End of Art History?

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In his recent Guardian article, Goodbye art history A-Level, you served the elite well, art critic Jonathan Jones writes: “the drive to prove art history is neither posh nor soft has resulted in a dry, Byzantine academism”. Elsewhere in his article, Jones explains how all the popular and readable art history books on sale have been written, not by art historians but by art critics…hmm. At Artyonline, we haven’t the resources to do a head count of the situation in order to prove one thing or another. Instead, we will further analyse Jones’ article, to try to pinpoint from where his surmise springs.

A clear (and beautiful) piece on the Romanesque

Jones writes: “When I want a clear (and beautiful) explanation of what the Romanesque is and why it matters, I dig out my DVD of (Kenneth) Clark’s Civilization for the hundredth time.” For those of you who don’t know, Civilization was filmed in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, following Clark’s years of work as a museum and gallery curator. We can’t know 100%, but I would say that such roles prepared Clark for his television career.

Jones describes his experiences as a student of “proper” history, at Cambridge: “I sometimes ventured into the art history faculty library. It was gorgeous, like a gentleman’s club, with students kitted out like Sebastian Flyte…seated in comfy armchairs, languidly leafing through books on the baroque”. Ah, if only my own HoA undergrad experience had been like that. I seem to remember my gloomy bedsit, propping my eyelids open with matchsticks, late o’nights, while I finished yet another assignment, before snatching a few hours’ sleep before clocking in on my call centre job…sadly, no languid leafing for me.

Very few HoA grads work in galleries

Jones observes that HoA graduates “gravitate to Britain’s booming art market to work in Sothebys…some will become curators at museums, or teach and research art history. What none seem able to do is share their knowledge with the general public in the way (Ernst) Gombrich or Clark did.” Eh? If we agree that teaching art history isn’t sharing knowledge with the general public (who they?), then maybe Jones is right.

But as an HoA grad, I happen to know that careers like these are available to very few other HoA grads. If Jones had actually spoken with a number of us before arriving at his surmise, he might have met at least some of the  HoA grads who work in proper teaching, in administration and communication, in advertising and marketing, and in the heritage industry, running workshops and programs to communicate knowledge of our vast, visual heritage to the group whom, I believe, he deems to be the general public. And he might even have met the HoA grads who run sites like Artyonline.

Ordinary people, not a privileged race

While in converse with us, Jones would have learned that HoA graduates do not differ greatly from graduates of proper disciplines, that in spite of the omnipresent aura of privilege, the majority of us do not go from zero to hero, from degree ceremony to stellar career in museum or gallery as a preamble to signing the lucrative television contract or book deal. If we have failed in anything, it is to prove that we, too, are human beings rather than a race of rarefied entities that do not need to learn anything more following graduation.

But part of this failure must lie with misperception; instead of spinning mystique about us, mass-media commentators like Jones should understand that we, too, need proper jobs, to acquire skills, to undertake postgrad courses, apprenticeships and stints of work experience on our journeys upwards – don’t Guardian art critics have to do this? And if none of the popular books on art history are by “academic” art historians, it could be because fewer of the latter group have the associations with the publishing industry that are available to art critics who work for the big news brands.

Learning to write

At this time I am pursuing a Masters’ degree in English literature, to try to compensate for this dearth in my education – I have never worked as a museum curator – following which I may be qualified to pen the clear (and beautiful) article on what the Romanesque is and why it matters, which our Artyonline site lacks. In the meantime, readers can follow the Arty Guides link on the home page to access our suite of other articles; articles on impressionism, futurism, surrealism and many more topics. Clear and beautiful? Do let us know….


 (Mary Phelan, 2016)

About Mary Phelan

I am an art historian, magazine editor and design philosopher. In addition to editing Artyonline, I have my own website, http://www.maryphelan.info/ and write a blog, Design Victim, on the pain and pleasure of encountering designed objects in modern life. http://maryphelan.blogspot.com/ Readers can also follow my latest Hub Pages article that provides directions on how to create Ray Lichtenstein-type images using computer drawing software. http://hubpages.com/hub/Draw-Like-Lichtenstein-Using-Computer-Graphic-Software