Elitism and Practicality The Realities of an Art History Degree

Last week, Joy Starkey of The Guardian online published an article entitled “History of Art: a degree for the elite?” The fallout from the article has inspired discussion on many fronts within the art world. It questions the practical side of studying art for future careers and relates it to the outdated cliché that art was simply a pastime for the wealthy.  

Having devoted my studies (undergraduate and graduate) to history of art, I found this article to be relevant to my own situation, but also in need of further analysis and discussion.  Starkey, a student at Cambridge University, cites the percentage of private school students studying the subject and the number of royals who chose history of art as a degree as evidence of the elitism of the area.  Quoting 2011 admissions statistics for Cambridge University’s history of art programme, Starkey attempts to understand the continuation of the stereotype that art is for the wealthy.  The numbers show that 25 students from state schools and 38 from independent schools made applications for the 16 available positions on the degree programme, and ultimately five positions were awarded to state school students.  While it is obvious that more applications were made by those with a private education, the 39.7% of applicants from state schools was met somewhat closely by the 31.3% placement in the programme.  Starkey fairly attributes that admission is granted to the best applicants but also notes that “these are most likely to be those who visited art galleries when they were children.  They will also be those who studied the subject at A-level, something often only offered by private schools.”  While it may be true that those from a higher socio-economic level may be introduced to the art world at an earlier age, it does not necessarily preclude others from enjoyment or success in the field.

Later in the article Starkey attempts to reconcile the image of elitism with the realities of the field, but I’d like to take this further.  Art is one of the most fascinating ways of viewing history and learning about different cultures.  Contemporary art is constantly evolving and responding to current events.  Art grants visual insight to the volksgeist of bygone eras that is more interesting and telling than written history alone.  Additionally, in London, we are fortunate that most of the major museums have free admission making them accessible to all.  Galleries both small and large are also free and exhibit works by the newest names and old favourites.  Starkey does make the argument that the gallery scene can seem impenetrable to those not “in the know,” but in reality, it is fairly easy to become acquainted with the so-called elitist subculture.

In terms of practicality, the article notes that history of art is a favoured subject by royals whose career is not necessarily reliant on a university degree.  This supports the belief that the field does not offer many prospects to degree-holders and that independent wealth is necessary to fund a life in the arts.  While the Damien Hirsts and Larry Gagosians of the world have made quite a lot of money in their careers, the reality is most arts professionals will never become ultra wealthy.  Finding a career can be difficult, but with the current recession, finding a job in any field is difficult.  I think most who study history of art do it for their love of art, the passion for the field, without expecting to drive fancy cars or live in the poshest neighborhoods.  Working unpaid internships to gain experience for future careers is part of the field, and while it may be easier for the youths of the upper echelon of society to support themselves, young adults from all backgrounds are working their way up from the ranks of interns to salaried professionals.  A history of art degree may not be for everyone, but I for one have found it a tremendously rewarding path of study and remain optimistic that hard work and dedication will lead to success regardless of background.

Words: Emily Sack © ArtLyst 2013
 Image: © ArtLyst 2013 Catlin Guide Stand London Art Fair 2013

Starkey’s original Guardian article can be read here:

Words: Emily Sack © ArtLyst 2013

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