In defence of Art History: an open letter to the government

Image: Alexandra Holker
Image: Alexandra Holker
Image: Alexandra Holker

My love for art and its vibrant history has been present ever since I can remember. I was never ‘dragged’ round galleries by my parents; I wanted to be there. I needed to analyse our collective histories conveyed through oils, collage, inks and marble in order to understand my minuscule position within our vast shared experience. The study of Art History allows a peek into who we are; it is the oldest form of human expression, spanning beyond the dawn of language, music and literature.

It was only with the opportunity to study the discipline at A Level that I made the decision to devote my academic career, from school and beyond, to the subject. Without this choice, I am sure that looking at paintings would simply have stayed a hobby. As someone with academic dyspraxia, the ability to write A Level essays surrounding visual, tangible concepts rather than abstract facts meant that I could excel in my last years of school, allowing me to apply to both the universities of Cambridge and St Andrews. By culling Art History as an A Level, the government is cutting short the academic careers and passions of so many. The academic discipline has produced some of the country’s greatest commentators and critics on art, and it has been used by some of history’s greatest minds at the greatest universities to inform theories on human expression.

The study of Art History cannot be considered ‘soft’, as it is currently by various politicians and educational officials. It requires advanced analytical skill to be juggled with great emotional sensitivity and a complex understanding of visual objects in relation to people, both physically and figuratively. Analysing art has massive benefits for the academic and emotional development of young people, as it challenges opinions and notions about the world surrounding us. Why, purely because it is a more empathetic subject than those, which can be deemed logical or numerical, should it be considered ‘soft’? It is backward and impassive to place greater importance on less ‘emotional’ subjects, particularly at a time when the world could use a little more sympathetic perception and awareness of each other as individuals. It baffles me that in times of austerity these essential arts subjects, which are necessary for us to understand where we have gone wrong in history, are undervalued and considered as luxuries. It is confusing how art history can be considered as an ‘elite’ subject, when it is a field which strives to evaluate a wholly inclusive history of artistic expression comprising of all humans; from cave paintings, to Japanese calligraphy prints, to the sculptures of Michelangelo and the challenging canvases of Rothko. Art is an outlet, a manifesto, an insular exploration and a projection of what it means to be us.

Therefore, I implore those making these decisions to rethink. Otherwise, I, and many others who consider this incredible subject to be essential to the A Level curriculum, foresee a detrimental effect on the art and design industries, as well as our comprehension of our shared experiences and integrity as a compassionately educated population.

Please sign this petition to Save History of Art!


  1. What an extremely well-written article, showing just how passionate and well-educated a young lady this is, obviously rather better-informed than those who seem somewhat arbitrarily to have taken a decision to the detriment of our young people’s education.

  2. What do you make of the argument that History of Art is very much a subject for the elite? A small fraction of state schools took the class in comparison to the number of fee-paying schools that ran it. Also, with such a small uptake of the subject per year, you run the risk of nullifying the authenticity of the grade, especially as higher-tier A-Level grades are based on your percentile as a fraction of the whole. It is great that you received an offer from Cambridge for example, but perhaps someone with success in a tougher subject (tougher in the number of people taking the subject – none of that hard/soft bs) could have deserved that offer more.

    • I think you are mixing up cause and effect. Most state schools can’t afford to run this subject. Perhaps their pupils (particularly the more visual learners) would be be better served if they could.

  3. I don’t see why History of Art has to be seen as any more elite than Mathematics or Physics. Think how important art and design is to the UK economy. Our designers are world class – exporting the very best of design globally.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.