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Penny Huntsman writes about the importance of the Art History A-Level

Why we need to save the Art History A-Level

Penny Huntsman tells us why she's joining the fight to save the Art History A-Level

Posted by Stephanie Broad | October 18, 2016 | People, policy, politics

By Penny Huntsman

Following the recent demise of the Art History A-Level, and the subsequent call to arms to save it, we have to ask some pertinent questions: Why is art history so important?  Why has its too often fragmented body of teachers come together so forcefully to save it? Why should it be more accessible? In the midst of this crisis I feel impelled to attempt to answer these questions, if only to justify why I seek to be a part of a passionate movement to resurrect it.

Art History is many things which are time - and context - dependent, but above all, art is a form of communication, and everyone should have the opportunity to speak its language. Denying some social classes the opportunity to engage with the past prevents them from communicating effectively in the present.

Art History teaches us how to decode encoded messages and to become critical analysts. The subject has indeed resided overwhelmingly in independent schools, and performs all of the ideal functions suggested by political philosopher Harry Brighouse as needed by young people to become autonomous adult learners capable of leading ‘flourishing lives’.  

Teachers of Art History even have the privilege of avoiding the de-humanising ‘banking’ system of education deemed by educator and philosopher Paulo Freire as negating creativity and the ability to transform the world in the way young people need to.

Leaning once more on the seminal work of Freire to explain why Art History is so important, I suggest that the subject offers a body of knowledge which is capable of ‘demythologizing’ concealed realities. Art History encourages the kind of critical discussion capable of exposing truths. 

Along with many other ordinary Art History teachers, I am able to illustrate ‘demythologizing’ in action in most lessons. Let’s take an art-historical analysis of French artist, Ingres’ Grand Odalisque, 1819, as an example. A typical lesson would not pore over this particular nude’s fleshy beauty in the same way its 19th century audience did, but rather deconstruct her ‘femininity’ and ‘otherness’ in such a way as to unveil both patriarchy and imperialism, thus opening up a critical dialogue about the oppression of knowledge itself.

Crucially, art history does this with the very learners – the privileged – who tend to have the opportunity to learn in a consciously critical way from birth. Schools like mine share all that they can – including me – with state schools because, despite the government’s best efforts to crush creativity, most of us still prize education for education’s sake.  It’s probably important to share with the reader that I was state-school educated, and it was extra-curricular trips that got me thinking about art, which changed my life course.

The students’ enthusiasm was palpable, their gratitude disproportionate

Tired of telling people how big the subject could – should – be, I used a recent taster lesson in a state school to experiment with the idea of Art History as a vital body of critical pedagogy and to dispel some myths. It was the best two days’ voluntary work of my life. I created a lecture ‘Art as Protest’.  I started with a timeless classic, ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’, – well it’s prettily-painted graffiti to be precise – and then moved onto Banksy’s rebellious youth-pleasers and JR’s posters in the favelas of Brazil. Shamelessly, I selected them because they chimed with the students’ geography project on the Olympics in Brazil and demonstrated the relevance of art history today. It had to be juicy, but then art history can be whatever you want it to be – it’s the history of everything. The students’ enthusiasm was palpable, their gratitude disproportionate. Horrifying was the revelation that not a single student had any idea of what art history was about. Now that they knew, they wanted more of it. Young people rejecting Art History is fine by me, but young people not being given the chance to even know of it is not. This is a social justice issue for me, and Art History can even teach social justice; characteristically inter-disciplinary, the subject can also teach global citizenship in a world where tolerance and understanding need, more than ever, to underpin every facet of a child’s education. 

The History of Art A-Level was introduced in 1974 and has been dominated by elitist discourses to create an unjust academic landscape ever since. Ironically, Art History’s self-perpetuating elitism has unwittingly brought about its demise: it’s a numbers ‘game’, to use a consciously Bourdieusian term, and social class inclusivity is inconveniently essential to art history’s commercial viability. The problem with Art History is a numbers problem, and its solution seems to be straightforwardly numbers based too – increasing participation in Art History would provide sufficient financial return to ensure its survival. A further ridiculous irony.

Art history is characterised by contradiction: The Warwick Commission, 2015, estimates the arts sector ‘contributes almost £77bn in value added, equivalent to 5.0% of the economy’. This positive economic and political landscape contrasts starkly with the reality of what we have been faced with this week.

The Association of Art Historians sponsored the first dedicated textbook for the subject; The Worshipful Company of Art Scholars continue to sponsor tickets for state school pupils to attend the AAH’s annual ‘Ways of Seeing Conference’; a new charity, ‘Art History in Schools’, has been launched to support the subject’s uptake in schools and the training of teachers; galleries and museums have dovetailed resources with the needs of teachers in order to enrich student learning. This year, as never before, everyone has unified around a common cause.

It seems that the swell of rebellion which has formed against an unjust situation has shocked the decision makers

It seems that the swell of rebellion which has formed against an unjust situation has shocked the decision makers.  The rebellion, from my perspective at least, is not aimed towards individuals or even examination boards, but towards the perpetual failure to recognise the enormous value of the subject, not least in such an image-saturated world.

For all that this is a disaster, the crisis has nevertheless shone a full-spectrum light on a subject in need of serious media attention. As teachers, we’ve all bounced up and down in desperation to be heard, but as in any great tragedy, it took the subject’s death before anyone listened.  

Perhaps unexpectedly, I suggest that resources alone are not good enough: the art-history textbook I wrote – Thinking about Art - is not good enough; free entry to galleries and museums is not good enough; myriad initiatives from Russell Group Universities are not good enough. There’s an unexplored space, another dimension: young people have to feel as though these opportunities are theirs to take. It’s not always about being given the opportunities to achieve what we want, but about knowing what we have to choose from, and not feeling like a ‘fish out of water’ if we do. 

I suggest we need to reframe the questioning: we can have a free textbook if we want one, but why would we choose to want one? We can go to look at great paintings for free if we want to, but why would we want to? Currently, most young people are denied the opportunity to know what art history is or what difference it can make to their lives. It’s not all doom and gloom: we simply have to seize this transient spotlight to make this subject accessible to all. Then, an army of young people from every walk of life will take full advantage of the truly wonderful opportunities great institutions have lined up for them.

It has long been recognised that cultural capital is the vehicle for social mobility. Art history is a ready-made body of cultural capital, and there never has been a good reason as to why it cannot be made available to everyone.

We can all do our bit for social justice, and I am in awe of my peers – many of whom had dedicated their professional lives to this cause long before I arrived on the scene – but, in the end, learners will only flourish through education if the government enables them to. 

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