Can I tell you about one of the best weekends of my life? It involved no foreign travel, no booze, no party, no love affair, no sun, sea, shopping or beach.
It was the second weekend of my A-level year and I had been set the first History of Art essay of term: on early Florentine sculpture. My teacher had lent a book from his shelves, I’d borrowed another from the library and half-a-dozen more from my mother. I sat all weekend, rapt at the kitchen table with Andrea Pisano, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi spread around me.
I wrote a seven-page essay in my tiny monk’s handwriting and could have gone on for pages more. In a way I have. I went on to study History of Art at university and now write about art – among other things – for a living. And what a lucky and wonderful way to make a living.
So it was with dismay that I read this morning of the decision of AQA, the last A-level exam board in England to offer History of Art, to drop the subject. Never again after 2018 will a sixth-form student climb the steps of the Parthenon, stand awe-struck below the flying buttresses at Chartres, cast bronzes with Ghiberti, be cast adrift on the Raft of the Medusa, ogle Manet’s Olympia, drain the canals of Venice with Marinetti and go wild with Matisse and the Fauves. It is deemed too ‘soft’ a subject: a namby-pamby waft around churches and galleries. Soft? Soft? History of Art is as soft as Carrara marble.
The curriculum at AS and A-level is vast: a Gattamelata gallop from the Acropolis to ancient Rome, from the great French cathedrals to the humanism of the Renaissance, from sexy Mannerism to chest-thumping Baroque, from Degas’s absinthe bars to Picasso’s cubes. And, god, it is brilliant. The history of western civilisation – and I’m afraid it is very much western – with the best, most vivid, most glorious illustrations.
But no more.
I’m not sure I buy the ‘soft’ argument. There’s something more behind the decision to axe history of art. Only 839 students took the exam last summer. Most of them will have been private school pupils. The subject is offered in only a handful of state schools.
‘Our decision has nothing to do with the importance of the history of art,’ said a spokeswoman for AQA, ‘and it won’t stop students going on to do a degree in it as we’re not aware of any universities that require an A-level in the subject.’ This is true. Half of the undergraduates in my degree year had never done History of Art at school. Many of them wished they'd had the option.
AQA say that the ‘complex and specialist nature of the exam’, the small number of pupils, and the way the subject is assessed create too many ‘risks.’ The masons of Beauvais took a risk when they set out to build the tallest cathedral in the world. The choir vaulting collapsed. They built it again. The very idea that you shouldn’t try – to learn, to challenge yourself, to climb higher and higher towers, ivory or otherwise – because the trying is too risky, too complex, too difficult, is deeply depressing.
I suspect that History of Art has been axed partly because it is ‘elitist’, the preserve of a privileged few hundred private school pupils. But that is not an argument for denying History of Art to the few who do take it. It should be a spur to offering it in all schools: state, grammar and academy.
Why not give every sixth-form pupil the chance to kindle an interest in why our cities and great buildings look as they do, why Leonardo matters, why civilisation after civilisation has painted – cave walls, frescoes, altarpieces, Sistine ceilings, manuscripts, miniatures – why great men have bankrupted themselves for art, and why religions have feared and destroyed it. A chance to be rapt and inspired as I was by black-and-white photographs of the Siena font, and still to be rapt, a decade, two decades, a lifetime later.