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Art History: why I'm tired of my degree receiving unfair criticism


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Art history is an interdisciplinary subject, covering the study of history, anthropology, sociology, classics, literature, languages, chemistry and art; the history of art is a lot of things, but I would never describe it as ‘soft’ or exclusive.

Yet, when it was announced in October that AQA planned to scrap A level Art History in 2018, it was reported to be amongst the group of ‘soft’ subjects that Michael Gove had proposed to axe as Education Secretary. In response to the news, art history faced dismissive criticisms that it was elitist and required reform.

Art gallery

Following a passionate campaign led by leading figures in the art industry, the A level has thankfully been saved. However, the original news nonetheless brought to light that there is a general underappreciation of the study of art and art history.

It is frustrating to hear my degree deemed weaker than the ‘facilitating’ or ‘hard’ subjects. At university, I will admit that I work a tad too much and sleep a tad too little to keep up with both the demands of my course and my own overambitious expectations. I do so, happily enough, because I applied for my degree knowing full well that it would be far from ‘soft’.

For prospective students to now be told that the subject is less academically respected or challenging than others, it can turn away the most hard-working and ambitious students that would in fact thrive at it.

Amongst the most worrying of responses to AQA's proposed plans was Jonathon Jones's article in the Guardian. He argues that the issue of art history is not that it is ‘soft’, but instead that it is elitist.

Referring to statistics that art history is offered at more fee-paying schools than state schools, he claims, “far from a savage attack on the people’s art history, this is the end of one privilege of the public-school elite.”

Whilst I understand Jones’s argument, I do not agree with it. Losing A level Art History would have affected everybody and worsened, rather than solved, the issue of art history's accessibility. It should go without saying that the more people denied access to the subject, the more inaccessible it becomes, only worsening the problem.

According to Jones, “art history at university level is itself a bit of a posh subject.” If by “posh”, he is again referring to the “public-school elite” that art history is apparently for, I struggle to relate to this claim.

Jones acknowledges that he was not an art history student himself at university, having studied “proper history” at Cambridge instead. As a state-school educated art history student, I am tired of defending my degree against claims of exclusive elitism made by people who have not themselves studied it.

Presenting art history as elitist unhelpfully reinforces the idea that the subject is exclusive, arguably contributing to AQA's initial plan to scrap the A level. Instead, we should be focusing on how the study of art history adds value to life and society, and making conscious efforts to widen the subject's outreach.

Art history is not a ‘soft’ subject for a privileged few. It can and should be available to any students that share a capability and drive to study it. To improve art history’s accessibility, the subject at A level and degree level should be celebrated, encouraged, and more widely available.

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