Education: Research; Artful view of history

Ground-breaking courses in London and East Anglia are taking the study of art history in new directions. Helen Hague reports
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The Independent Online
It sounds eminently civilised, and if you love pictures and objects, it seems a most agreeable way to make a living. Studying art history at postgraduate level demands intellectual rigour as well as a finely honed aesthetic sense. And well paid jobs in highly prestigious institutions can prove to be pretty thin on the ground.

There was a time, 30 or 40 years ago, when "private means" would help cushion the tyro art historian from the harsh realities of making a living until that mould-breaking thesis on the symbolism of Byzantine art came good.

But nowadays, according to Professor Eric Fernie, director of the Courtauld Institute, such a notion of postgraduate study would be "inconceivable, whether you are talking about students or staff".

The Courtauld is internationally renowned and its 25 staff cover, between them, courses in the Western tradition from classical antiquity to the present day. The institute benefits from its own collections and, of course, close proximity to other London galleries. Over the past decade, says Professor Fernie, there have been considerable changes, with structuralists, post-structuralists, deconstructionists and feminists working alongside those academics who take a traditionalist approach. The old-style traditionalists, he adds, are now in a minority at the Courtauld.

"Ten years ago you would have been right to have described the Courtauld as traditionalist in terms of both its core subjects and its approach. It is very gratifying for me that we have a spread of approaches here because it means the Courtauld is now seen as a major player not only in terms of traditional thinking, but also in terms of the thinking currently going on in the history of art."

A glimpse at the MA prospectus - try "Contrasting Sensibilities: Visual Culture and the Politics of Gender in 18th-Century Britain and France" - illustrates how the Courtauld is grappling with class conflict and political power. Professor Fernie is keen to stress the Courtauld's traditional strengths, and waxes lyrical on the primacy of the objects being studied.

A substantial proportion of those who study at the Courtauld go on to teach in schools and universities, to work as curators in museums, galleries, exhibitions and country house management or to find a niche in art publishing. Recent postgraduates have gone on to work at the British Library, Burghley House, Sotheby's, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Each year, the Courtauld offers 120 places and students on postgraduate diplomas in history or art. The 25 students to sign up each year for the diploma can, if their work progresses, go on to an MA. Alongside classical, Byzantine and medieval studies and course options ranging from the Renaissance to the 20th century, MA students can also opt to study the history of architecture or the history of dress.

Three-year postgraduate diploma courses are offered in three key areas of conservation: easel painting, wall painting, and textiles, where the course is taught in grace and favour accommodation at Hampton Court Palace.

A very different approach to postgraduate studies in art history is taken at the University of East Anglia's school of world art studies and museology. But it, too, benefits from its art and artefacts. The university's Sainsbury collection is strong on African oceanic and indigenous American material. Graduates who enter the school practise the established disciplines of art history, anthropology and museology. But they also join in forming a new one: world art studies. Both an MA course in comparative studies in world art - which can be spread over two years for part-time students - and a one-year postgraduate diploma are offered.

An MA can be taken in the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, and another in European art.

Sandy Heslop, dean of the school, explains new thinking in the world art studies MA, where students will attempt to understand the "production and material culture of the species world-wide". Questions it seeks to examine include, according to Mr Heslop, "what kind of accounts we can provide of why it is that human beings make clothes, decorate their bodies in various ways, build buildings and make images ... It's the sort of thing, on the whole, that pigs and turtles don't do. It is looking for some species- specific explanation of artistic behaviour."

The school is keen to test out its own frontiers and experiment with new course formats. Last year, a course that compared the function of art in Himalayan Buddhism and medieval Christianity was taught. And the course, which seeks to explain the extent to which the terrain and climate of a particular area predisposes its people towards certain kinds of artistic behaviour, is being taught this year as part of the MA programme in world art studies. Mr Heslop describes the course as "'blue sky' - it's an intellectual adventure, in that we are still working our way towards what the answers to these questions should be".

The school's museology course is heavily over-subscribed - only one in 10 applicants is accepted. It is semi-vocational: MA students are given practical, nuts-and-bolts teaching in putting on exhibitions, spliced with internships in both local and international museums. They also get a good grounding in the theory and philosophy of museums and can draw on the resources of the Sainsbury centre. Applications from people with first degrees in archaeology, history, natural sciences and art history are equally welcome. One in five of these students goes on to do a PhD or an MPhil.

The Sainsbury research unit for the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas combines anthropological, art historical and comparative approaches.

Graduates who choose East Anglia to study in the World Arts School participate in the World Art Research Seminar, to which leading international scholars regularly present papers.

But from the school's own teaching, students should get more than a flavour of leading-edge thinking through a synthesis of disciplines. Or, as Mr Heslop puts it, exploring "to what extent artistic behaviour is adaptive evolutionary behaviour to get where it's got, and to what extent it contributes to the success of the species and the individual within the species. And to what extent we wouldn't be human beings if we didn't do these kind of things"n