Why Art History Matters: Ruth Collins

Art history is not just the study of famous paintings by old, dead masters, it is a multidisciplinary subject that covers social anthropology, gender studies, theology, architecture, archaeology, palaeography, design, displacement, history, representation etc.

There has been an overwhelming bias against the study of art history in public perception; art history degrees are derided with a “Mickey Mouse qualification” taint that is hard to break. Obviously as someone who has just completed their humanities degree in art history, I am in “the importance of art history camp” but I think the devaluing of the subject stems from a misunderstanding of what art historians actually do.

Art history is not just the study of famous paintings by old, dead masters, it is a multidisciplinary subject that covers social anthropology, gender studies, theology, architecture, archaeology, palaeography, design, displacement, history, representation etc. It is a seemingly endless list of different disciplines because of the very nature of art history as a subject. If I want to learn about a particular artist, the subject teaches me to learn not only about a key work but also prior pieces, influences and associations of the artist, techniques, art periods, other emerging artists of the time, past masters, commerce and trade connections, protest and turmoil, or global events such as the art movements of Surrealism and Dadism in the interwar timeline.

In my own career as a jobbing artist, art history has aided me in learning different techniques to expand my range. Prior to studying for my undergraduate degree I was content to work mainly in charcoal for portraiture, or recreating historically accurate costumes and dress. While learning about art history I have explored technical skills of past masters and discovered a love and new found passion for painting portraits in a new (to me) medium of oils. Now when I recreate an eighteenth-century dress, I have a broader knowledge of the history behind the silk and textile trade but I also have a greater knowledge base of paintings to reference for my dress designs. Because of the confidence I have gained with studying art history through the Open University, I am organising a guided museum tour for a group of children and parents from a home education co-op I am involved with. I intend to try and impart some knowledge and encourage other people to embrace art history as a broad and interesting discipline.

The study of art history allows people to embrace the history of their area, their country, and their place in the world.

My decision to study art history will not be ending with the completion of my humanities degree, I successfully argued myself a place onto a competitive Master’s degree course (conditional upon a 2:1). The Master’s I have been accepted for usually only admits students from a history or archaeology background, but I was able to demonstrate that my education in art history gave me a perfect broad, interdisciplinary knowledge base that was directly applicable to my further studies. Art history does not just teach you about art, it also teaches you how to learn about a range of topics. An example of this multifaceted education can be taken from a look at a single automaton, Tipu’s Tiger. By studying this piece, art historians are able to discuss, British and Indian portrayals in colonial India, the East India Company, other European relationships with Asia, transculturalism, silk production, trade, uprising and revolt or textile design in Paisley, Scotland.

Open Arts Object, Tipu’s Tiger

For my final essay, the examinable component of my degree, the EMA, for A344, Art and its Global Histories, I chose contemporary sculpture and installation and discussed not only two pieces of public art but also the history of the area they were displayed in and in the case of one, the history of the museum’s relationships with Eurocentric viewership. Art history allows the understanding of visual communication methods. For most of human history, we were an illiterate society; art allowed people to share an understanding and break communication barriers opening them up to religious expression or trade. Contemporary art history allows humans to understand social movements and expression through creativity, far from being an individual subject, highly specialised and unattainable to the majority, art history is a leveller. The study of art history allows people to embrace the history of their area, their country, and their place in the world.

-Ruth Collins, artist and OU alumna (BA 2018)

A344, Art and its Global Histories is a new third level module at the Open University. Its textbooks, co-published with Manchester University Press have been widely adopted across the world in the teaching of a global Art History. To learn more about Tipu’s Tiger, watch one of our Open Arts Objects films, or follow its history through the interactive,  Travelling Objects.

Why Art History Matters: Katie Ault

Art History asks important questions about how we imagine and comprehend our place in the world, how we relate to each other, how we remember the past and create the future.

My interest in Art History was first sparked many years ago when I was given Gombrich’s The Story of Art for my 11th birthday, although I was more interested in looking at the pictures than reading the text! I went on to study Art History as part of an undergraduate Fine Art course, after which I worked for a number of museums and galleries, and developed my own practice as an artist. Recently I have returned to academic study to renew and deepen my understanding of Art History and I completed The Open University’s Art History MA last September.

The OU’s Art History MA is a flexible part-time course that allowed me to study alongside other commitments. It engages a broad range of topics and historical periods with a global reach, from painting, sculpture and architecture to conceptual art, landscape design and outsider art. In the first year theory is explained and made comprehensible and accessible through case studies involving close visual analysis; the second year builds on and extends these themes and demonstrates their contemporary relevance. Although both years offer research training, there is particular emphasis on research and writing skills in the second year, leading to the final dissertation, which I found particularly useful. Live online tutorials and a Study Day provided opportunities to improve my presentation skills; online forums offered valuable opportunities for discussion with academics and fellow students.

Art History asks important questions about how we imagine and comprehend our place in the world, how we relate to each other, how we remember the past and create the future. As such, the OU’s course material was challenging at times, but it was always rewarding. Through this course I have deepened my understanding of this complex subject, become more confident tackling difficult texts and feel better equipped to critique and construct arguments. As a result I was runner-up for the Association for Art History’s Post-Graduate Dissertation Prize (2017) and am now looking forward to furthering my academic interests with The Open University as a PhD candidate, supported by CHASE (Consortium of Humanities and Arts in the South East).

-Katie Ault, artist, MA alumna, and MPhil/PhD Candidate

For an overview of the MA in Art History, see the Art History Department’s website or take a taster course on Open Learn on Artists and Authorship: The Case of Raphael

Why Art History Matters: Karen Downs-Barton

I never expected my studies to lead me into the History of Art path, or that of becoming a published poet, but it has.

I started studying with the Open University while running an app building business but changed direction totally after studying the history of art and creative writing components of the level one modules. This led me on a journey through Exploring Art and Visual Culture (A226) and Art and its Global Histories (A344) and into becoming a published poet specialising in ekphrastic and art centred poetry. The objects and histories I encountered during my studies crop up in unusual ways such as a trip to Cape Verde where reading about its role in the slave trade fed into poems accepted by Tropica Laced Magazine.

While studying, research for various assignments has taken me to a number of cities around the UK, feeding into my writing. A trip to Manchester resulted in a series of poems published by Otoliths, covering subjects as diverse as the Pieta and drug addiction, while visiting Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art resulted in poems to be published by Riggwelter in issue 11, ‘Artist and Empire’ and ‘Glasgow’s Clockwork Orange’ and various other outlets. The art historical journey goes beyond the singular pilgrimage as Renate Dohmen’s Open Arts Objects film The Pilkington Album and Leon Wainwright’s film Sonia Khurana’s Zoetrope have been shared with friends and family as part of a dialogue about art, connections, and globality.

After seeing these films, I visited the Illuminating India exhibition at the Science Museum and saw a fantastic photo album in one of the vitrines. Further investigation into its provenance with the curator and another in India has generated research into representations of gender in South Asian art, poems about which are now being collated into a chap book to be published in 2019. I never expected my studies to lead me into the History of Art path, or that of becoming a published poet, but it has. I don’t know where it will lead me next but I’m sure it will be somewhere both unexpected and exciting.

Karen Downs-Barton, OU student

A344, Art and its Global Histories is a new third level module at the Open University. Its textbooks, co-published with Manchester University Press have been widely adopted across the world in the teaching of a global Art History. Open Arts Objects provides free films and teaching support materials.

Why Art History Matters: Isabel Alexander

So, what does art history mean to me? It means the return of my intellectual life. It means identity, it means stretching my wings, it means being more than a mother, it means being myself again.

I began my art history journey as a nerdy eight-year-old when someone gave me a copy of the National Gallery Children’s Guide and continued it at school where I was one of five students who took art history AS level with a delightfully eccentric teacher. I begged to be allowed to continue to A level but had to settle for English Literature until I arrived as an undergraduate at the University of York in October 2005 clutching my copy of Gombrich. At university, I felt I had finally found something I excelled at. I adored the interdisciplinary nature of art history and developed a particular fascination with nineteenth-century photography. I was one of the top students in my cohort, graduating with a 1st, a high dissertation mark, and a funded MA place lined up. There was even distant talk of PhD funding and my academic future seemed assured, if I chose to accept it. Unfortunately, with the kind of lack of foresight that only 21 year olds possess, I decided that a better use of my early 20s would be to give up my funding and move in with my then-partner at the other end of the country.

Unsurprisingly, I regretted that decision on an annual basis for the next seven years. Friends finished their MAs, started their PhDs, finished their PhDs, published, taught, and inhabited a world that I had voluntarily cut myself out of. By 2015, I had a good job in publishing, was married and had a baby. While on maternity leave, student loans for postgraduate students became available for the first time and my husband, who has been my greatest cheerleader throughout, insisted that I go back and do the MA I felt I’d missed out on. The only course that even came close to working with my schedule was the OU Art History MA, so I decided to apply.

I’ll be completely honest here – I had never, until that point, considered the OU. But now here I was, a mature student, a ‘stay at home mum’ (how I loathe that phrase), a non-traditional MA student. Gone was the cocky undergraduate who’d always been top of the class. I was absolutely terrified as I wrote my first TMA – what if I’d forgotten how to write academically after nearly a decade of writing website copy? What if I’d just been lucky with my undergraduate tutors and was actually not cut out for academia? What if having a baby had drained my brain of its critical faculties? Fortunately, I had the wonderful Dr Veronica Davies as my tutor and she supported me every step of the way. She listened patiently to my sob stories of toddler meltdowns, chickenpox, house moves and other obstacles, gave me extensions for TMAs (which I then frantically attempted to complete with a small child in tow) and generally jollied me along.

When I sat up all night feeding my baby and reading module materials on my phone in the dark, it gave me an incredible feeling of purpose and mental alertness that had been missing from my life for far too long. When I got my first distinction back I cried and felt like I’d come home, as absurd as that sounds. When I went to my first Courtauld symposium in nearly a decade and asked the panel questions and nobody laughed me out of the room, my confidence started to come back. When I had my first conference paper accepted, the feeling grew stronger. When I stood up to give that paper and received nothing but positive feedback afterwards, I felt like a ‘real’ academic for the first time in my life.

I cannot recommend the course [the MA] enough – in fact, I’m now glad I didn’t take that funding all those years ago because I would have missed out on the unique and transformative experience of OU study.

I’m currently writing my MA dissertation and have two more conference proposals in the pipeline. In the autumn, I’ll be starting my PhD applications, again with the support of the incredible OU MA team. I cannot recommend the course enough – in fact, I’m now glad I didn’t take that funding all those years ago because I would have missed out on the unique and transformative experience of OU study.

So, what does art history mean to me? It means the return of my intellectual life. It means identity, it means stretching my wings, it means being more than a mother, it means being myself again.

-Isabel Alexander, OU MA student

For an overview of the MA in Art History, see the Art History Department’s website or take a taster course on Open Learn on Artists and Authorship: The Case of Raphael

Why Art History Matters

The importance of Art History as a discipline that continuously asks new questions about society, challenges preconceptions around race and gender, and offers a window into the past, cannot be taken lightly. Indeed, it might be a complex subject, but shouldn’t that be the reason to study it? To provide our future generations with new ways of seeing the world?

Next week and beyond, the Art History department at the Open University will be showcasing some of the ways that Art History matters. You’ll have the opportunity to hear a range of voices from alumni, OU academics, & current students to artists, A-level students, and other practitioners. This will come in a variety of forms, from a social media campaign on twitter & Instagram to blogs here on Open Arts Extra.

We’d love to hear from you, so if you have a story to tell that you’d like shared, tag us on social media, and if you’d like to write a blog for us, get in touch with us: openartsobjects@open.ac.uk! Have our open access resources changed the way you think about the world around you? Have our modules been life changing? or have our films provided you new insight into works of art you thought you knew well? If you’re a teacher, have our free teaching resources helped you in your teaching? Whatever it is, we’d like to hear from you!

So a little more about the #whyarthistorymatters campaign:

In autumn 2016, when Art History was removed from the A-level curriculum (temporarily), a campaign was started, utilising the hashtag #whyarthistorymatters. The responses were overwhelming from key academics in the field such as Craig Clunas (Oxford) and Griselda Pollock (Leeds) to Turner Prize artists such as Cornelia Parker and Jeremy Deller, as well as individuals who had taken the subject at A-level or at university and whose lives had been profoundly changed by Art History. While Pearson rose to the task of providing the new qualification with a new global spec and the Association For Art History (formerly AAH) has long been committed to promoting the value of art history and visual culture, we feel that Art History still needs to be recognised as an essential skill in today’s world. The importance of Art History as a discipline that continuously asks new questions about society, challenges preconceptions around race and gender, and offers a window into the past, cannot be taken lightly. Indeed, it might be a complex subject, but shouldn’t that be the reason to study it? To provide our future generations with new ways of seeing the world?

Open Arts Objects, is a project that provides free open access films and teaching materials to support the teaching of Art History at A-level as well as to teach the general public on how to look closely at a wide range of works of art

It is why we have been working hard on Open Arts Objects, a project that provides free open access films and teaching materials to support the teaching of Art History at A-level as well as to teach the general public on how to look closely at a wide range of works of art. This project is part of the current strategy within the Open University to develop a series of public facing initiatives that can help inspire wider and diverse constituencies to enjoy and understand art works and visual culture.

To increase awareness and to widen participation in the discipline, we’ve been creating a series of short films on why art history matters. We’ve asked a wide range of people including academics, curators, teachers, educators, artists, students, and alumni to consider in a single sentence why art history is important to them. We hope that this will also encourage the public to start making their own short films and sharing them on social media (and please do tag us so we can share too!)

Stay tuned for more and follow us on social media!

Why does it matter to you?

The Open Arts Objects team, The Open University

#whyarthistorymatters #openartsobjects #ouarthistory #OUrArtHistory #wahm

Open Arts Objects 

Facebook: Open Arts Objects

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{why art history matters at the OU}

 

In August, we’ll be showcasing some of the reasons why art history matters to us, here at the OU. Featuring blogposts & films from current students, alumni, curators, academics, artists, and more, it’ll give us a chance to showcase to the world all the reasons why art history matters, and why it’s still important in today’s world.

So stay tuned!