Another week, another blow dealt to the Arts. This time it’s students who are most affected, with AQA making the decision that this will be the final year they offer Art History as an A-Level, claiming “the existing specification is challenging to mark and award.” In a statement released by the exam board, they reveal that “the specialist nature of the topics, the range of options, difficulties in recruiting sufficient experienced examiners, and limited entries” were all contributing factors in the decision to axe the subject from the curriculum once and for all. AQA were the last exam board to offer an A-Level in the subject, which 839 students sat final exams for last Summer.

”It’s long been perceived that Art History is subject for only the elite, only flourishing in private schools’’

It’s long been perceived that Art History is subject for only the elite, only flourishing in private schools. “There’s such a deep-rooted prejudice about art history being elitist,” Caroline Osborne, founder trustee of the Art History In Schools campaign group said, speaking to the Guardian in 2014. “People think it’s art appreciation plus salacious details about an artist’s life. But really it’s a visual toolkit. It’s about learning to see what you are looking at. Visual literacy is the key to everything nowadays.”

This move marks the latest in what many have seen as a cull of reputed “soft” subjects in the exam system unleashed by former education secretary, Michael Gove, with other subjects like performing arts and applied ICT. Students, teachers, and enthusiasts alike all took to social media today to express this displeasure at the decision, with historian and art critic Simon Schama tweeting that the move is “a big dull axe wielded by cultural pigmies.” The Association of Art Historians called the decision “a significant loss of access to a range of cultures, artefacts and ideas for young people,” and a campaign already been launched to save the subject from the cull.

The University of Nottingham Art History page was filled with staff, students, and alumni all expressing their displeasure at the decision today. Mark Rawlinson, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Arts, said: “the whole ‘soft’ subject narrative is especially annoying as it relies on a complete misunderstanding of the intellectual and pedagogical complexity of the subject. AQA’s decision only validates this wrongheaded view, which is equally alarming,” while Gabriele Neher, also Associate Professor in Faculty of Arts, earlier tweeted: “#whyarthistorymatters- because it teaches us to see and to question and to look beyond the obvious and immediate.”

”The debate around how useful Art History is in the ‘real world’ is one that has been raging since the subject first emerged as a specialism’’

The debate around how useful Art History is in the ‘real world’ is one that has been raging since the subject first emerged as a specialism, but, as pointed out by former student, and now art teacher, Brynmor Smart: “two thirds of our employment opportunities in the UK are in creative based industries and yet these subjects continue to be side-lined and axed.” Costanza Bergo, former Art History student who is now studying her masters at The Courtauld Institute of Art, said: “Crucially, Art History is what has taught me how to be critical of ‘images’ – of anything that is shown to me – in a way that no other subject has or could. To take away a tool so poetic and simultaneously so powerful and instrumental to the development of critical thinking, and to do it at a time in which we need our critical thinking skills more than ever, is both cruel and criminal.”

”Art History is a unique and difficult subject, despite the stereotypes’’

The debate around whether the Arts are useful subjects or not has been raging since long before Gove first announced his plans to reform the education system, and I have no doubt that the argument will continue long after his ‘improvements’ are complete. Art History is a unique and difficult subject, despite the stereotypes. Ask any Art History student at UoN about their subject and they will wax lyrical about their interest in it and, most importantly, how it definitely isn’t a “soft” subject. I have no doubt that art historians and enthusiasts will fight for the survival of the Art History A-Level, and if the #whyarthistorymatters is a reflection of their passion (it was in the top 100 trending twitter hashtags at the time of writing), I have no doubt that they will succeed. In the words of Costanza Bergo: “let’s not let art go gentle into that Tory goodnight.”

Ellen Smithies

Image Credit: Monica Nguyen via Flickr

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