‘History of Art? Why did you choose that?’ and other common reactions – OurWarwick

‘History of Art? Why did you choose that?’ and other common reactions

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the)
Leigh Mencarini | History of Art Contact Leigh
Art and society, Widening Participation and being a mature student.
Find out more about me Contact Leigh

If you already have a fully-fledged passion for art, then choosing art history as your degree subject is something of a no-brainer – but not everyone really gets it.

As someone who came to study the subject later in life, I have some experience in wrestling with these responses (most of which came from the questions I put to myself).

But here I am, two years deep, and minus any regrets.

So here are some reactions you might get when you share your degree choice with others.

‘What will you do with an art history degree?’

Ah, the most common reaction. I’ve had this from almost everyone outside university.

To be fair, 20 years ago, when I was ‘supposed’ to go to university, it was the most important question to ask yourself as to whether or not you’d apply… for any course, at all.

My honest response? I’m not sure yet. And I feel okay about that.

In the past, I have been certain about my career choice, only to find the industry I chose changed dramatically in a short space of time. So don’t feel pressured to choose a lane and stick to it just yet. The world is going to need you to be flexible.

That said, since starting my studies at Warwick, I’ve realised that art history is a fantastic gateway subject into all kinds of careers – curating, broadcasting, media and communications, conservation, education… to name a few.

The department has a good Careers webpage that sets out possible options art history gives you in ‘an increasingly visual world’, and I think that’s a superb way to look at it.

Discover What art history gives you and other pages for careers advice.

‘Did you just choose Warwick for the Venice term?’

Well, no, but I can totally see why it’s a big draw. Nothing beats experiencing art in situ.

Warwick has been connected with Venice since the 1970s and so has a long understanding of just how important it is for students to get in front of the art and architecture they’re studying. 

Second year undergraduates get to spend a whole term in the city, completely immersed in its art and architecture – from the Middle Ages to the present day. It’s an incredible opportunity and yes, definitely part of the appeal. 

But not everyone can get there. It wasn’t possible for me, but that didn’t change how I felt about the degree

In fact, the Independent Study Module alternative for non-Venice students was one of the most rewarding courses I’ve taken.

It gave me an opportunity to explore my own research interests and experiment with my essay writing style. Plus, there was plenty of in-person art experiences involved. 

The Venice term is amazing, but it is 10 weeks out of a three-year degree which has a lot more on offer besides. 

Have a look at the History of Art BA course for more detailed module descriptions. 

‘So, will you be doing any actual art, then?’

It’s not obligatory but… yes, hopefully! 

There is an optional Practical Art module available which allows you to explore your own visual arts practice. 

This is great if you have a creative side; personally, I’ve found that absorbing all this art has inspired me to make some of my own again. I studied Art & Design at A-level and often returned to art in my spare time, prior to university. 

It is great that the course offers the opportunity to practice artmaking in a studio, as something that goes towards your studies. But for the most part, you engage with a lot of reading materials.

This includes journal articles, essays, religious texts, archive materials, many huge tomes on Floor 3 of the Library… but also poetry, literature, performance and film, if you wish.

Art history requires you to delve into the cultural contexts in which art is made, and because the department’s module offering is increasingly global, it can really take you anywhere

‘Modern art makes no sense to me’

This is a common remark, and I often hear it from people who don’t consider themselves interested in art. 

It’s not helped by those who mock modern art’s conceptual nature (the Turner Prize often falls victim to this).   

As someone who didn’t grow up with much in terms of cultural capital, I used to judge art only in terms of the technical ability on show; on how well the artist has depicted life in their materials. It’s also common to hear the value of an artwork being reduced to the price tag that made the headlines. 

But what has been great about studying art history is gaining the confidence and articulation to express the value of art in terms beyond those narrow definitions. 

What is even better is expressing that knowledge in ways that might help other people enjoy art, too.

I also took an external module with Classics and Ancient History department on Public Engagement, which has made me wonder how a similar approach might be applied to art history.

I might not know exactly what I want to do with this degree, but I do know that making art more accessible will play an important part in my future. 

‘Do you just get to swan around in art galleries all day?’

I can see why people might think that… but no, that’s not all we do. 

As mentioned before, there is a lot of reading involved, and from various sources. But also, all modules include seminars, so active discussions are essential to learning.  

It’s important to talk about the artworks, as well as the theories and contexts that inform understandings of them. The seminars I’ve benefited from most are definitely those where lots of perspectives have been shared. 

For some modules, you deliver presentations to your peers, either on a specific artwork or an artist. This can be daunting at first, but it is a great way to practice writing for, and speaking to, an audience. Trust me when I say that PowerPoints are worth getting to grips with! 

We all love an art gallery, but part of our learning also involves questioning the spaces in which art is displayed. For instance, is a gallery always the right environment for an artwork?

Read more about Teaching and learning methods.

A final thought…

Try to remember, when anyone questions your choice, that a) it’s your choice, and b) there are no right answers, only interpretations.

And actually, that’s pretty relevant to studying art history, too. 

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the)
Leigh Mencarini | History of Art Contact Leigh
Art and society, Widening Participation and being a mature student.
Find out more about me Contact Leigh

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