Art History’s long, slow slide towards oblivion made the news again recently. Back in 2014, the UK’s Education Secretary announced new, more rigorous and demanding standards for arts education. Educators then created and approved a new, globally inclusive syllabus expanding the course beyond its previous limits of Western art. This presented an insurmountable problem. The board that oversees the exams reported that they could not find enough specialist examiners to cover the newly expanded subject, and, besides, only 839 students took the exam this year. (By way of comparison, 43,000 sat the Art and Design exams.) Confronted with a crisis of both supply and demand, last month the board axed the Art History A-levels altogether.
This, in turn, led to much hand-wringing. Those who cared valiantly defended Art History as something valuable, something more than just a class-appropriate avocation for posh girls. As one wit has it, “There could be no clearer example of the extent to which we have lost our way than the abandonment of art history and archaeology. Unless perhaps the new education secretary, Justine Greening, were to go on a long symbolic quest to seek the mythical holy grail and, having found the talismanic object, ancient vessel of incalculable wisdom and understanding, shat in it.”
On this side of the ocean, the crisis in Art History takes a far less operatic tenor. Here, Art History is just the prime example of useless academicism, as President Obama once glibly noted. In response to this off-the-cuff slight, the College Art Association defended an education in the humanities, reminding the President that “It is worth remembering that many of the nation’s most important innovators, in fields including high technology, business, and even military service, have degrees in the humanities. Humanities graduates play leading roles in corporations, engineering, international relations, government, and many other fields where their skills and creating (sic) thinking play a critical role.”
While this may be true, this argument is not even close to a defense of Art History. At best, it is an oblique defense of Art History professors. What is missing in the CAA response is any indication of Art History’s telos. Through the testimony of its own practitioners, Art History is reduced to a discipline in search of a purpose.
I find myself falling into this image of old New York. My mind’s eye is cast back a hundred years. A gent in a bowler hat stares out with Stenburg eyes — a blur, a ghost, a rushing time-flâneur. It’s the animals that dominate this frame, the equine magnificence of the twinned grays – all muscle, bone and hoof – their majesty reigned by tack and sullen men. A boy looks out, witness to our witnessing. The image is hyperreal, uncannily precise, a function of the magic of glass and silver, handmade optics and albumen.
I sense a tension. Is it there in the men’s faces, their awkward bearing, their obliviousness to the camera, their attention paid to other, more pressing concerns?
A second frame from that day, from a vantage across the street, shows a hectic scene. A crowd has gathered. The garbage men and their horses are a spectacle, the target of a potential mob, and the police are on hand to keep the peace. In the center of the frame, an act of kindness, my punctum: a man in the crowd reaches up to pat a horse behind its ear, whispering to it, calming the animal amidst the nervous, hostile air. A garbage strike threw the city of New York into chaos almost exactly one hundred and five years ago, a forgotten moment in my city’s history. In November, 1911, thousands of street cleaners and ashmen walked off the job. Mountains of rotting garbage choked the city streets, and hundreds of strikebreakers were brought in to clean up. Riots erupted across Manhattan, bottles and bricks rained down on the strikebreakers and their horses from tenement rooftops, bonfires burned in the streets, and a child was killed in a fracas on E. 107th Street, run over by a garbage cart as the driver whipped his horse to escape the projectiles.
Like the striking garbagemen, art historians, it seems to me, have walked off the job. Whether rampant careerism and the attendant willful mediocrity that produces, or brittle ideology and the attendant willful blindness that produces, or the congenital intellectual deformities produced by inbred academicism, or creative malaise, or simple exhaustion, or some toxic cocktail of the preceding is the cause, art historians have not been taking out their garbage, so to speak.
The dreadful state of Art History reveals so much opportunity! The scholars have left treasures amongst the trash, so I’ll shovel through it. I’ll be Art History’s scab trashman.
— Michael Westfall