This week the news broke that Art History A-Level is being axed.
You might not think you care about this. But I think that if you’re reading this, you should. Here’s why:
ARGUMENT 1: It’s a reflection on the society we want to cultivate
As much as I wish it were possible, Messy Lines is not my day job. Actually, teaching is. As a teacher of quite young children, I see it as my role to inspire them in all walks of life. One of the greatest aspects of my job, in fact, is to get to answer some of their many, varied and surprisingly deep questions. If a child has heard about the Mariana Trench on Octonauts and wants to know more, or if they’re really into survial shows, I am perfectly willing to throw out the lesson plans and just go with that for 20 minutes. And they love it.
I do this in the hope that this interest in the world around them stays with them for life. But the philosophy of choosing to study for the love of learning is being phased out. Vocational subjects are en vogue because they’re “useful”, in that they lead to a direct career. I don’t deny that STEM is important, but not at the expense of everything else. Besides, what about if you don’t like the career you choose? If you’d asked me as an 18-year-old what I wanted to do in the future, I had no clue. I went to university just to learn more about things I was interested in. Shouldn’t that be reason enough in itself? But now, it may very well be that fewer pupils apply for Art History courses for the simple reason that they don’t know they’re interested in it…
Cultures and societies consistently define themselves through art. I went to the Ice Age exhibition at the British Museum a few years ago and there it was, proof that even 30,000 years ago, people used art to understand and define themselves. By understanding this, we can look at how we are defining ourselves as a society now, and what we want to stand for. It’s a cliche that art is a universal language, but it’s true: easy to become fluent in, and tells you so much about the culture and society it comes from.
What does it say about our culture that enagaging with this language is being discouraged?
ARGUMENT 2: My conspiracy-theory-esque fears
Being the most pessimistic and cynical version of myself, here’s what I forsee. Maybe in 10, 20, even 50 years, when the drop-off in those studying artistic subjects leads to the arts being a more elite world and fewer interested visitors through the doors of museums. It leaves whichever government is in charge with a perfect excuse to save money by stopping funding to arts organisations.
Something I have found since I started the blog is that people are surprised that I’m not already a “part of the art world”. And their surprise, surprises me. It’s like we’re already accustomed to putting art in a niche, of being surprised that anyone in the wider world would be interested. But surely art has message it wants to send to the whole world, not just the art world? Indeed, the whole point of me starting Messy Lines was to help spread the word about art and get it out of the niche, not just to preach to the converted.
Taking away the Art History A-Level makes it a subject, and potentially a career, that only those who are either artistic or lucky enough to have family interested in art will even consider pursuing. And that’s my biggest problem with the axing of the Art History A-Level – it makes art seem like far more of a niche subject.
Some journalists have been commenting that it’s no loss, that it’s only a subject for the elite anyway. But art can be – should be – part of anybody’s range of experience and understanding. I actually find the argument of it being an “elitist” subject offensive: are they saying that only pupils whose parents can afford private education are intelligent enough to understand art?
If it’s that only the rich will have the time and money to be able to pursue it for a future career option, well, there may be some truth in that, and maybe the art world as a whole needs to consider why the argument is being framed by the social status of children. But that doesn’t mean that young people should be deprived of intellectual opportunities.
ARGUMENT 3: It genuinely changes lives.
Let’s go back to point 1: I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life when I left school. I was pretty interested in a couple of things in school, but not enough to dedicate myself to for a whole 3 years. Then I happened to fall into the clutches of Art History (thanks Durham Combined Arts setup circa 2005!) and, as it were, “found my thing”.
I loved this subject. Studying the paintings brought together all the things I was interested in: philosophy, history, politics, world cultures, into one subject. It encouraged me to think critically about what I believed to be the “truth” of things and consider the different perspectives from which an artist may work. I seriously considered pursuing a career related to Art History at the time, but had reasons for choosing teaching instead. But the inspiration of those studies stuck with me, and they’re the reason I’m even writing this now.
And without it, I’d feel like a big part of me – the part that goes to art shows, has opinions and continues to use those critical faculties – was missing.
I hope I do make it clear here that even if you’re reading this as a non-art specialist, but you care about intellectual curiosity and human endeavour, you care about this. The thing is, I don’t exactly know what we can do about it. But even discussing it has to be a decent starting point, surely?
PS: Featured Image stolen from Wikipedia, but in Italian law images from their museums aren’t under copyright so anyone can look at them, anytime. Plus they’re going to start giving every 18 year old €500 just to go to museums and the theatre with and they’re matching cultural spending to defense spending. How good is that?!