Art History. To me, it is not so much a ‘soft' subject, contrary to what Michael Gove might believe, as a tool for understanding the visual culture in which we live and the history of our societies. My school did not offer Art History as an option, and so, inspired by a trip around Italy, I enrolled onto an evening class at an adult education centre and set about undertaking an A-level in a year. It was a tough call – the course tutor didn't have time to teach us our ‘special subject' in just two hours a week and so, somewhat ambitiously, I taught myself about the High Renaissance and Mannerism in my school library. Predictably, my school teachers were not at all happy, believing that it distracted me from my ‘real' subjects: Geography, History and English Literature. But as a 16-year-old, those discussions about the history of art with a group of adults of all ages changed the course of my life, leading me to study it at the University of Warwick and subsequently the Courtauld Institute, and ultimately to pursue it as a career as a museum curator.
I didn't go into it for the promise of a well-paid career: I knew I wanted to work in public museums, and have only worked in the charity sector during my career. Yet, in an era of substantial tuition fees it seems that students from less privileged backgrounds will understandably be pushed to study ‘hard' subjects at university with clear career paths to well-paid and established professions, which may be worthy and valuable, but I believe a rounded society also needs artists, academics, writers, museums curators and what we might call ‘servants of culture'. I suspect that if it hadn't been for my elder sister studying to be a doctor, my parents might have pushed me towards law or another equivalent area. I was fortunate to have parents that supported my wish to study Art History as they recognised my passion and knew that I would work hard.
Ending the A-level in Art History removes yet another entry point for students from different cultural and less affluent economic backgrounds to study it in higher education, and it will inevitably become an increasingly elite subject, as it was in the past. Of course, most Art History departments accept students without a previous A-level in the subject, but the reality for me is that if I didn't have that pre-understanding of the subject, I might not have made that leap to a completely unknown discipline and I would have probably studied something else instead and my life would probably have been quite different.
Furthermore, I worry that as the details of Brexit are negotiated the uncertainty for international students and instability of the pound will inevitably affect both the finances and teaching mix of our university courses, particularly those with international programmes that benefit from schemes such as Erasmus, as I did when I studied Renaissance art for a term in Venice as part of my degree at the University of Warwick.
The axing of the Art History A-level signals a marginalisation of the subject, and in such times it is increasingly important for museums and galleries to find ways around curriculum relevance and enabling access. Although as an independent charitable museum Pallant House Gallery is dependent on ticketed entry, this autumn we have introduced free entry for all students as a way to enable art to be an important part of students' life whatever they study. It's a small thing, but in such times, museums need to do what we can to increase access for students.
Simon Martin, Artistic Director Pallant House Gallery
Art History A-level was a lifeline for me at school
I am very sad to hear that Art History A-level is to be axed in England. It is already impossible to study Art History as a stand-alone subject for Scottish Highers, I believe. I never studied Fine Art, but Art History A-level was a lifeline for me at school, complementing and extending the other subjects I studied (English and French). I took it against the wishes of my father, who thought it was a soft option and would make me unemployable, but in fact it set me on a career path to university and beyond.
More than that, though, Art History A-level taught me to think, to be curious, to take risks and to try things out. Helping me realise that complex ideas could be expressed visually, it opened up a whole new way of thinking about and understanding the world and myself within it. I'm sad that young people won't get that any more – they will be the poorer for it, and so will the world.
As a professional working in the world of art, I regret that ours is seen as a field that is less worthy of study than others. But mostly I regret that young people will no longer have the option to formulate ideas in the context of the visual, to understand art as a powerful context for thinking things through.
Fiona Bradley, Director, The Fruitmarket Gallery
The arts sector has been and remains one of the few genuine success stories in modern British society
I was extremely disappointed to learn that after 2018 it will become impossible to study History of Art at A-level. This is yet another example of an increasingly instrumental view of education that narrows both the ambitions and opportunities of young people in this country.
Art history isn't a 'soft' subject. It is a meta subject that brings together so many other disciplines, and is integral to any serious understanding of our past. Moreover, in the last few decades, it's been an invaluable tool to expose the social, sexual and racial prejudices that aren't always expressed in words.
The arts sector has been and remains one of the few genuine success stories in modern British society. This country's international reputation depends in part on the continued excellence of its art institutions. I worry that this unnecessary decision will cause long-term harm to the cultural life of the nation.
As a Director of Studies in History of Art at the University of Cambridge, I want to make it very clear that we will continue to welcome applications from those who haven't had the opportunity to study Art History at school. Whatever AQA declares, this thrilling subject should be open to all.
Dr James Fox, Director of Studies in History of Art at the University of Cambridge
Update: Art History is saved!
On 1st December 2016, after a successful campaign led by the Association of Art Historians, it was announced that a new exam board, Pearson, was to develop a new A-level in the History of Art for teaching from September 2017.
When it was announced that the History of Art A-level was to be discontinued, Art UK joined the thousands of voices telling the world #WhyArtHistoryMatters. We heard from lecturers, heads of department and directors who all told us what they'd gained from studying art history, and why it mattered that the opportunity to do so was being taken away from young people. At Art UK, our ethos is that art should be accessible and open to the whole nation, and taking away the opportunity to study art at A-level was depriving young people of the opportunity to learn about a part of their cultural heritage.
For some people, studying the History of Art will be the gateway to a lifelong love of the subject, and they may go on to be the future directors and curators of some of the UK's amazing arts institutions. For others, it will simply be a chance to study a subject they might never have felt able to access otherwise, a way into talking about new ideas and combining the study of art with literature, politics and science. As the artist Jeremy Deller says, 'Art history is the study of power, politics, identity and humanity, it makes perfect sense to keep the exam.'
People all across the arts sector have reacted with relief and joy to hear the news – including Charles Saumarez Smith, the Chief Executive of the Royal Academy: 'On behalf of the Royal Academy of Arts and the Royal Academicians, we are delighted that the art history A-Level exam has been saved. Art history teaches rigorous analytical skills and requires students to engage not only with art but with history, literature, politics, languages and the sciences. In a culture dominated by the visual, there is a powerful argument that we need such skills more than ever.'
Art UK was similarly delighted that the History of Art A-level is back on the syllabus.
Andrew Ellis, Director of Art UK