in defence of art history
The Conservative government has axed the Art History A-Level, just another defeat in the battle to prove that art matters, not just to our culture, but to our economy.
After 18 years of primary and secondary education, we should know better than to have faith in examination boards, but last week spelled another Olympian achievement in their slow descent.
AQA, the board most of us spent our teenage years praying would get hit by a giant, fuck-off meteor just before our GCSEs, announced its decision to drop its Art History A-Level. Apparently, the decision is neither a reflection on the "importance" of art history, nor a financial decision due to relatively low uptake among students (last year only 839 pupils took the A-level and 721 the AS-level, largely due to a lack of provision by state and private schools alike). In a statement following the decision, AQA declared, "Our number one priority is making sure every student gets the results they deserve - and the complex and specialist nature of the exams in this subject creates too many risks on that front."
Even by the standards of sclerotic educational bureaucracies, the announcement was mealy-mouthed bullshit at its most opaque: in the context of swingeing cuts to arts funding at all levels of public life and relentless government initiatives to drive us all into STEM subjects, of course the decision is financial, and of course it speaks to the marginalisation of the arts. Yet AQA's statement does, in spite of its obscurantist waffle, expose its guiding ideology and most shameful preoccupation: results.
Older generations may not understand what "results" means to ours; they might not feel their stomach tighten or the wave of nauseating anxiety the word provokes. Their system was not our own: education was free, right through university, and the system - while oppressively pale, male and stale - didn't transform the wealth of human knowledge into the dazzlingly monotonous tick-box exercises that haunt today's pupils. But the effect of results mania is more than just a key factor driving the exponential rise in stress among the under-25s and installing anxiety as a central condition of millennial experience: it sidelines rich bodies of knowledge that aren't easily quantifiable or examinable. Susan Sontag had it right in 1966: "From now until the end of history," she wrote, "We are stuck with the task of defending art."
The idea that the arts aren't vocational, or that they don't nurture employable skills, is a hangover from a very different economic era, one still peddled by a generation whose vision of the creative industries is a hemp-clad aristotwat explaining why the triangle he sketched on some loo roll is a master class in conceptual art. The Creative Industries Federation released a paper last week demonstrating just how erroneous that idea is: the creative industries are worth well in excess of £85bn per annum to the UK economy, and employ 1 in 11 of all working people. Since the 2008 crash, it has been the fastest growing sector of the British economy. The critical and creative faculties that art, design, graphics and - yes, even art history - develop are of profound importance to our prosperity.
Yet the very idea of employability as the sole end of knowledge - particularly for 16 and 17 year olds who might not yet have had their curiosity extinguished by the drudgery of endless examination - should be as unsettling as it is bleak. Any defence of art on the basis of its instrumental value - that is, what it can achieve beyond itself - is starkly incomplete, and entirely alien to what art is as an experience. You don't go to a conference on accounting to hope to discover something fundamental to your experience of the world, just as you don't go to the Tate to pick up tips on how to sleaze your way to your first million.
It's more valuable than ever precisely because it is so reflexive, so unrelated to other ends, aims, and goals.
Experientially, the appeal of the arts is anti-instrumental. It is, in some way, an end in itself. Whether, after Kant, we understand art as a sophisticated interplay of the sensible, imaginative part of consciousness and the rational, cognitive mind, or whether, in the words of Kanye, it's about being "able to see the truth and then express it" (Twitter philosophy at its finest), it fulfils something primal. Call it what you will: aesthetic experience, beauty, awe, or any other term you wouldn't be caught dead using down Spoons on a Friday night - something, in some art, on some occasions, has a tangible impact on us.
Whether it's a Rembrandt portrait, an O'Keefe orchid, an Abramovich performance, or a cacophonous post-internet eye-fuck on Tumblr, art does something. And for those it doesn't move, it's often the sheer inaccessibility of art and contextual knowledge that proves alienating - something cutting it from the final years of free education does nothing to change. In a society fixated on quantifying everything from calories burned to steps taken, the experience of being moved by art is a vital antidote. It's more valuable than ever precisely because it is so reflexive, so unrelated to other ends, aims, goals, and so distinct from the constant economic struggle that pits classes against each other.
And then there's the politics of it all. John Berger's classic Ways of Seeing put it best: "A people or a class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose and to act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history," he writes. "This is why… the entire art of the past has now become a political issue."
That art is not the reserve of the many is a black mark on the entire establishment; democratising access to it helps reveal the shaky foundations on which we all live. As one example, Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors doesn't just depict two fancy white men: it depicts a European class on the verge of indelibly transforming the world, where new wealth would systematically exploit the underclasses yet produce some of the most accomplished art the world has seen; which would see man bend the natural world into inexplicably beautiful forms, but instil the kind of reckless disregard for nature that has us hurtling toward climate catastrophe today.
In more modern terms, think back to Kara Walker's 2014 sugar sphinx. One enigmatic feline form exploded discussions about the politics of representation, the overwhelming whiteness of the art world, the capacity to forge monumental art from slave histories and dispossession - all through a couple of tonnes of sugar.
The elitism of the art world that some commentators decry isn't solved by scrapping public education of that world, but by diversifying and expanding access to it.
Each represents (and problematises) a certain political worldview, and the interrogation of that worldview disrupts our ways of seeing the world. Whether that gets you a 2% pay rise or a B rather than a C at GSCE shouldn't matter: it's only because we so abjectly fail to forge a society where leisure is valued as much as work and where people are supported by the state to pursue holistic interests rather than coerced into work for work's sake that the minutiae of capitalism - there, I said it - matter so much. But if these things are true of art, they aren't necessarily true of art history. What has one paltry A-level course got to do with grandiose theorising on art?
Well, essentially, that nothing makes complete sense outside of its history. Do you need to know the socio-economic transformation of the early Renaissance and the birth of merchant capitalism to think The Ambassadors is beautiful? Of course not. But does understanding the history of black exploitation alluded to in Kara Walker's work enrich the interplay between thought and imagination when in front of it? Of course it does.
Knowing where a piece sits in the canon - or, as importantly, outside of the canon - isn't an essential pre-requisite of enjoying art, and to claim it is reproduces the classist bullshit that mystifies art and prevents its enjoyment by more people. But making that knowledge available, whether to the disinterested viewer or the artist reaching into history to rethink and re-envision the present, should be something we care about. The virulent elitism of the art world that some commentators smugly decry isn't solved by scrapping public education of that world, but by diversifying and expanding access to it. That's where critique comes from; that's where reform is born.
Perhaps defending art history on such idealistic grounds will fall on deaf ears; perhaps marshalling the array of evidence that the arts are central to Britain's economic prosperity in 2016 will find more sympathetic ears. But sometimes, we should stand on principle, and if we're resisting the relentless quantification and monetisation of human existence through examination or profit margins, we should resist the very terms in which such dull ideologies express themselves. We should refuse to put a number, a price, or a grade on what art does to us, and defend it in its own language.
Art and art history are important in and of themselves as forms of knowledge and experience, and as new ways to consider, and for some, remould the world. Think it's just the preserve of the moneyed? Go to the refugee camps in Calais or the displaced communities in Palestine: even in dire straits, people draw, paint, create and situate those works in histories that have been ruptured. That the British government and examination boards can't see this says rather more about them than it does the importance of the arts and their history.
Text Edward Siddons