Why the heck we need art history in schools

I hope you agree that the world needs artists in abundance, as well as people who understand the arts and can utilize them to enrich their lives and those of their surroundings.

Let’s admit it, in most cases we consume art free of charge, taking its availability for granted. Imagine your life though without your daily habit of listening to music, visiting an exhibition, wandering around in a museum, or attending a performance at your favourite venue. It’s a sad image. No one wants that. I certainly don’t want to live in such a poorish and soul-destroying reality.

In Hungary, following a 2020 decision of NAT, the history of arts, even as an elective subject, will be erased from the secondary school curriculum in 2024. It will affect the number of those who pick this subject at the university level which will result in the declining number of experts trained for the conservation of monuments, cultural heritage management, historic preservation, etc. The presence of the arts in our lives will continue to decline.

“The new National Core Curriculum (referred to as NCC or NAT) (of Hungary) 2020 describes the general conceptual and content bases and frameworks of the curriculum, and defines the compulsory content for primary and secondary educational institutions.”

The mentioned legislation only affects Hungary but the situation is dire elsewhere too. Arts funding in UK state schools is being continuously slashed, and the cuts to art history in the US were part of wider cutbacks that hit the humanities especially hard.

I don’t remember much about what they taught us in secondary school about the history of arts but I assume they managed to plant a seed or two because straight after completing my secondary education, I went to an art school and then there was no stopping. Briefly, I even considered applying to the University of Fine Arts, but my drawing skills lacked the necessary sparkle that would have qualified me for a successful entrance examination.

During my vocational training in goldsmithing, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about how to look at a painting, and what differentiates a Baroque artwork from a Renaissance one. Already then I started my discoveries beyond European arts. Because of my already existing interest in everything African, I immersed myself in the world of Akan Art that originated among the Akan people of Southern Ghana. At this point, I have known enough to be able to analyze those objects both historically and professionally. Then, to the surprise of basically everyone, I continued my adventures within the art world at university and gained my PhD in the arts of Tibet and Mongolia.

None of these would have been possible without the inspiration of the art lovers and artists whom in the beginning I could only read about. In the past two decades, I had the luxury of personally meeting many, interviewing them, and getting to know some of them beyond work. They let me peek into their lives behind exhibition rooms and the stage, and they told me about the struggles they rarely talk about in public. I know that regardless of the circumstances, most of them will continue their journey simply because that’s the only way for them to exist.

But ignoring my personal experiences and views on the matter for a minute, which the dear reader as well the lawmakers can easily brush aside, let’s see in five points how the teaching of art history enriches the lives of students and society as a whole.

Cultural literacy and appreciation: Art history exposes students to a wide range of artistic traditions and cultural expressions, fostering an understanding and appreciation of different societies.

Critical thinking and analytical skills: Studying art history encourages students to interpret visual information and to develop critical thinking.

Historical context and social impact: Art history provides a visual timeline, offering insights into historical periods and cultural shifts. Students grasp the profound impact that art has had on shaping societies.

Creativity and expression: Art history exposes us to diverse artistic movements, inspiring creativity through introducing the various methods of self-expression. It encourages exploration.

Cross-disciplinary connections: Art history bridges disciplines, connecting visual arts not only with literature, history, and philosophy but also with science. It develops the inner need for a holistic approach toward all facets of life.

I was born in a small town (Eger, Hungary) where history paves every corner. Baroque, Rococo, Classicist, Art Nouveau, Romantic, and Ottoman Turkish buildings and monuments as well as a castle from the 13th century rule the atmosphere. We are a typical European town in this respect, you will find similarly diverse and historical cities and towns throughout the continent. I know what I look at when I walk the streets, I can connect historical events to certain places in the town, and I understand how they shaped our lives, but the mentioned legislation will deprive the future generations of the cultural literacy so ingrained in me and many.

Image: Visit Eger

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