By MICHAEL BLACKBURN.
AS IF THE chattering classes didn’t have enough to worry about, another little storm has been rumbling around their skies to disturb their quinoa-based mindfulness. AQA, the last exam board in the UK to offer art history as an A-Level, has decided to drop it. The History of Art A-Level is now history.
The first article I read about this was in the Guardian, which conscientiously made sure we knew who to blame: Michael Gove, the now long since superseded Secretary of State for Education, because of his drive to eradicate “soft” subjects from the school curriculum. “Last art history A-level axed after Michael Gove cull of ‘soft’ subjects”, shrieked the headline, as if Gove spent half his time culling badgers and the other half culling soft, cuddly, innocent exams.
Art teachers, the Association of Art Historians, pupils and pundits all piled in with their outrage. “A big dull axe wielded by cultural pigmies”, tweeted Simon Schama. “Philistines must not prevail,” tweeted Sir Anthony Seldon. Deborah Swallow of the Courtauld said the move “seriously misunderstands [the] subject.”
Far from being an exercise in puritanical Tory instrumentalism, however, it turns out the decision is that of AQA alone, and is entirely rational and sensible, as even the original Guardian article reveals, because the numbers of pupils taking the exam do not justify the expense in offering it. According to the paper only 938 took the exam this year. Most of them were from independent, not state schools. Like all exams it requires markers with specialist knowledge; unlike the rest, though, there are not so many of them. It all comes down to costs, not dogma.
ON THE OTHER hand, some members of the Guardian set are not upset by the demise of art history. They see the exam as an example of the old class war, in which posh thickos get to study something useless at their expensive schools so that they can go on to take it at university rather than something more important (something “hard”, perhaps). A bit like the Duchess of Cambridge, in fact. For Jonathan Jones, it’s “a posh subject”, an “obscurantist, elitist subject” and its scrapping marks “the end of one privilege of the public-school elite.” Trots 1, Toffs nil.
Not quite, however, because Jones blots his socialist copybook by admitting his admiration for the old art establishment experts, Gombrich, and, more remarkably, Sir Kenneth Clark with his groundbreaking tv series, Civilisation, from 1969. The establishment credentials of these old boys, both expensively educated and amply gonged, is outweighed by the fact that they were popularisers of the genre, making it accessible to the multitudes. The problem is that since the 1980s the academics have turned their backs on popularising and concentrated on obscure “radical” approaches, unlike those in other parts of academia, such as science or history. With regard to Gombrich and Clark, then, history is irony in action. Poshos teach the proles. Toffs 1, Trots nil.
He may have a point. On the other hand it may all be down to the inexplicable fluctuation of fashions. Whatever the case I think that we should be truly egalitarian about the class thing and admit that even people whose mouths are rammed with family silver have the right to do an arty A-level if they wish. Much better that than “leisure studies” or “citizenship” (which I’ll take to mean left-wing doctrine dressed up as objective knowledge) — both of which have been scrapped. If I had my way there would be more classical art and music on the curriculum than there is at the moment. What is truly lacking in modern education is a sense of culture.
That may sound elitist to some ears — which is fine, because it is. But we have seen from the past that the way to make something like the history of art popular is to acknowledge its elitism and refrain from dumbing it down.
Currente Calamo columnist, poet, writer and lecturer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire . From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Fortnightly Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.