UK university academics have reacted angrily to the announcement that the last exam board in England to offer A-level art history will drop the subject from 2018. The move by London-based AQA means that art history, which is taught mainly at private schools, will vanish from the curriculum.
Kevin Phillips, the chief executive of AQA, says in a statement that the “existing specification is challenging to mark and award because of the specialist nature of the topics, the range of options, difficulties in recruiting sufficient experienced examiners, and limited entries”. Only 839 students sat the A-level exam this summer.
Louise Bourdua, the head of the history of art department at Warwick University, says that she is appalled by AQA’s decision “particularly given the tremendous amount of work that has been carried out in recent years by my colleagues in the Association of Art Historians and at a time when art is perhaps more than ever on everyone's radar in Britain”.
Universities do not expect applicants to have completed an A-level in art history to be admitted in the subject, she stresses. “But what kind of signal does the axing of a historical discipline send out there to our young people?” Bourdua says.
Deborah Swallow, the director of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, says: “The definition of art history as a ‘soft subject’ and the demise of its existence as an A-Level seriously misunderstands a subject, which is enormously important to the economy, culture and well-being of this country… art history as a subject needs to be much better known and not denigrated.” Meanwhile, Geoff Quilley, the head of the history of art department at Sussex University, is in the process of garnering signatures for a protest letter to AQA.
Jonathan Jones, the art critic at the Guardian, points out, however, that in 2014, art history A-level was offered by just 17 state schools. “On the one hand, art history produces the well-groomed salespeople who make Frieze Masters go with a swing. On the other it creates tedious discourses of no interest to anyone, or deconstructs its own intellectual purpose,” he writes.
The campaign to persuade the UK government to include art and other creative subjects in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) is, meanwhile, ongoing. Critics argue that the exclusion of art, music and drama will have long-term negative consequences for the arts and creative industries in England.
UPDATE (19 October): More than 200 academics and art professionals have written an open letter to Andrew Hall, the chief executive of AQA, expressing their “grave concerns regarding the decision to discontinue the AQA history of art A-level”.
Signatories include Ben Burbridge, the senior lecturer in art history at the University of Sussex; Susanna Brown, the curator of photographs in the word and image department at the Victoria and Albert Museum; professor David Ekserdjian of the University of Leicester; and Sam Thorne, the director of Nottingham Contemporary.