Will Wills join the art class struggle?

September 21, 2001

The art world Prince William is entering with his course at St Andrews has long been a breeding ground for radical views. John A. Walker considers which influences may sway the heir to the throne.

Most people will probably assume that, in art history, Prince William has chosen a conservative and sedate subject. What could be more harmless than the study of the finest buildings and art objects humankind has produced? Prince William must also be aware of the discipline's usefulness to the business of art and antiques, having spent three days gaining work experience at the London auction house Christie's.

However, he and the public may not be aware that during the 1970s the discipline was intellectually transformed under the banner of "The New Art History". A generation of young scholars, many of whom were employed in polytechnics and had taken fine art courses in art colleges, had become politically conscious due, in part, to the impact of external disciplines such as anthropology, cultural studies, film theory, feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, semiotics, social history, structuralism, deconstruction and so on.

In 1978, Pluto Press published a translation of Nicos Hadjinicolaou's ground-breaking book Art History and Class Struggle . A copy is available in the university's library if Prince William wants to read it. A methodological revolution took place and issues of class, gender, imperialism, power, race, representation and ideology and politics became crucial to the discipline. It may well be, therefore, that Prince William will find his chosen subject is not safe and sedate after all.

It seems the prince wishes to be treated like any other undergraduate while at St Andrews. But, of course, he does not face the same problems as so many students, such as poverty. Moreover, as a member of the royal family, he enjoys significant advantages. If, for example, he is asked to write an essay about the architecture of castles, palaces and country houses, he can gain direct access to properties owned by his relatives. When he has to examine a slide of a Leonardo drawing for a first-year seminar topic on the Renaissance, he can look at the original held in trust for the nation by his grandmother and stored in Windsor Castle's Royal Library. Should he need any extra tuition, then no doubt an expert such as the Keeper of the Queen's Pictures could be summoned to help him.

Within the profession of art history, the school at St Andrews is not noted for its radicalism. Its first-year courses are traditional: lectures on the art of the Italian Renaissance, plus exercises based on the comparative method, iconography, style and the evaluation and interpretation of famous masterpieces. However, if the prince decides to stay on at St Andrews to take a postgraduate qualification, he might face more radical options. Module AH4075, "Word and image", for example, involves the study of issues such as "semiotics, psychology and psychoanalysis, gender, the relationship between art and society (including Marxism) and the ideology of display".

Modules offered at undergraduate level, meanwhile, include such topics as classical country houses, mural painting in Tuscany, Scottish furniture, the arts and crafts movement, and art nouveau. Even so, the prince could be exposed to unfamiliar political ideas. For example, the second-year course in history and theory of European art, architecture and design from 1800 to 1906 must surely feature the famous British socialist designer William Morris and the realist and socialist painter Gustave Courbet, who was active in the Paris Commune of 1871. Another second-year module, international modern movement 1905-1990, includes the avant-garde movements Dada and Surrealism, both of which included communist artists such as John Heartfield and Louis Aragon. And no account of modern art could ignore Picasso, a committed supporter of the Spanish Republic. Prince William might be asked to read a recent book about the artist's radical politics and his membership of the French Communist Party. In addition, the course outline for Russian art and society 1917-1932 stresses the impact of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the need to study the historical context, "the changing social and economic conditions". Thus, Prince William might find himself reading the writings of Lenin, Trotsky and Lunacharsky on art and politics, or Mayakovsky's poems and posters in support of the new Soviet regime.

Of course, many modern artists have supported the Right, including fascism. Consequently, a study of art history could influence the prince in that direction. Senior lecturer Tom Normand is the author of a 1993 monograph on Wyndham Lewis that explores "the implications of Lewis's political associations with Oswald Moseley and British fascism". With regard to architecture, Prince William must already be aware that the huge capital costs of major buildings means that only the richest people, companies, institutions and governments can afford them, and he may accept that such inequalities are inevitable and necessary if art and architecture are to flourish. However, he must also be aware of his father's attempts to use his influence and wealth to humanise modern architecture and urban planning. Perhaps he already sympathises with these views and shares his father's other concern for the future of the natural environment. Since he is the target of so many cameras, the prince might also benefit from studying photography and associated theories of representation.

Art history students seeking an honours degree have to undertake an extended piece of personal research and write a dissertation. A database of past dissertations indicates a rich diversity of subjects. Some were devoted to politically conscious artists of the modern era such as Joseph Beuys, Hans Haacke and Käthe Kollwitz, while others reflect the impact of feminism. Since good dissertations about the recent past often rely on access to first-hand material and interviews, tutors might advise the prince to make use of his family connections. One can envisage a dissertation on some aspect of the royal collections or portraits of royalty, or a history of the controversies his father's interventions into the field of architecture have aroused. Less likely might be a dissertation about the attacks on the Queen's 1977 Silver Jubilee celebrations by the Sex Pistols or the punk graphic designer Jamie Reid.

Prince William will be allocated a personal tutor. Any conscientious tutor would advise him to read a daily newspaper, possibly The Guardian , whose good arts coverage is accompanied by articles critical of the institution of the monarchy and demanding a republic. Might the prince not be persuaded by these opinions?

One rarely aired argument against the monarchy is that the lack of personal freedom and privacy it affords the royals would be unbearable for most of us. A life of celebrity, comfort and privilege certainly, but a spotlit, velvet prison. Royals are constantly watched and guarded because stalking and assassination are always possibilities. In addition, they have to undertake dull public duties, sit for mediocre portraits and dress in antiquated costumes to participate in absurd ceremonies. The trials of this type of existence have been exacerbated in recent decades by the growing voracity of the news media - a factor in the death of Prince William's mother. If he was to decide - and who could blame him? - that this kind of life is not for him, what are his options?

To avoid the attentions of the photographers - the tabloids, it seems, are renting houses in St Andrews so that they can monitor the prince, and Hello! magazine has already printed photos of the interiors of buildings he will be using - the prince could decide to study art history by distance learning, via the Open University, whose courses and television programmes clearly reflect the influence of the New Art History. Another possibility would be to switch from art history to media studies, available at nearby Glasgow University. Then the prince could spend four years reversing the scopic power relationship by studying and recording the behaviour of the paparazzi with a camcorder. Alternatively, the study of photography at St Andrews could facilitate this.

A more radical step would be for the prince to renounce his royal status, assume a new name, and retire into private life and work for a living like most British citizens. Abdication, after all, did occur once before in Britain during the 20th century. If all the heirs to the throne followed suit, the monarchy could be abolished from within voluntarily. Hence, it would not require the external action politicians are so reluctant to take. Admittedly, the prospect of art history radicalising Prince William is remote. Nevertheless, stranger things have happened in history and many radicals, including Karl Marx, became traitors to the upper classes into which they were born.

What only the future can reveal is the use Prince William will make of his university education after graduation. He could become a lecturer in the history of art or a scholar writing books on the subject. Alternatively, he could use the knowledge gained to become a more informed steward of his family's artistic heritage, or he could follow his father's example and seek to influence the character and direction of art and architecture in Britain by becoming a major collector and patron. Whatever he decides, exposure to art history at St Andrews must surely leave its mark.

John A. Walker is an independent art critic and historian, socialist and republican.

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