Why scrapped A-level art history is “fundamental” to aspiring designers

Last month the only exam board to run an A-level art history course, announced it is to axe the subject. Land Design Studio creative director Peter Higgins, who also holds teaching roles at Central St Martins, the RCA and Brighton University says the course plays a vital part in the formative years of many designers.

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I have developed a peculiar passion for this issue, which is strange for somebody who never studied art in any form at my experimental comprehensive secondary school. We did have a strong art department but clearly I was distracted by other things which were not culturally centric. Also my home was a cultural desert without art, books or any serious music.

Randomly, my mother’s uncle had been an architect in Germany, so that would do, off I went for an interview at architectural school but not before visiting my first gallery, The Tate where I discovered Turner. The next day, at interview of course I was able to wax lyrical about my favourite artist. Thank goodness they never asked me about my second choice. Somehow without a portfolio I crept under the radar into the Architectural Association School of Architecture.

It is difficult to unpick the rationale behind the axing of this course. The party line from AQA exam board – which took the decision – is that there are not enough qualified examiners and it’s difficult to mark because of setting grade boundaries when students are asked to be ingenious and analytical. This is of course tenuous if you consider the marking process for say English literature or come to that the portfolio for art & design A-level.

“A dangerous elitist issue”

The sub text suggested by many is that it’s not perceived to be a direct route to employability and that it’s a soft subject. The cull of this course and others helps with the streamlining of education to value only Maths, English and the Sciences, all of which (best via Oxbridge) provide perfect fodder for the Canary Wharf gravy train.

Through interrogation, a dangerous elitist issue arises when you discover that while the subject has been suppressed and will now disappear at state schools, the Cambridge Pre-U (A-level equivalent) syllabus will remain at some independent schools, so the likes of William and Kate are OK. This only reinforces the damaging preconception that the qualification simply creates staff for auction houses and posh galleries.

The history of art helps us understand previous cultures and societies through the lens of the inspirational and reflective work of artists, sculptors and architects. It’s only by considering these historic scenarios that we can begin to decode where we are now; what would Wren made of 21st Century developers architecture in London, or Andy Warhol’s response to the emoji or Cartier Bresson of the selfie generation. Just Google ‘video games inspired by famous artists’.

“Designers aspire to their inspirational heroes”

In practice though, the biggest lesson that I’ve learned through my informal involvement in design education is that the mysterious creative process is underpinned by a critical need in response to precedents, influences and ultimately the desire to aspire to the work of inspirational heroes. Creatives rely on the power and quality of their personal hard drives, and for many, history of art A-level is a fundamental starting point.

The bigger picture is that our Art & Design degree courses are under threat due to the understandable reluctance of UK students to pay the fees and the reliance on international students who will soon look elsewhere due to Brexit, a hardening of visa provision and the growing availability of study elsewhere. The actions of the AQA will simply compound the decline of this field of study in the UK and ultimately diminish the number and quality of these courses that have been built from the legacy of our wonderful art schools.

Recently I gave a talk at Westminster University, in the same building where I had my Turner moment many years ago. As I recalled the story, I realised that had I not blagged my way in as a result of my 24 hour introduction into art history or had they asked about my second favourite artist, that I may well have ended up a quantity surveyor. A chilling thought.

Since the decision to axe art history A-level was taken last month I’ve heard from many other principals in the design community with similar views:

“Without the History of Art, how can we be fresh, innovative and eclectic rather than directionless & repetitive plagiarists.”

Ian Ritchie , executive creative director, JKR Global


Through teaching and running our practice I’ve discovered that the

knowledge of historic context produces more articulate and forward thinking designers.”

Adam Brinkworth, partner, Brinkworth


“Unbelievable… the wreckers of civilisation”

Damien Smith, creative partner, ISO


AQA cite difficulties in recruiting sufficient experienced examiners as one of the chief reasons to axe the A-level. I’m sorry AQA but you must try harder because this highlights the very need for it.”

Ben Casey, creative director and partner, The Chase


“The teaching of art and art history is a vital part of our children’s development of broad and liberal attitudes to all aspects of life.”

Jim Clay,  film production designer


What can we all do to overcome this disturbing situation? We can sign and distribute the links below or possibly search out and support the state schools that face imminent threat of the withdrawal of art history A-level.

change.org currently has over 7,700 signatures, so please sign and distribute.

https://www.change.org/p/aqa-save-art-history-a-level

https://www.facebook.com/arthistoryinschools/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AHiScharity

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/arthistoryinschools/

Peter Higgins is creative director at Land Design Studio and visiting professor at Central St Martins, visiting lecturer at the RCA and external examiner in interior design at the University of Brighton.

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