Art is elitist. The history of art is elitist. But the internet is changing all that: art is accessible to everyone now. Except that it isn’t. Even considering the Ai Wei Weis and Petra Collins’s posting socially and politically-motivated work to social media, the art world itself remains the domain of the very wealthy. In the post-information age period between 2014 and 2016 the University of Oxford received, on average, 122 applications annually from independent schools, compared to 112 from state schools. Even considering the notoriously elitist Oxbridge application process, this statistic differs from other similar subjects such as History and English. So, if Instagram hasn’t changed anything (surprise, surprise) then what will?
History of Art education should be democratised. A close friend who studies Politics recently told me that studying History of Art wouldn’t interest them, because they like to study ‘real’ things. It is attitudes like this, the idea that to study the history of art is to study something ethereal, less cerebral, that discourage bright students, who have never been exposed to the reality of studying history of art, from considering it as an option. And exposure is the key word here. The History of Art A level, almost abolished in 2016, is taught almost exclusively in independent schools meaning that state school students are far less likely to consider the possibility of studying it at university.
At the time of the proposed abolition, Guardian art writer Jonathon Jones wrote about the triviality of the study of history of art, himself having studied what he describes as ‘proper’ history. He did make one good point however, one that is echoed by undergraduates. When we have a theoretical physicist making television programmes accessible enough to draw in huge prime-time audiences, where are all the accessible art historians? Perhaps the reason that we are all incapable of conveying our ideas to the uninitiated audience is because we only start our study in academic settings.
So, let’s start teaching history of art to students at the earliest possible stage. It is the perfect subject for a primary school setting. It brings a human relevance to those subjects like ‘proper’ history and can introduce children to otherwise overwhelming political and philosophical theories. It is, by its very nature, visually engaging, sometimes gruesome, sometimes funny. In other words, exactly the sort of thing to get children interested in learning about the world.