Bronzino, Portrait of a Man holding a Statuette

AHA tutor Andy Stewart MacKay on his own experience.

Featured painting, Bronzino, Portrait of a Man holding a Statuette (c 1545)

Go with alert eyes, a subtle mind and a sympathetic heart

Too frequently as an Art History undergraduate (St Andrews University 1998-2002) I encountered a frustrating lack of awareness amongst friends concerning my future employment prospects. ‘What can you do with an Art History degree!?’ was always the most annoying question posed. And I would furiously list, time and again, all the reasons – aside from the simple pleasure of studying something you love just for the sake of it – why everyone should take a degree in Art History.

Art History is a compellingly unique subject and as a degree will prepare you for life and work in ways no other course of study can. Rather than it simply being an opportunity to look at ‘pretty pictures’ – as so many like to imagine – Art History is in fact the study of every available subject, all rolled into one. As such, it’s the broadest education you could get, equipping you with a vast array of transferable skills.

Burne-Jones, The Last sleep of Arthur in AvalonComposition, technique and chemical analysis all undoubtably provide invaluable information about the work of historic artists, sculptors and architects. But it’s what lies beyond this face-value approach to art that’s most valuable to students. To understand a work of art – beyond how it’s made – you’ve got see it within its cultural context.

Understanding art necessitates the study of politics, philosophy, economics, anthropology, archaeology, literature, poetry, fashion, design, chemistry, geometry, anatomy and astronomy – the list could go on. In consequence art historians are, necessarily, inter-disciplinarians. Art History is then, ultimately, the study of civilisation. It is a critical and necessary exercise in the reasoned preservation of human history, with all its wisdom and all its mistakes. Without it we are all blind to the path of human progress.

Kandinsky, Rain Landscape

Vasily Kandinsky, Rain Landscape, 1911

We live in a world of ever-multiplying images that confront us on a daily basis and as a result we are, in many ways, the most ‘visually literate’ people to have ever existed on Earth. And yet, whilst all of us ‘look’, few of us really ‘see’. After all, looking and seeing are very different acts. ‘Looking’ is a routine part of everyday life. ‘Seeing’, however, employs not only the eye but the heart and the mind. Frighteningly few of us are ever taught how to ‘see’ – to really scrutinize the images and spaces that surround us, manipulate us and define us. But, sitting in a darkened lecture hall or seminar room, Art Historians are the lucky ones who get to learn these important acts of ‘seeing’.

The ‘hook’ that draws us into a work of art can be anything that catches our eye or, indeed, our hearts. Once ‘in’, as it were, its easy to see that paintings, sculptures and buildings hold secrets – ‘privileged knowledge’ and expertise to be sure – but also secret meanings: hopes, fears, desires and fantasies. Awoken to them, the art historian becomes scholar and critic of these ‘hidden’ motives and concerted ideologies. And if we all want to be engaged members of a progressive democracy, art and the art historical discipline itself need to be better understood – and democratised beyond the privileged spheres of private schools and elite universities.

Otto Dix, Businessman

The Businessman Max Roesberg, Dresden, 1922

Studying Art History gives you the time and space to consider the most important questions – including that perennial conversation-starter, ‘what is art?’ Which is rather like asking, ‘what does it mean to be human?’ – almost joyfully unanswerable. Nevertheless, each are questions worth asking – and I’ll try by posing another, in part because I think they’re all ultimately part of the same question. What is it that unifies all people, across cultures and centuries? Well – love certainly; but also struggle. For me, art is the universal creative struggle to comprehend the pains and joys of life and of death; it is a sacrament of living and a reconciliation with the dead. Although the outcomes, across time and space, are often strikingly diverse, the human desire to explore, create and challenge is universal. Collectively, generation after generation, we struggle and we create. Honouring that creativity is the first step towards understanding one another. As a critical discipline Art History provides the space for all ‘voices’ to be heard – including your own.

An interest in people – those familiar and those unknown to us – and a love of history and culture – both ‘high’ and ‘low’ – produces students who see ‘the bigger picture’, who take ‘the long view’ and who live with a generous clarity. Art historians are some of the most intelligent, dynamic and hard-working people I know: intellectuals as well as entrepreneurs. With the quietude to ‘see’, the insight to think and the balance to act, an Art History graduate can expect a great deal from life. And the verifiable outcomes of an Art History degree are myriad.

Perhaps the obvious and most well-trodden path will take you to auction houses and commercial galleries; here the questions of attribution and authenticity prevail, the ‘facts’ of art providing the necessary ‘figures’ as it were. Several art historian friends have gone into Law; their forensic minds well suited to the minutiae of rhetoric and judgement. Journalism and publishing too attract the Art History graduate as an area in which the intellect and creativity go hand in hand. Advertising and ‘branding’ can appear to be the natural terrain of the art historian because here their creative responsibilities require an intimate knowledge of visual signs and symbols. Curatorial and teaching careers require graduates to become sensitive and inspiring interpreters of complex ideas. The heritage and preservation industries are naturally run by a large body of Art History graduates too; they are the gatekeepers of our collective memory. And an international career in restoration is a rewarding one for art historians who value painstaking attention to detail and technique. Or there are, of course, rewarding research roles in documentary television and radio where Art History graduates engage in shaping the cultural discourse. Each are highly valued and respected careers.

So as few would, I imagine, question the validities of a degree in English, History or Languages, why question the very real and quantifiable value – in life as well as work – of Art History?

Andy Stewart Mackay


Interested in careers in the art world and how to access them? We are a Silver Member of the Easel Initiative, a social mobility initiative set up to help further equal opportunity and accessibility within the art industry and support and encourage people of all backgrounds to consider it a viable career choice.  Visit their website to learn more.

This post originally appeared in 2013 but has been updated for 2018.

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