Degree that offers the lot

October 18, 2002

It's fashionable, accessible, flexible, challenging, rigorous, diverse and vocationalI No wonder so many people are signing up for art history. Shearer West reports.

When Prince William enrolled at St Andrews University to study art history last year, the media pointed to a rise in applications for the subject and gleefully paraded all the tired stereotypes of art history as an elite degree designed for aristocrats and debutantes. However, the 43 per cent increase in the number of students enrolling on art history degrees announced recently cannot be explained solely by the "Prince William" factor: he later switched to geography anyway. After all, the expansion began six years ago, when the prince was a mere adolescent, and it is difficult to argue that students applying to, say, Leeds or Plymouth universities, would see any causal connection between their choice of degree and that of the young royal.

The appeal of art history to a new generation of students is more nuanced than the stereotypes suggest. The initial bait for young people is that art history is fashionable, "cool" and relevant to the way we live in the early 21st century. Wading through the crowds at Tate Modern, witnessing the relentless publicity that accompanies the Turner Prize, hearing the names of "Tracey" and "Damien" evoked as if they were "Posh" and "Becks" - these are signs of popularity that whet many an appetite for art history.

On a more serious level, teenagers are increasingly aware of their roles as cultural consumers, and an understanding of the visual world as it is presented through art and other visual media, such as television and the internet, is an essential life skill in our arguably post-literate society.

But as well as being fashionable, art history is the ultimate interdisciplinary degree. It combines rigorous historical investigation with aesthetic analysis; it shares theoretical and methodological mechanisms with both English and sociology; it interfaces with media, cultural and film studies.

It is also flexible. The recent expansion of art history to encompass the wider field of visual culture means that mass media are included within degree programmes and the subject has a more global perspective. Yet this flexibility has not undermined the study of traditional "fine art" objects that still form a core aspect of the discipline.

So while art history embraces the diversity of visual culture, it also explicates and thereby democratises "high" art that might otherwise be inaccessible to all but a cultural elite. It thus offers a balance of innovation and tradition, diversity and authority, accessibility and challenge.

Then there is the subject's vocational viability. The stereotype of art history as a soft option with little career opportunity could not be less accurate. The Quality Assurance Agency subject overview reports that history of art and design programmes "clearly promote students' career prospects". Furthermore, the types of employment open to art history graduates are diverse.

Our database of graduate employment in my department at the University of Birmingham shows that while many students end up in arts-related jobs (museums, galleries, the heritage industry, television, publishing and teaching), others have successful careers in the civil service, personnel, surveying, hospital administration and even merchant banking.

Finally, art history attracts different constituencies of student. Very few students come to university with art history A level, which has had a declining uptake since being reduced to a single board. Instead, students gravitate to art history from other humanities subjects, and increasingly from art and design A level and foundation degrees.

Art history is also a subject that lends itself to widening access. Mature student intake is particularly high. In 2001, the Open University saw 2,843 mature students complete its various art history modules.

So art history has it all: it is fashionable, accessible, relevant, flexible, challenging, rigorous, diverse, vocational and open to students from a wide variety of backgrounds. All this is achieved by departments of modest size. Vice-chancellors who are anxious to respond to the government's higher education agendas should take note that an expansion of art history provision could provide one easy answer to their problems.

Shearer West is professor of art history at the University of Birmingham and chair of the Association of Art Historians.

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