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History of Art shouldn’t just be a subject for posh girls

4 March 2014

3:48 PM

4 March 2014

3:48 PM

There’s a campaign running at the moment to rebrand History of Art and clear up some of the myths surrounding the subject. It’s seen as a posh subject, studied by posh girls, and with good reason too: A-level History of Art is offered at only 17 state secondary schools out of more than 3,000, plus a further 15 sixth–form colleges. By contrast, over 90 fee-paying schools offer the subject.

I not only studied it at school, but went on to read it at university. And yes, the majority of the people I met while studying it were posh girls from privileged backgrounds. At university, the course was read by a number of foreign female students too, but their backgrounds were similar: privileged girls hailing from wealthy cities around Europe – Paris, Milan, Berlin.


I’ve never quite understood why History of Art should have such a bad reputation though. The reason I first picked it was because I wanted to study history, but not necessarily through the lens of politics or warfare. Instead, I was keen to study it through a cultural lens – which I believe to be just as good a way of understanding a civilization as any.

History of Art shouldn’t just be offered in private schools – but for a long while it has been, and as a result, this worthwhile, vigorous subject has been tarnished with the posh brush. It’s not helped by Kate Middleton standing in front of her vile portrait in the National Gallery, and saying it’s ‘brilliant. Just amazing. Absolutely brilliant’. Nice girls saying nice things about paintings that are clearly not nice shouldn’t be the point of the subject. It can be a meaty one, when given the chance.

So let’s imagine it in a different guise – as a chance to study the Nazis through the art they looted; as a way of understanding the Reformation through the paintings deemed sacrilegious; as an opportunity to revisit British political history through the eyes of Hogarth, Gillray and Cruickshank.

Michael Gove has said he wants state schools to aspire to become more like private schools. Offering History of Art seems a good place to start.

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Show comments
  • RavenRandom

    That’s just funny. Let’s face it, the history of art is a posh version of media studies.

  • SandySure

    What value does it create? What value does study of it create?

    Any study may create value, if it results in intellectual development of the student, so it may not be a completely worthless exercise.

    Why not study something that is useful in its own right? Maybe some girls (and boys) do not wish “to get their hands dirty”.

  • LizzieKee

    The negative comments posted here about history of art as a subject seem to come from irrelevant attitudes to class and not from any genuine knowledge of the subject. Why does privileged automatically have to equal “bad”? That just smacks of jealously and inverted snobbery. Lara Prendergast merely mentions “a campaign” but doesn’t even bother to say what it is. What sort of reporting is that? I am on the Schools’ Group committee of the Association of Art Historians and I am actually involved in the campaign that she is so vaguely alluding to, which is to make history of art A-level more widely available to state school students and to offer them free twilight classes if they wish to study the subject. I have taught history of art for the past 14 years both at A-level (in a state school) and at degree level. The students I teach, and have taught, come from an enormously wide range of backgrounds and are no more “elite” on average than any other students. Contrary to what people have said in these comments, the subject IS very demanding intellectually, and to suggest it is “bland” or not a serious subject just reflects on the lack of understanding and prejudices of the people who have posted these ill-informed comments. If you don’t have any direct understanding of what the subject actually involves then please think twice before posting ignorant and damaging knee-jerk remarks.

    • SandySure

      What is the point of it? If it interests you, OK; take it up as a hobby. Please don’t pretend it is useful beyond that.

      • LizzieKee

        I don’t need to take it up as a hobby, thanks. It
        is my job. If you would really like to find out the answer to your question, please get in touch with the Association of Art Historians. I prefer living in a culture where museums, galleries and other aspects of culture are run by professionals, not on a “hobby” basis. Fine if you don’t think it matters but a lot of other people do.

        • SandySure

          Relatively few do. Many more would benefit if your resource costs were switched to more useful activities.

          Museums etc have been around for a lot longer than “History of Art”…I’m pretty sure the guy who “invented” it as an academic discipline is still alive.

          • LizzieKee

            Sorry mate, game over! Vasari was born over
            500 years ago, and no, he is no longer with us. I don’t understand your hatred for something you clearly don’t know much about.

            • SandySure

              Pull your head out of it.

              How do you know what I know about it?

              It may be convenient to say Vasari “invented” the “disciplne”, but it is thoroughly disingenuous. Thed kind of garbage one must expect form people whose heads are stuck up the back end.

              • LizzieKee

                You win. Your argument is far too sophisticated for me.

                • SandySure

                  What did I win? I wasn’t competing in anything.

                  It is childish to respond in that way.

  • Gwangi

    You do not count further education colleges or art colleges in your stats; if you did, you’d see that a lot of those offer History of Art as a subject. I should know: I got my History of Art A level at one (though a leftwing professor I know accused me of being a ‘posh girl’ for having that A level, instead of one in working class historical studies or similar. The prejudice of leftie academics eh…
    State schools do not tend to – but then they rarely offer Law or Economics A levels either (reasons of difficulty and it’s hard to get teachers for em; business studies and English language A levels will get higher grades for most students).
    The REALLY sad thing is not that History of Art is not offered at state schools, but that something far more important and useful – foreign languages – are also much more studied at private than state schools.
    Why? Because it’s harder to get good grades in French, German etc GCSE and A levels, because these are REAL subjects which require years of study. Ditto for science. Far easier for the local comp to focus on media studies, RE, business studies and English language A level.

  • CC

    What I don’t understand is, what is the whole issue with ‘posh’ girls studying History of Art? I personally feel, without intending to sound rude, that it is an advantage for ‘posh’ girls (or people) to study history of art because they most likely know more about the art market. I say this because I went to a private school and my family and my friends collect works of art from auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Regardless, what is the problem with more privileged girls? I really don’t see the issue as, equally, there are other fields of study where privileged people study too.
    From experience, the reason why ‘posh’ girls study this particular subject is probably because they have been brought up to be aware of it, having been through a classical education. They are also aware of the art market, prices and quality.

  • Ipsmick

    A (male) friend of mine taught history of art at a Russell Group university. He sighs at the gulf between the way the discipline’s perceived (Fake or Fortune), and what it can involve (the extraordinary learning of a Panofsky). But then, this is a nation of shopkeepers, more interested in what a work of art would fetch at auction than anything else. It’s part of the pervasive, nasty anti-intellectualism that characterises many English people. He studied at a notable Institute of Art History which did indeed function primarily as a finishing school, but this didn’t get in the way of that minority interested in scholarship. This is a complex historical discipline. You have to work out how to know how to see the artefacts you study, and these can be remote as an arcane language, though they don’t immediately look it. They’re just images after all. And, though students in the history of art, as in all the humanities, are predominantly female, he told me that, for a lenghty period, many of these came from the public sector, comprehensives even. And did brilliantly, as was the case with some of the male students, too. It is only during the past decade or so that the subject has withered at A-level. This may be part of that process which has decided that public education is nothing to do with education and everything to do with arming a potential workforce with certain requisite skills. Educate the little blighters, and they might begin asking difficult questions.

  • justejudexultionis

    We need more posh women to become car mechanics in the eastern part of Glasgow eg Shettleston.

  • Caius Keys

    I dunno, the art history girls at Brown were pretty posh.

  • Nick R

    The key statement being made when one chooses to study art history is that you don’t really need to worry too much about what you are going to do afterwards. Usually because someone else is going to take care of that for you.

    • LizzieKee

      Having taught history of art at A-level and degree level for the past 15 years I can assure you that your assumption is incorrect.

  • terence patrick hewett

    “My complaint simply concerns the decay of the art of lying. No
    high-minded man, no man of right feeling, can contemplate the lumbering and
    slovenly lying of the present day without grieving to see a noble art so

  • grammarschoolman

    ‘posh girls from privileged backgrounds’

    In my experience, this group makes by far the best students – they have the best brains and the best attitude and are the widest read.

    Obviously, having such people doing a subject would be bound to get it a ‘bad reputation’. Education should clearly be for dim people who show no interest in it and can’t be bothered to do any work. This kind of inverse intellectual snobbery is precisely what is destroying academic education in this country. Shame on The Spectator for perpetuating it.

    • Caius Keys

      Good point, every time we as a matter of policy “open up” a field to the talented from underprivileged backgrounds, we inevitably come to find out that, unsurprisingly, they weren’t that talented.

  • Arin O’A

    History of Art is for the boring and the bland which is very apt for the posh girls, it also avoids them getting any charcoal on their fingers. Go and study real Art you will be far more interesting and if need be you could be obnoxious as the posh girls.

    • LizzieKee

      Do you REALLY believe that visual culture as an area of academic study is “boring and bland”? Do you actually know what history of art as an academic discipline involves? And why do you assume that all girls who go to private schools are obnoxious, boring and bland? Perhaps this says more about your prejudices than your understanding of art history as an intellectual subject . . .

      • SandySure

        You are convincing me…

  • Gixxerboy

    I took History of Art as an Option (under a Minor) to get laid by posh girls. It worked.

  • La Fold

    Berlin a wealthy city? Maybe a few parts in the former West and a gentrified Mitte might have become more expensive in the last 10 years but its still a pretty poor place to be fair and living there is far cheaper than say most of France or Northern Italy.

  • grutchyngfysch

    “I not only studied it at school, but went on to read it at university. And yes, the majority of the people I met while studying it were posh girls from privileged backgrounds.”

    I’m wondering if the juxtaposition of these sentences is intended to distance yourself from that group. Is that actually the case? Or are you another private-school alumnus, supported through the no-plebs land of unpaid internships?

    My intention isn’t to be deliberately rude, but rather to point out that there is a reason why – culturally and intellectually enriching though it no doubt is – the History of Art is not taken up many former council estate residents.

    • Gwangi

      I always find it highly amusing when those privileged posh girls who got gigs working at national papers via nepotism, cronyism and unpaid internships feel entitles to lecture us all about how society should be a fairer place…

  • manonthebus

    Isn’t History of Art a course for people who cannot hope to get into university to study a serious subject?

    • LizzieKee


  • BrianT

    History of Art degree courses are also stuffed with posh girls. At least that’s the reason two of my mates gave for switching from science subjects to HoA. There they were outnumbered by the girls 10:1 instead of vice versa.

  • Trapnel

    A campaign promoted on the pages of the Guardian? Tripe.

  • MC73

    Dear God that’s an awful painting!