Save Art History
The first time I understood Art History to be a subject, rather than something you did at the weekends with your parents, was at my sixth-form open day aged sixteen. I had chosen my other A-Level subjects, but chanced across a classroom at the end of the school filled with pictures of paintings and stacks of colourful books. I could recognise some of them – Rubens, Gainsborough, postcards of cathedrals, Mondrian. All the students were smiling and saying how much they had enjoyed their lessons. I crossed Italian off my course choices and signed up that evening.
Art History was the first class of term at this new school. I remember distinctly that we were shown two images, one of the 'Red House' – a significant building of the Arts & Crafts movement – and the other, Richard Hamilton’s collage, Just what was it that made yesterday’s homes so different. Our teacher didn’t give us their titles or dates or much information at all, but asked us to spend some time working out what we were looking at. This was my first experience of a formalist appreciation for visual culture and the start of shaping my language of how to look and talk about art.
From this followed the happiest two years of my school life. Our brilliant teacher, passionate about his subject and eager that we knew far more than the exam board required us, introduced my class to concepts and movements, artists and critics, steadily shifting us into critically engaged, knowledgeable young people. Lessons were a mixture of debate, discussion, presentations and endless numbers of slides. By the second year I had read (some of) Baudelaire, questioned how feminist readings might change Henry Moore sculpture and could tell you the architectural differences between Greek and Roman temples. To have even a superficial familiarity with the visual world, with history and its makers, was deeply empowering. I filled pages and pages of notebooks with new terminology, quotes, references, books to read, places to visit.
To think that a school subject could be so enjoyable was a revelation to me. In my A-Level year I wrote an extended essay on Botticelli’s 'Primavera' and humanism. My bedroom floor was briefly filled with excerpts of Petrarch, postcards of the Medici and a pack of tissues bought in Florence with the faces of 'The Three Graces'. This was the first proper bit of independent research I had done and I loved it. I still keep a rather dog-eared copy of the 'Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism' on my bookshelf.
And what I learnt in those classes fed into my other A-Level subjects. When studying Schoenberg and serialism in music, I could think of the disjointed nudes of Egon Schiele, the ‘angst-filled voids’ of blank paper against the anti-academism of twelve-tone composition. I could understand the terror Milton writes of in 'Paradise Lost' after looking at Masaccio’s fifteenth century fresco, the 'Expulsion from the Garden of Eden'. The contorted bodies of Adam and Eve and their faces of anguish gave the poetry context, a potency that sometimes only images can give.
All this didn’t happen at an elite private school. These classes that brought wonder and fascination to me took place in a Cambridge sixth-form, a state school known for turning out brilliant students, yet one of fifteen to offer Art History at A-Level. At the time I didn’t realise how fortunate I was to have this chance love affair with the subject.
After being encouraged to apply for an Art History degree, I spent the next few years expanding the core foundation of knowledge I had gained at A-Level, first as an undergraduate and then as a postgraduate in architectural history at the Courtauld Institute. After graduating, I briefly went back to my sixth-form to teach AS and A-Level. Only a few years older than the students in front of me, I was amazed by their curiosity and their willingness to challenge and critique. I had four classes, each bursting with interested students and at least a third of these were going on to study Art History at university. In this small corner of the country, Art History was, and still is, very much alive.
Today I am a researcher for an artist. I’ve spent the last three years in archives and libraries, travelling across the UK and Europe to retrieve material that last year was turned into a bestselling book. I still use all the skills I was equipped with at A-Level – the ability to identify at a glance what medium or period a work is, to link visual material with other sources and to consider the meaning of objects in their widest cultural context. I was privileged to have a good university education and I’m privileged to have a job now that is hugely rewarding, but its no coincidence that my drive for this hard-won career started in the classroom over a decade ago.
After hearing the news last month that the exam board AQA have decided to remove Art History from their syllabus by 2018, I decided to set up an online campaign to lobby against the decision. It has since gained over 18,000 signatures, receiving support from the 'Association of Art Historians' and circulation amongst university departments and online by leading art historians. The personal responses have been overwhelming and moving; accounts of how studying Art History from a young age has transformed university choices and career prospects, deepened cultural engagement and fostered a respect for history and its craft.
I’ve waited until now to add my thoughts to the many articles and blogs being written about this change to the curriculum. My voice is a small one amongst the many well-known artists and art historians who have already expressed their doubts and dismay about the decision. But this petition and the reactions it has generated has proved that Art History is about humanity. And surely, whatever our background, we should encourage and embrace that.
About the author:
Nerissa Taysom studied Art History at the University of Bristol and the Courtauld Institute, where she specialised in medieval architecture. She now works for the artist and writer Edmund de Waal in Research, Publications & Engagement. Also trained in classical music, she is passionate about bringing art and music together, and has programmed sound projects at the Royal Academy, Kings Place, Turner Contemporary, Fitzwilliam Museum and the Courtauld Gallery. She is currently working on a book about sound and space in the 15th century writings of Margery Kempe.