Why Study Art History? Economics student Helena Roy discusses…

In July 2012, I went to northern Italy with AHA to study Art History for two weeks (I had never studied it before). After a gap year, I have now started university… studying Economics. Some may dismiss my trip as contrary, perhaps unnecessary; but there is an intrinsic value to studying Art History even if your speciality lies in another subject.

Art History gives you a sense of perspective you can’t gain anywhere else. Aristotle argued that ‘the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance’. Art uncovers that significance in the myriad of political, social and religious thoughts it conveys. Where literature offers fictional allegory, art offers visual symbolism – Orwell analyses the class system through animal fables, whereas Lowry does through paint.

The social state of the working class in Britain’s Industrial Revolution, as shown by LS Lowry in 'Oldfield Road Dwellings, Salford', (1927)

An obvious benefit (the clue is in the name) is that art reveals a plethora of historical sources. Dry statistics can only teach you so much: art can communicate emotional details about events. Who has not been moved – even if disgusted – by Picasso’s Guernica and the chaotic destruction it depicts? That the bombing of Guernica caused 41 fatalities per ton of bombs is informative, but in a wholly different way.

Picasso’s 'Guernica', (1937) – conveying the terror and intensity of war

My enthusiasm for the subject stems from the two weeks in Italy. Art History is the most fantastic travel companion. Appreciating and seeking it out facilitates deeper understanding of a place’s culture – how better to see consumerism in 20th century America than in Andy Warhol’s work, or understand the power of Catholicism in Italy in Baroque altarpieces?

Andy Warhol’s 'Campbell’s Soup Cans' (1962), the epitome of post-WWII American consumerism, on display the Museum of Modern Art in New York
Nothing beats viewing art in its contextual setting… 'The Inspiration of St Matthew' (1602) by Caravaggio – part of a cycle of paintings situated in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome

In a time of dire employment prospects, students are turning to lucrative and traditional professions, allowing these to consume all facets of their interest as a means to realising that place on that bank’s graduate programme. But becoming a one-trick pony saps the energy and novel viewpoint someone can bring to the workplace. Work can only be balanced by hobbies you enjoy: study Art History, and you can benefit from it infinitely. (Picasso once said that ‘the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.’) Besides, it is relevant to countless professions in itself – journalism, consultancy, law, marketing and branding to name a few – and vital to Britain’s economic health (the sector accounted for 1% of GDP in 2011, and pays on average 5% more than the UK median salary).

Ultimately, studying Art History engenders a broader attitude to life. Art is something everyone can relate to. It is the impetus for conversation and debate, and introduces you to a new sphere of people. To understand Art you need to understand its political and social history. Art is painted against a backdrop of archaeology, anthropology, literature, design, science, geography – and innumerable other subjects. This interdisciplinary approach gives you a mammoth diversity of perspective.

In an era that relies so heavily on visual literacy, Art History offers invaluable lessons in the study of civilization. We are surrounded by things that demand our vision – film, advertising, architecture. Kafka said that ‘anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.’ Art History offers the broadest education possible in analysing what you see, and discovering beauty in unexpected places.

I went to study Art History after a friend did an AHA trip and spoke of nothing else for the summer – she is now studying Chemistry at university. Art History need not be esoteric – it is there for everyone to enjoy. It’s easy, but mistaken, to doubt Art History’s significance without trying – so find your nearest gallery, visit churches or museums while abroad, or just start here!

With thanks to Wikipedia for photos.

Can we value art economically? AHA alum Helena Roy examines funding for the arts…

Culture Secretary Maria Miller argued in April 2013 that the arts had to make a case for their economic worth to receive government funding. Speaking at the British Museum, she said British culture should be viewed as a ‘commodity’ and ‘compelling product’ to sell at home and export abroad.

Investment in art, she went on, is only a means to ‘healthy dividends’. When British art is exported, it should be part of ‘relationship marketing’ to help ‘attract investment which will drive jobs and opportunities here at home’.

Maria Miller at the British Museum in April

But at the heart of Miller’s speech was contradiction.

The arts can only grow and benefit Britain’s economy with significant government funding. Asking them to increase profit whilst reducing funding is paradoxical. The most successful theatrical exports of recent years – War Horse, One Man Two Guvnors (seven-times Tony-nominated and currently touring Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia), and Matilda – came from the subsidised sector. Sir Nicholas Hytner, head of the National Theatre, said ‘she seems to be acknowledging that the arts are an engine for growth, but growth is what we are desperately in need of.’

Besides, Britain’s culture is already fantastic value for money. London theatre alone returns almost as much to the treasury in VAT as Arts Council England gives to theatre across the country. If we consistently reduce funding we may see a repeat of the 1980s, when persistent reduction in funding closed roughly a quarter of the country’s theatres. This would be an astronomical loss. Arts funding amounts only to 7p in every £100 of public spending, yet the creative industries, according to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), account for 6.2% (GVA) of goods and services in the economy, £16.6 billion in exports and 2 million jobs.

The musical 'Matilda' has been a hit both at home and abroad

Despite this, Chancellor George Osborne announced a 7% spending cut to the DCMS as part of the Spending Review in June 2013. It was probably the best case scenario in a worst case economy. But Richard Mantle, general director of Opera North, pointed out that ‘it’s a 5% cut on top of a period of quite severe cuts…since 2011, so it’s the cumulative effect which is the challenging thing.’

That challenge is particularly felt outside the South East. We cannot hold up all British arts to of London theatres, in terms of revenue. This risks an increased split between the South East and rest of the country in terms of arts funding, and thus artistic creation – denying millions the opportunity to enjoy and generate culture. Keith Merrin, director of Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland, is facing a struggle as a result of a 10% cut to local authority budgets. ‘The belief that philanthropy will pick up the slack is simply unrealistic in most parts of the country,’ he lamented.

The British Museum - one of London's top attractions and free for visitors

Making art a commodity most detrimentally risks reducing interest in new culture. It is not just profit that makes art valuable – it is the fresh and exciting risk it takes; the challenges it throws at society’s mores. Creative risk-taking produces excellence and modernity, but artistic figures cannot do this if they are programmed to focus on profits. A desperate need for funding will lead to overreliance on big names to generate the required investment. A cycle of reliance on celebrity artists will ensue – making the art market elitist, and denying opportunities to younger artists.

Above all, art is about more than money. Labelling it with an economic value is harmful. Art is generates a sense of community and identity, and offers a platform for opinions and public discussion. Miller’s speech seemed to sideline all other benefits the arts bring. The fact that art is about more, and that access to it is mostly free, is what makes it so culturally valuable. It is first and foremost a social commodity. Former Arts Council England chair Dame Liz Forgan summed it up well:

“The danger…is that people actually start to believe that because art produces huge economic benefits, we should start directing our investment in culture for its commercial potential. That’s not only philistine, it’s self-defeating, because then you get accountants making artistic decisions, which is as silly as having artists making accounting ones. If you start to invest in art because of an identified commercial outcome, you will get worse art and therefore we will get a worse commercial outcome.”

Culture undoubtedly has economic value. UNESCO has identified the UK as the world’s largest exporter of cultural goods – bigger than the US, Japan, Germany or France – and 40% of tourists to the UK cite culture and heritage as the primary reason for their visit. But this should be a pleasant, unintended (but not unforeseen) consequence of funding the arts. Making financial gain the ends of artistic creation will destroy and commercialise the means.

Miller admitted that ‘culture educates, entertains and it enriches. We must never lose sight of that fact.’ But in times of economic crisis, with harsh cuts being made everywhere, that is exactly what we risk. The British Museum is a pertinent example: the UK’s most popular tourist attraction, part of its appeal is that entry is free of charge – it is accessible to all. As I described with opera earlier this year, art and culture is unifying. If we give it an economic label, we risk splitting its audience by income and depriving future generations of artistic opportunities.

With thanks to Wikipedia, the BBC and the Independent for photos.