Why abandoning History of Art is a crime


Gary Kemp, me, Jeremy Deller in front of Deller’s work at the British Pavilion. Deller’s entire show used analysis of history of art esp W.Morris

Imagine being told you will never be given the chance to study the works of Charles Dickens at school. Because learning about Victorian literature is ‘soft’, overtly ‘specialist’ and not relevant. Actually, not just Victorian literature. Any literature. Or any music. Or actually, any creativity from the past. It’s all just a bit posh. And a bit silly. Furthermore Dickens, Mozart and Shakespeare have nothing to do with STEM, which as we all know is the key to a good career.
This is basically how the thinking goes on the study of History of Art, which has just been abandoned as a subject in English schools both at A Level and AS Level. Why? Because it is ‘specialist’. Because it necessitates the visiting of galleries. Because it is ‘soft’. What? History of Art is not about looking at pretty pictures, or Christmas card type visions of Madonnas and their bambinos. It really isn’t. Go to the National Portrait Gallery, and look at the pictures of the hatchet-faced Tudors. Go to the National Gallery, and look at the sheer erotica of the Rokeby Venus. Marvel at the working ethos evinced in Seurat’s bathers. I could go on. There’s a lot of cultural issues to unpack from these urgent canvasses.
Radical politics, as evinced by the groupings of the Magi around a Nativity scene. Sexual politics, as seen in a woman on a swing. Paens to industry, to patriotism, to religion, devotion, savagery, wealth, and escapism – the world’s galleries reveal very heart and soul of human life, thought and emotion, poured out over thousands of years across the world on canvas, on wood, and in marble, bronze, terracotta and straw.
Yes, you can pick up much from audioguides. But closing the educative door for young people in the visual arts is criminal. All but the most determined autodidact will wander through the rooms at Glasgow’s Burrell Collection, the Ferens in Hull, or the National in London, not knowing, because they will have no context. You will see solemn Madonnas clutching tiny babies. You will see a horse with no saddle, rearing. You will see a bunch of sunflowers. You will see wallpaper.

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