At a loss for what to do? Why not History of Art?

Covering anything from death masks and images of hell to the history of tattooing or boxing photography, History of Art is so much more than the study of dead Italian portrait artists, explains Dr Matt Lodder

If your grades didn’t quite get you onto your first choice course, if your grades far exceeded your predictions, or if you’re making a late decision to enter Higher Education, you might be considering entering clearing. But what course should you choose?

With so much of the recent rhetoric about higher education focused on student debt and on the instrumentalisation of degrees (plainly: what are students going to “do” with their degrees after graduation?), and with so much government policy directed at emphasising the STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – above the humanities and social sciences, any student negotiating clearing this week would be forgiven for picking a science, or a more clearly vocational social science course like Business or Law, over literature, philosophy, or the History of Art – even if their heart is pulling them in another direction. What on earth is anyone going to “do” with a degree in art history?

The answer, frankly, is anything you want. The cultural sector in the UK is crucial to the economic health of the nation (recent studies report that over 50 per cent of people visited a museum, or gallery in the past year; that the arts and culture industry pays on average nearly five per cent more than the UK median salary of £26,095; and that the sector accounted for about one per cent of total GDP in 2011), and the cultural industries remain a key part of the economic future of the nation.

For the past five years, I worked at the Association of Art Historians, and part of my role involved running careers days for young undergraduate and postgraduate students, helping them navigate career paths into the arts and cultural sectors. Speakers at our events over the years held roles in the media, in advertising, in museums and galleries, in education (in schools, universities, and cultural institutions), as conservators, as auctioneers and antiques specialists, in charities, and in publishing. Former students of mine have gone on to work as specialist arts lawyers, as PR agents, in fashion, or to run their own galleries.  

The AAH publishes a guide, Careers in Art History, which spells out nearly 40 specific career paths, but the skills learned over three years of dedicated study are widely transferable, and highly valued by employers across all business sectors – we live in a visual world, and the ability to process, analyse and conceptualise complex primary and secondary sources into coherent narratives; to confidently and clearly synthesise and re-present ideas; to assess the quality and reliability of information; and to have a grasp of several centuries of human success and failure through the media of their artistic and cultural endeavours are increasingly invaluable. If you’re not yet focused on a very specific vocation, and if you’re interested in art, culture and the histories and theories of human endeavour, then a degree in a broad-brush humanities subject like art history is an extraordinarily sensible option, as well as being an intellectually fulfilling and inordinately enjoyable one.

Not just for the upper classes

When I was at school, growing up in a working class household, I didn’t realise I could ever have found a job (let alone a career) working with the art and culture I loved, and it took a remarkable series of lectures in European Cinema, in my third year at university, to make me realise that the highly vocational course in translating and interpreting I had chosen for its career prospects had probably been the wrong choice in some senses.

If I’d have known when I was 17 that university courses focusing entirely on cultural history and theory were gateways to a universe of fascinating and fulfilling study, I’d have probably gotten to where I am today much more quickly!

At the University of Essex, where I am starting a new post as Lecturer in Contemporary Art, art history is taught in combination with Philosophy, Literature, History and Modern Languages as joint degrees. We teach a common first year where students can, alongside their compulsory modules, choose other modules from almost any other discipline offered at the university, allowing students to build a programme of study tailored to their interests and goals.

Fundamentally though, the study of visual culture is endlessly fascinating – students on my courses will study the chaotic cabarets of Weimar Berlin, the political impacts of Pussy Riot, the performance art practice of 1950s Japan and the artistic responses to the AIDS crisis, amongst other topics – and hugely rewarding in terms of the breadth and depth of knowledge students are able to acquire. Moreover, as the intersectional issues of gender, race and class (and how these issues are discussed and mediated in our wider culture) continue to dominate the headlines, the careful and systematic study of responses to these issues over the centuries seems never to have been more important. As we spend more and more of our lives staring at screens, the ability to critically examine visual culture becomes ever more vital.

Despite its image as the domain of a privileged elite, the humanities continue to be taken by a diverse student population. In the School of Philosophy and Art History at Essex, we have undergraduates from a dozen countries, with 27 per cent of our students from backgrounds of traditionally low participation in higher education. A quarter of our students go on to further study, particularly onto our focussed MA courses on critical curating, and our students report a satisfaction for their of over 95 per cent. We are ranked 29 in the world for universities under 50 years old.

Art historians research and teach everything from paintings, sculptures and the grandest buildings ever constructed to death masks, boxing photography, or, in my particular case the history of tattooing. If you want to know about images of Hell, representations of ruins, or nineteenth-century medical photography  and if you want the foundation for an incredibly fulfilling career, art history is a superb choice.

Dr Matt Lodder is a lecturer in Contemporary Art in the School of Philosophy and Art History at the University of Essex, specialising in research into the history of Western tattooing. He previously worked as Finance and Policy Manager for the Association of Art Historians. His first book, "Tattoo: An Art History" is due to be published by IB Tauris in 2014. Find him on Twitter: @mattlodder

News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleThe idea has been greeted enthusiastically by the party's MPs
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
Voices
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
Sport
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Sport
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
FOOTBALL
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Guru Careers: Clinical Sales Exec / Medical Sales Exec / Field Sales

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Clinical Sales Exec / Medica...

Guru Careers: Clinical Sales Exec / Medical Sales Exec / Field Sales

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Clinical Sales Exec / Medica...

Guru Careers: Clinical Sales Exec / Medical Sales Exec / Field Sales

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Clinical Sales Exec / Medica...

Guru Careers: Clinical Sales Exec / Medical Sales Exec / Field Sales

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Clinical Sales Exec / Medica...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game