8.30 am: A little more tutorial rerouting before re-engaging with my conference paper’s composition.
The AQA exam board’s decision to axe its ‘A’-level art history is at one and the same time alarming and unsurprising. In terms of the number of excellent, free museums and galleries that we have in this country alone, art history is far better resourced than most subjects taught at ‘A’-level. Added to this, the availability of an abundance of digital facsimiles of texts, web-based articles, and high-resolution images of artworks on the Internet, suggests that the subject has never been better resourced in the history of its teaching.
However, too few secondary school art teachers have had a sufficient grounding in the subject at university to feel confident about teaching it. (The School of Art insists that all its fine art students encounter art history, deeply. This rare is in art education these days.) Even fewer teachers possess a passion for, and a sense of the importance of, the subject, with which to inspire their pupils. Without the history of art, the practice of art is impoverished.
Perhaps art history is still seen as a bauble of the highbrow, conservative, and monied class; the preserve of a well-educated and acquisitive few. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Art and its history belong to everyone in principle. However, it’s enjoyed by an, albeit large and growing, elite only, in practice. I came from a working-class background. The only art on the walls of my parents’ home were two dismal, oddly-cropped, framed reproductions of John Constable’s Hay Wain (1821) and The Cornfield (1826). My Mam purchased the former because its colours matched those of the carpet and three-piece suite:
The prints were sold by an electrical and domestic appliance shop in Blaina. (Art as a domestic appliance. I like that.) We didn’t have a single art book at home, and my teachers never encouraged pupils to read art books in the school library. But it took only one school trip to the Tate Gallery, when I was seventeen years of age, to open my eyes and seal a commitment to the practice and history of the subject (about which I knew I knew snuff, then). Others, from more extreme positions of art-cultural disenfranchisement, have had their own road to Damascus experience. The art historian Dr Matt Lodder (who specialises in the visual history of tattoos) tweeted recently: ‘A student once told me she became interested in art while she was homeless, and sheltering in galleries to keep warm’. Art is not the most important thing in life. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not very, very important: humanising, uplifting, redemptive in a measure, critical and ‘prophetic’, informing the mind and illumining the heart and soul.
Throughout the morning, I extended the notes, and began edging towards a compositional structure, for the paper. This is art history in the making. This is me, keeping it alive. I’ve always been interested in the idea of art history+. The plus being some other subject or discipline: religion, biblical studies, the history of sound, sound-art practice, music, working class culture, science, and supernaturalism. Art + something else.
Over lunch, I made a small adjustment to the Fender Stratocaster’s output socket. It had got a little ‘tense’ with use:
Afternoon. On with notes. I interrogated my own work as though I was someone else. That’s an uncomfortable experience, as any PhD Fine Art student will confess.
Evening. I craved the physicality of cables, flight cases, XLR plugs, and metal stands. Yesterday, I discovered an intoxicating sound in one of the print rooms. I made a sample recording of it, in order to hear it more critically over the studio monitor speakers. The object that gave rise to this extraordinary phenomenon can be played like an instrument. I must, now, return to the room and record it again on more sensitive equipment, for longer and in solitude. In the meantime, I set up the modulation system in the studio.