Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1806). Dismissed at the time, it is now considered one of the most insightful political portraits ever painted.
A-Levels are our British cousins’ version of a high-school concentration. It’s a wide and varied list, including Punjabi and Classical Greek, among many other subjects. We Americans, accustomed to readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic being our fundamental choices in high school, have no similar experience. Kids sit for two exams over two years in each subject. When they’re done, their proficiencies are part of the mysterious equation that gets them into college or university.
In 2018, the A-Level in Art History will be tossed on the ashcan, offered no more. This decision was, inscrutably, part of a Conservative initiative to modernize the tests. In part, the decision was blamed on a lack of qualified teachers. Clearly, there is some fundamental difference between the British educational economy and ours, because I know a plethora of adjunct professors here who would leap at the opportunity for a gig paying an actual living wage.
Art history is the visual record of the thoughts and values of our ancestors, and it ought to be taught side-by-side with political history. For example, if a class were studying the French and American Revolutions, a few weeks perusing the catalog to Citizens and Kings would be eye-opening. The radical change in social values that drove revolution is laid out in perfect clarity. These ideas are stunning and very pertinent to the Current Crisis.
Instead, we study things like the Siege of Quebec. Yawn.
Portrait of Louis-François Bertin (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1832). Ingres recorded so much more than just fabric.
Art history is nuanced. It cannot be easily reduced to a Scantron exam. It requires analysis, interpretation, prodigious memorization, and excellent writing skills. You can’t learn it without accidentally learning language, theology, history, and economics. To grade such a subject, a teacher must read (and understand) complex essays. That simply isn’t feasible in the modern age of productivity and quantification, so it is being sacrificed to Progress by our British cousins. And it doesn’t get the respect it deserves here, either.
Louise de Broglie, Countess d’Haussonville. (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1845). Who, actually, is this woman?
However, there’s good news in that. While companies like Pearson make billions commodifying our Three Rs, there’s no real money to be made in art history. That makes it a wide-open subject for the self-taught man. Janson’s History of Art is in its eighth edition, and will set back a college freshman several hundred dollars (for shame). However, the sixth edition can be had for less than $20. Art history really hasn’t changed a bit since it was published in 2001.
Go ahead, be a subversive: buy it and read it. Nobody really owns the right to our shared history and knowledge, no matter how hard corporations try to corner the market.