Are you thinking of studying History of Art?
Although it has a reputation for being a haven for private-school students who are wealthy enough not to worry about its low graduate employment rate, History of Art actually has a large amount to offer the limited number of people who choose to study it every year.
It is effectively to visual art what English Literature is to written art, looking at its history, its development and its interactions with the wider culture and with current affairs. While this traditionally focused on Western Art and the celebration of the European canon, there are increasing trends to move away from this focus, towards non-Western art and other ignored, non-canonical areas. This means that the study of Art History is particularly exciting at the moment, with many new avenues available to be explored.
What kind of things can I expect to study?
Introductions and overviews
In your first year, you will lay the groundwork for later years of study by looking at the basics of Art History, such as its methods and debates. You’ll get to grips with the best-known artists in history, look at how art is produced (including systems of patronage, for instance, as well as the basics of techniques and materials) and learn about different styles and periods in Art History. This year is likely to focus more on the canon of Western Art than other years; once you have gained a foundation from learning about the traditional focus of Art History (mostly dead, white and male), you can expand on this in later years.
A wide range of options
In your second, third and, if you take on, fourth year, you can anticipate much more freedom in what you study. University courses range from ‘Art in China since 1911’ (Oxford) to ‘Renaissance Art in Italy and the Netherlands 1400-1460’ (Birmingham) to ‘Painting in Britain in the Eighteenth Century’ (York) to ‘Modernity through the Lens: The European Avant-Garde, Utopia, Technology, and Mass Culture’ (UCL) to ‘Encounters with the art and architecture of Islamic Iberia’ (Manchester) – and this is just as small selection.
What do I need for a History of Art degree?
Crucially, you don’t need History of Art A-level, which is offered by fewer than 40 state schools and fewer than 100 private schools – of a total of many thousands. There are no specific subjects beyond the requirement for an essay-based humanities subject; History would probably be the best option, followed by English. Other subjects that may prove helpful are Art, Classical Civilisations, Religious Studies and classical or modern languages – but none are mandatory.
What skills will I acquire?
You will gain skills in historical research and analysis. You will also hone your critical thinking skills to compare and interpret information from a variety of sources. As History of Art has relatively few taught hours, you will gain strong skills in time management and learn techniques for self-motivation. You will also learn how to write a compelling, persuasive and well-structured academic essay. In general, History of Art offers the full range of skills and abilities also gained from more popular humanities degrees, such as History or English.
Will I get to travel as part of my degree?
Yes; travel to galleries and sites of architectural interest is frequently part of a History of Art degree. History of Art students are also often encouraged to spend a year or semester abroad. It is one of the more popular degrees to study as joint honours with a language.
What careers are possible with a History of Art degree?
Careers directly related to History of Art – such as in arts organisations or art galleries – are relatively hard to come by and tend not to be well-paid, though the few graduates who find work in auction houses can prove the exception to this rule. The graduate employment rate for History of Art is low, at 60%, which is possibly why around a quarter of graduates choose to pursue further study instead. Those that do find employment often do so through standard graduate-scheme roles such as PR, marketing and business sales.
If you’re thinking of studying History of Art, you may wish to consider these other options:
- Fine Art: there is considerable overlap between those interested in studying art and those interested in producing it, to the extent that some universities offer Fine Art & Art History as a joint honours degree.
- History: if you find that the contexts in which art is produced is of more interest to you than the art itself.
A final thought on History of Art
It seems a shame that such a fascinating subject as History of Art has such an unfortunate reputation. Graduates may have to field a lot of questions about why they chose a ‘useless’ degree, as well as contending with the low employment rate. However, for those who can stomach all that, History of Art is a very rewarding subject choice, as well as having broad use and relevance that is often underestimated. Fine Art graduates tend to do very well indeed in media-related jobs, of which there is a considerable variety; the key is to get some work experience during your degree to add the all-important commercial awareness dimension to your CV, making it clear that you are genuinely interested in gainful employment rather than cloistering yourself in a studio.