Is Art History a “soft” subject?

In defence of a discipline under attack

Just a couple of days ago, the UK exam provider AQA announced that it was scrapping Art History at A-Level, as of next year. As the only provider, this signals the death of Art History at secondary level education. The arguments supporting the cut, say art history is too “soft”, and not “useful” enough — which I take to mean “not obviously employable” enough. Some even use backwardly use the evidence that since the subject is mainly taught in private schools, it is too “posh” to merit studying.

That studies of the subject are predominantly undertaken by privileged young people is not an indictment of the subject, but the short-sighted policy which directs our education system. There are hundreds of articles popping up defending the use value and unpicking our faulty education policy.

I want to talk about the more slippery idea, that Art History is “soft”.

Our world is fuelled by images. No image is neutral. Each is captured, cropped and designed to communicate a certain agenda. Most of these agendas are inane, some far from it.

What I am going to say might sound dramatic, but I do not think it fanciful. If anything, events worldwide have shown us what we thought impossible can come to pass and more. We’re not living in a stable, soft world anymore.

That our world is increasingly uncertain does not mean we need our children to be more science-based, on the contrary: we need a profound understanding of culture, for everyone. Culture is what stands between tanks and chaos. There is no point educating our youth to build fantastic rockets, if they cannot have a conversation first, and for that, they need the tools to comprehend cultural movements and ideals that may be far from their own.

Art is not soft. Art is the way the hardest of powers have oppressed their public and expressed themselves. An understanding of art can be a force to recognise oppressive movements rising in our own times.

Art historians analyse images, sculpture and architecture over time, to see how kings, popes and chancellors bent art to convey a new order. Some of it hopeful, much of it sinister. To recognise a change in visual tone is to mark out a sinister trait that can repeat again. To study art history is to track the history of the power, how they used imagery and spectacle to dazzle successive generations into submission.

Take the subject of the male nude. Let’s look at three nudes from three ages.

First, is Michelangelo’s David (1501–1504), one of the most iconic sculptures ever made, synonymous now with ideals of beauty and the “rebirth” of the Renaissance. At the time, it was Florence’s call to arms, a “fuck you” to it’s competing neighbour states: we may be young and small, but we are a force to be reckoned with.

Second, here is The Torchbearer (renamed by Adolf Hitler as The Party) by Arno Breker (1938). A nude commissioned to flank the entrance of the new Reich Chancellery in Berlin. His steely body and active pose embodies the National Socialist Party’s ideals of masculine strength and discipline: a fine specimen of the Aryan race. We all know how that worked out. This sculpture was since lost or hidden, it can only be known from reproduction, and read about in books — most to be found in the Art History section.

Now look at this contemporary imaging of a very powerful man.

Notice anything?

Sure, part of studying art history is learning how paint is applied and stone is carved, knowledge which is largely useless for the outer world. But these are the building blocks of the source material, the leg-work which allows you to look deeper. At school, we learn our ABC’s before we read our first novel, we expand our grammar and vocabulary before reading Shakespeare.

Art Historians learn to decode man-made images through time, and this gives us the means to look at the media and the world with open, analytical eyes. Culture keeps our values straight and our memory strong through images and symbols. Unforgettable images of walls crashing down to ecstatic crowds allow us all to recognise the truly dark implications of this year’s promises of a new wall.

We need these tools to rationally pick apart images more urgently than ever in our image-saturated time. We learn this with words at the very least through to GCSE, and there is no talk of scrapping English GCSE. Visual communication needs just as much attention. And if there is a single student sitting their Art History A Level this year, who will one day lift their head above the parapet and call out a new threat to our society, then whatever cost to the treasury (probably just one fighter jet’s flight or an extra tank) is worth it.

Walls have come down in past decades, let’s not be so careless to think they cannot go up again.