Intention matters. In the sum of history, that which sprang from accident or absurd circumstance is often elided with that arising from deliberate and direct action before committed to public memory. If minor events are remembered at all then, what chance can their causes have of retaining a place in the public memory?
The recent Tory scrapping of A-Level art history is no accident, but it seems sadly doomed to be remembered as just another “something that happened,” especially within a year characterised by momentous and consequential change in almost all corners of society.
Some commentators, such as the Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones, are behaving as if this process had already occurred. In response to Michael Gove’s scrapping of the subject, Jones notes (probably correctly) that art history only really flourished in private schools, serving the elite and, should it return, would require a restructuring and reorientation in the direction of the great populists Kenneth Clark or E.H. Gombrich. He may be correct in his analysis of the state of the subject in secondary education today but where he errs is in his assumption that all of this justifies the scrapping of it in the first place. Is the way to bring art history to more than the seventeen state schools in which it was provided to bin it completely?
And how, furthermore, can Jones be so myopic as to react to this event as if it existed outwith the wider Tory move to scrap “soft” subjects across the board – something often termed (with no objection from this writer) as a “cull?” To answer these questions and come to understand how Tory education cuts came to be lauded as egalitarian by a liberal Guardian columnist, a closer examination of his argument is in order.
First off, Jones does well to praise Clark and Gombrich as “great public intellectuals who could share the subtleties of their knowledge in lucid prose with millions of people” but when he perceives a slide of art history into elitism following their 60s heyday, he betrays something of a willing blindness to the facts. Eminent figures who have popularised art history since include Robert Hughes, whose TV series and accompanying book The Shock of The New went quite some way to stoking a national interest in the subject when broadcast in the early 80s. John Berger too, stands as a populist figure whose almost irreverent opposition to elitism in art is best encapsulated in his imperishable Ways of Seeing, yet again using the TV/book format.This work was not only popular, but was concerned throughout with the very class struggle Jones believes the Tories have blessed with their axing of the subject.
Nascent interest in art is almost certainly a very natural and experiential phenomenon; one may carry such a fascination in an academic direction, but that first obsession, derived from simply gazing and appreciating, surely penetrates all levels of society. In turn, this provides the well of people who tuned into Hughes and Berger’s TV series and surely still exist. Jones would do well to remember that before praising the Tories.
But of course, his misrepresentation of art history amounts to a trifle beside his major shortcoming of failing to see things in the wider context. What he doesn’t realise (or, more shamefully, doesn’t acknowledge) is that when Gove and the Tories cull “soft” subjects, they consolidate a foul system in which the value of knowledge itself is negated, and a generation are raised to see higher education only as a means to direct employment. For let us be clear, when they say “soft” they mean “Mickey Mouse” and whilst the existence of such silly degrees can’t be denied, we have now arrived at the absurd situation whereby such a rich and ancient discipline as art history, which invites the highest level of academic rigour, is assaulted by destructive neoliberals who want to crudely direct everyone towards engineering and finance.
Make no mistake, should you study almost any Arts subject these days, the present government sees you as an irritant, your discipline less worthy of investment than a futile nuclear deterrent or giving multinationals generous tax breaks.
That said, there is something bitterly impressive in how they’ve fooled so many into believing such destruction stems from a cherished anti-elitism. Shame on the likes of Jonathan Jones, so clearly an appreciator of art history, for not realising this before shooting his own side. As the latest incremental stage of this nauseating endeavour comes to pass, let us not forget its causes and the intention behind it, before it is engulfed in history.
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