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History of Art or Critical and Contextual Studies in Art and Design?


Ivan Davies, our Principal Examiner for Art and Design discusses the origins and the future for art history.

Art history has occupied an ambivalent position amongst teachers for as long as most can remember. Opinion about its place in the contemporary school and college curriculum seems to depend on whether it is regarded as an area of study that is sufficient in itself and involving predominantly oral and written forms of teaching and assessment or, alternatively, as a means of enriching and informing art and design learning generally and creative personal response in particular. 

In short, is it seen as an end in itself or as a means to an end?

It’s more than 30 years since the Critical Studies in Art Education project set out the dilemmas facing teachers at that time and which still, in the  minds of some, are not fully resolved. At that time, there was increasing concern that the almost exclusive emphasis on practical work squeezed out opportunities for the reflective, contemplative aspects of art and design education. However, teachers were beginning to accept that critical understanding and response could not be gained through practical work alone.

At the same time, teachers seemed to be unconvinced of the value of a conventional approach to art history, feeling that it was not the best way to give learners a meaningful understanding of historical and contemporary art, craft and design.

There was also growing feeling that learners should be helped to see their own work in a broader context and were able to relate it to the work of artists and designers, achieved through personal involvement and engagement rather than through learning historical facts and writing essays.

At the beginning of the 1990’s, these concerns were encapsulated in the proposals for the National Curriculum for Art.  The Working Party report stated that, within the Attainment Target Understanding at Key Stage 4, pupils should recognise the affinity between their own work and that of personally selected artists, craftworkers and designers and explain their application and relevance. Within their own work, they should make constructive use of the methods and approaches used by artists. They should identify how works of art, craft and design are received and used in their own context and also critically evaluate these works and understand how different contexts influence meaning and interpretation.

In the most recent developments in art and design teaching and assessment, the first of the four assessment objectives for AS and Advanced Level qualifications, is succinctly summarised as: "Develop ideas through sustained and focused investigations informed by contextual and other sources, demonstrating analytical and critical understanding."

Advocates for the continued teaching and assessment of art history as a standalone qualification assert that the subject teaches students to think differently, ask probing questions and reject standard responses and conventional wisdom, looking beyond obvious appearances to perceive nuances. It develops skills in visual analysis and criticism, verbal and written communication skills to effectively express ideas and helps to build persuasive arguments.

Art history, it is claimed, provides unique access to the past, given the fact that history cannot exclusively be articulated by means of texts, words and documents. Artefacts also have an important and unique part to play.

In a recent discussion with a sixth form lecturer*, relevant observations were made based on her own experience as a student and on direct and significant engagement with students who are currently studying Critical and Contextual Studies.

She described the course that she followed as being academic and linear and, although enjoyable, did not encourage students to debate or challenge the authoritative view of experts. Any departure from the set text was considered rebellious or devious.

She contrasted this with the way students approach Critical and Contextual Studies in Art and Design in which they are actively encouraged to articulate personal opinions that was denied her. Her students understand that artists respond to human issues, just like themselves, and their opinions are valued and worth communicating in many different, creative ways, not only by writing essays.

Few would deny those teachers and students who wish to study the History of Art the opportunity to continue do so. However, should not due regard be given to the important, alternative study of Critical and Contextual Studies as a qualification in its own right, as well as its significance within all art and design qualifications?

And so the debate continues.

* This discussion can be viewed here

If Ivan has inspired you, learn more about Critical and Contextual Studies within our Art and Design specifications today.

For further information:
Mari Bradbury
Subject Officer
029 2026 5138