Dear Jonathan Jones
The columnist Jonathan Jones wrote about art history and elitism - I disagreed, and published this response as an open letter in The Courtauldian, a small section of which was printed in The Guardian.
Dear Jonathan Jones,
I am writing to express my deep disappointment at your recent swingeing attack on the discipline of art history. Although I agree with several of the points you raised about the accessibility of the field, the throwaway act of denouncing it as 'a bit of a posh subject' is guilty of exactly what you condemn – the insular and elitist perception of art history as a public irrelevance.
Despite being educated in a northern comprehensive school (and with no History of Art A Level to my name), this summer I graduated from the University of Oxford with a first class degree in History of Art. Hard to believe, I know. I am now pursuing my MA at the Courtauld. I am particularly proud of these achievements and firmly believe that everyone with the desire and potential to study art history at university should be given the chance to, whatever their background. In order to achieve this positive public perception is essential.
In your ill-informed and lazy article, you happily jump on the bandwagon of condemnation rather than suggesting a meaningful solution to the problem (the reanimation of Sir Kenneth Clark not withstanding). Thoughtless prejudice against an entire discipline and populist parodies of art history students published in national newspapers will not help the cause.
As a 'proper historian' it may surprise you to find out that we work just as hard as everyone else. Both history and art history attempt to make sense of the world and our predecessors’ contributions to it in a way that is meaningful and academically rigorous. Your repulsive anti-intellectualism rings true with the worst tactics of the Brexit campaign and is symptomatic of a wider and worrying trend in this country to denounce academia as something to be scared of.
Now rigorous intellectual argument might not be exactly what the general public is looking for on the average weekend, but – as you know – millions of people do visit museums and exhibitions in their free time. These fantastic free collections are underpinned by the work and enthusiasm of art historians, as well as countless other professionals and academics with a vested interest in visual culture. The effect they exert on their visitors is profound.
To suggest that no art history graduates are able to 'share their knowledge with the general public' is frankly ridiculous and worryingly misinformed. While the latter-day Clarks and Gombrichs may still be forthcoming (and it would be good to note that however engaging they were, both were very much products of their time), many, many graduates of art history passionately share their love and knowledge of the visual arts every single day with as many people as they possibly can.
I wish I knew exactly why art history is perceived as an 'obscurantist, elitist subject,' but what I do know is that articles like your own do not help. When a state-educated sixth former who’s interested in art, history and intellectual debate reads it, I imagine it will close off the idea of engaging with art history to them. The history of art is not an irrelevant finishing-school course for hopelessly rich private schoolgirls and future monarchs, but a discipline which (like any other worth its salt) questions our place in the world and engages with significant intellectual ideas whilst equipping graduates with a range of compassionate and transferable skills.
When did you last sit in on a university art history seminar Jonathan? Oh wait, what was that? Never? I will hold my hands up and say that I am a committed member of the tribe of people determined to prove that art history is neither posh nor soft. But in my book that doesn’t lead to uncommunicable drivel. My seminars were filled with engaging and deeply passionate individuals (students and academics alike) who were cogent experts in understanding what images can tell us about society, politics, philosophy, gender, leadership and history, to name but a few issues included in art history’s remit. I firmly believe that each of us who sat around that table are now equipped to share these ideas and passions with the world at large. Your desire to make us fear intellectualism will not succeed.
Perhaps you missed the memo: we’re not trying to tell 'the story of art' anymore. What art history prizes is its interdisciplinary range, its diversity of research and practitioners, and its multifarious stories. These stories are what makes it possible for art history to be relevant to all, not just to those privileged few included in Gombrich’s single-strand story. Maybe you should head to a bookshop and read some art history written in the last 30 years. Or would that be too 'dry and Byzantine' for you?
We’re not elitist and we’re not irrelevant. ‘Proper’ art historians share a passion for the visual world which anyone can be part of and which I hope will grow even more relevant and engaging than it already is.
Jonathan Jones's original article: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/13/art-history-a-level-subject-private-schools-kenneth-clark
Letter extract published in The Guardian: www.theguardian.com/education/2016/oct/16/a-level-art-history-should-never-have-been-given-the-brush-off
Image: Woman Reading a Letter, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1663, oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam - On loan from the City of Amsterdam (A. van der Hoop Bequest)