Brian Sewell: Every picture tells a history

Today’s students are impoverished by a scant knowledge of culture and context, but the story of art should be a sine qua non of any well-rounded curriculum, argues Brian Sewell

May 23, 2013

If Michael Gove must have a second compulsory subject, let it be the history of art, for it sharpens the enquiring mind as much as the law, and as much as science, it considers evidence and inspires intuition

My schooldays lay between September 1942 and July 1949, years of School Certificate and Matriculation, Higher School Certificate, Inter-BA and university entrance examinations. I fell at the first of these hurdles, for in it were three compulsory subjects - mathematics, English and a foreign language - and for maths I had so little aptitude that I was stumped by any calculation beyond simple addition and division. As extra coaching achieved nothing, algebra and geometry remained to me mysteries more inscrutable than the Holy Trinity, and when a double period of maths (they were always double) was in the day’s schedule I felt what can only be described as a shutter closing off my brain, and physically sick. Seventy years on, that same nausea recurs when the Inland Revenue reminds me that I must complete a tax return. At the seventh sitting for my School Certificate, perhaps recognising consistent prowess in all other subjects, the examiners at last granted me “a subsidiary pass in arithmetic” (not maths), so that I might sit university entrance examinations. Without that act of generosity, almost too late, I might have sunk without trace.

I now know that I suffer from dyscalculia, a condition at last recognised in 1974 as widespread in varying degrees from mild affliction to disablement, but not yet by Michael Gove, who resolutely clings to compulsory maths as an essential discipline to be imposed on all students whose ambition it is to pursue higher education. Why? What use to me has maths been beyond the elementary arithmetic required in the supermarket? What use have I ever needed of equation, calculus and logarithm, sine, cosine and tangent? What was the point of making all this compulsory when I had not the slightest aptitude for it? What other subjects might I usefully have learned in all the hours wasted, not only on maths, but on the physics and chemistry that seemed so closely related to it?

Aptitude and interest are the driving forces that pupils themselves contribute to their education, and if they are not to perish in the slough of tedium and neglect, these must be identified and nurtured by teachers.

That English, however, should be a compulsory subject, even I plead is essential, for it is the language in which all other subjects, even maths and other languages, are communicated. It lies at the root of our culture, and in its archaeology we recognise the complexity of our history and the invasions and occupations that have enriched it. It can be immaculately precise or, if the cunning speaker wills, subtly imprecise. It is, to those who care for it, beautiful, yet we, the most monoglot of nations, seem now to scorn the ability to speak and write it well, and cling with inverse snobbery to the notion that the accents of Liverpool and Birmingham are to be treasured above a received pronunciation that reflects the literary form and is intelligible worldwide. Has it occurred to no educational expert that the ability to read and write must to some considerable extent depend on the ability to speak with accuracy? How could the children of Liverpool and Birmingham fare well in a dictation test when teachers at a recent gathering of the National Union of Teachers claimed to reckernise that the Seckertary of State has caused eddication to deteriate?

Education, we are assured by all political parties, is the matter dearest to them. All agree that education is in the doldrums and that far too many children leave school illiterate, condemned to a level of brute labour that they are unwilling to perform and thus to permanent unemployment. There is general agreement that something must be done about it, yet we abandon grammar, syntax and spelling. Instead, there is touching faith in a curriculum that will equip all adolescents with computer skills and other technical trivialities now demanded by employers. In this, all parties and employers make another fundamental error in mistaking training for education; those who truly educate open doors to understanding in all sorts of fields of scholarship and give their pupils the academic tools and disciplines with which to discover what they may want to do and be, helping them to make an informed choice.

Even more important than forming the foundation of a career, it is education’s purpose to inform and enrich our leisure. In every 24 hours we sleep for eight, work for eight, and have eight more to use as we will or must - and it is in these last that courses in history and literature directly play their part in giving us our cultural background. There is another discipline that can do even more to inform our leisure hours - the history of art - and if Michael Gove must have a second compulsory subject in his examinations, let it be this, for it sharpens the enquiring mind as much as the law, and as much as science, it considers evidence and inspires intuition.

To those who are not art historians this may seem an easy option, but only in Britain was it ever (and briefly) regarded as a suitable subject for well-bred girls and an alternative to a Swiss finishing school. In 1945 Anthony Blunt put an end to that when he turned the Courtauld Institute into a monkish seminary and imbued his novices with unremitting fervour for the study. In Blunt’s hands the history of art became the academic discipline that it had been in Germany since 1844, when the first professorial chair was established in Berlin. There were far earlier manifestations, the earliest surviving the elder Pliny’s observations on painting and sculpture 2,000 years ago, which in turn indicate the existence of still earlier treatises, now lost, among them the idea of development and decline in art advanced under Xenocrates in Alexander’s day.

Main feature image (23 May 2013)

No matter how impoverished the history of art may now be, by revealing a need it opens doors on the very background that students no longer have

The bare bones of art history are linear studies of painting, sculpture and architecture, the simple first-this-then-that sequence that connects the painted image on the flat gold ground to the bucket-and-slosh business of the contemporary abstract painter, the iconography of Christ crucified painted for the devout veneration of the peasantry, to the Mapplethorpe photograph of a naked male with another man’s fist thrust into his anus. With experience, the student will recognise that the history of art is far from linear, that its threads are looped and tangled in cat’s cradles that may never be undone, and that it has always been affected by the external forces of political and social history. Art and its history are inseparable from the patronage of monarchs, popes and despots, from the propaganda of church and state, from the effects of famine, plague and war. They are inseparable from historic theological and philosophical debate, even from Marxism, capitalism, feminism, race and other modern orthodoxies. They are inseparable from music, literature and science - even from maths (in terms of perspective and proportion) - and from the wider cultural background of their day, and of all these the student must know almost as much as of his core subject. Thus to understand the history of art we must understand history itself, the history of political ambitions and the conflicts of religion, the history of nations, dynasties, the rich and powerful, the middle classes and the poor. The most inclusive and wide-ranging of academic disciplines, it opens many doors.

Students in my day had the necessary background for it. Now they do not. The history of art is now taught in all sorts of universities; and in an attempt to compare the requirements of a student at the Courtauld in Blunt’s day with those of a student at a provincial university now, I probed a professor at a far more ancient seat of learning. Asked about their knowledge of the Bible, his response was “The Bible is a worrying problem - knowledge of it is not to be taken for granted” - yet without that knowledge and the theological distinction between the Old and the New Testaments, without the Apocrypha and the Golden Legends of the saints, how can students recognise the subject and the iconography? To my enquiry about classical mythology, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Roman history and other sources of the painter’s imagery with primary and secondary meanings, the glum response was: “They may be utterly ignorant. We cope with the school- leavers we get.”

“What about languages?” I asked, recalling that I had been required to have Latin or Greek and at least the ability to read French, German and Italian; and to this came the answer that there are now enough books in English to make other languages superfluous. “Without a nodding acquaintance with European languages, how do your raw students pronounce the names of such painters as Cimabue, Pollaiuolo and Guercino, Runge, Schnorr and Baldung Grien?” I asked. “Wrongly: we teach pronunciation as we go along.” To my suggestion that for any student wishing to study Byzantine art a little Greek must be essential, came the response: “We don’t do Byzantium.” Nor does his institution do classical art.

Classes are enormous and with only three lectures and one tutorial each week, the courses are broad in treatment - “We provide a smattering, an entrée to the subject.” The four “honours modules” studied in the final year depend entirely on the research interests of the staff, and staff availability and willingness; they may be taught in any order, no matter how anachronical, Emin before Elsheimer, Hirst before Holbein.

How can this smattering, this entrée, be a proper preparation even for a first degree, let alone for research, a thesis and a doctorate? Does it even qualify the student for work as a charmer behind the reception desks of Christie’s, White Cube and other grandees of the art market? I felt that we were back in the frivolous 1930s when the first incarnation of the Courtauld Institute opened its doors, only to close them for Ascot Week and debutantes’ balls, as though Blunt, a decade or so later, had never transformed it into an academic faculty that was the envy of the world and one that did indeed “do” Byzantium; and then I found in a Courtauld prospectus that first-year students could take a course in “Getting to Grips with Rembrandt”.

Things are not as they were, nor as they should be. Nevertheless, no matter how impoverished the history of art may now be, by revealing a need it opens doors on the very background that students no longer have. All is not lost; my generation had an easy time for as adolescents we gained a firm grasp of the Bible through daily acquaintance with it at a very Church of England morning assembly, possibly from church itself on Sunday, and very probably from a book of Bible stories retold for children when we were learning to read - so too with Greek myths and Roman heroes; current students, far more adult, must start from scratch, but the basic raunchiness of so many tales may make the task more entertaining than they suppose. Are first-year students still sent reading lists?

If, on graduating, the student of art history has grasped enough of the discipline to form a chronological frame for further observation and experience, then he can add to it. No matter whether he becomes a monied banker or digs tunnels for the new fast train to Birmingham, his appreciation of paintings in the Louvre and the Prado (or even Birmingham), the architecture of Amsterdam and Angkor Wat, and the sculpture of Michelangelo and pre-Columbian Mexico, will be enriched by what he sees and reads and hears. No other compulsory subject (and certainly not mathematics) pursued in our adolescent years could so swiftly, broadly and ubiquitously elevate our cultural lives.

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