Prince of arts

Lee Elliot Major wonders if public interest in Prince William's university studies will broaden the appeal and application of art history

History of art would seem the perfect university subject for Prince William. This week he will master the fine arts of freshers week at St Andrews University - games of high-spirited drunkenness amidst ancient surroundings. Next week he will turn his attention to the masters of Italian renaissance art, from Giotto to Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian. To those who still think of art history students as the modern equivalents of 18th-century aristocrats doing the Grand Tour of Europe to sample the pleasures of art, culture and life in general, all this would appear to be ideal preparation.

With its predominance of white, upper middle-class, independently educated (and mainly female) students, art history will be home from home for the heir apparent. Royalty, of course, has long had intimate connections with the subject: commissioning, collecting, and sometimes capturing, works of art from around the globe.

The House of Windsor is not unacquainted with famous art historians. Anthony Blunt, the Cambridge academic known as "the Fourth Man" after being revealed as a Russian spy, was once art adviser to Queen Elizabeth. If he ever needs inspiration for a latest assignment, William can always fall back on his grandmother's 9,000-strong collection of pictures, furniture, jewellery and porcelain, which includes drawings by Leonardo da Vinci.

Yet the prince's decision to take history of art at university has created a major dilemma for the relatively small community of academic art historians in UK universities. William will focus an unprecedented spotlight on the discipline but, in doing so, he may only reinforce the stereotypes the subject is so desperately trying to rid itself of.

Chair of the association of art historians and head of the department of history of art at the university of Birmingham, Shearer West, says: "A lot of people have big misconceptions about it. They think the subject might be something for people like Prince William, but actually it is much more varied than that.

"It might be said that 20 years ago students would have come from fairly privileged backgrounds, but I think that now there is a very much more diverse range. One of the consequences of Prince William doing it is that it actually brings it into the public eye a little bit, and may draw the subject to the attention of people who may not have even thought about it before."

The problems facing the art history community were summarised in a report by teaching quality inspectors two years ago. It highlighted a lack of students from ethnic minority communities on degree courses and suggested that not all departments were doing enough to attract students from poorer backgrounds. It also indicated that not enough was being done to encourage applications from mature students, or those without traditional academic qualifications.

Concern was expressed about the continuing dominance of female students on degree courses. Some assessors suggested that the subject promoted "a very traditional image and ethos and that some potential students might be dissuaded from applying because of this".

Official statistics from UCAS confirm this picture of a monocultural academic world, more remniscent of a bygone academic era. Only 32 of the 878 accepted applicants for art history degrees in 2000 were black or Asian students. Over 550 (60%) of the 878 newly enrolled students came from the two highest social class groups. And 700 (80%) of the new students were female.

Even at Oxford Brookes University, a department recognised for its strong record in widening access, it is a struggle to enrol students from a wide variety of backgrounds. "I would love to have applications from students from working class backgrounds, and be able to say that we were able to widen participation," says Martyn Field, the university's admissions officer for the humanities, "but the practical reality is that we are not seeing this."

Field says that most students come from the south-east of the country and are educated in independent schools. History of art, he says, is not covered in many state schools, so students are not aware that the subject even exists at university.

The indictment delivered by the teaching inspectors has prompted a period of self-evaluation within the subject. And many art history lecturers now believe that the discipline needs an urgent change of image. The community is beginning to mobilise itself on two fronts: debunking myths about the subject among school teachers, and opening up the subject to wider influences than the narrow white Euro-centric view of art that has traditionally dominated the subject.

Lecturers from the universities of Birmingham, Bristol and Sussex are discussing plans to set up regionally based workshops aiming to raise the subject's profile among groups of students that up to now have been largely unrepresented on degree courses. The hope is that this might develop into a national scheme.

Meanwhile Sussex, Open and Middlesex universities have launched the GLAADH (Globalising art, Architecture and Design History) initiative - a project that seeks to encourage more cultural diversity in the art history curriculum, and move away from the almost exclusive focus on the art of Europe and North America.

An initial survey of art history departments has revealed a mixed picture among departments. Some academics scoffed at the suggestions, voicing fears that a more diverse curriculum could only be achieved at the expense of academic standards.

At the same time, the survey uncovered many courses defying the "Giotto to Cezanne" stereotype. The survey concludes: "It is probably also true to say that, with regard to historic traditions, and to artistic practice outside the West, coverage and activity is patchy. In terms of pre-20th century, China probably has the best coverage, followed by elsewhere in Asia (Japan and India). There is very little pre-20th century teaching of Latin America or Africa outside a very small number of well-established centres." A conference to discuss the findings has been arranged later this year.

It is too late for these reforms to impact on William's education. The art history department at St Andrews was one of the traditional courses that welcomed the GLAADH review, but William will be fed a strict diet of Italian Renaissance, British architecture (will the prince, one wonders, share his father's contempt for modern buildings?), furniture history and the history of photography.

When assessors visited the department to award it a "highly satisfactory" grade, their main gripe was that students, particularly "those without financial means", needed more regular access to works of art in major cities to support the teaching. Money, however, is unlikely to be the biggest problem for the mainly well-heeled white students at St Andrews. And for some time to come they will remain completely unrepresentative of the rich cultural diversity of subjects William may one day reign over.

Yet art history may provide William with some of the key skills for a future king. Teaching assessors were impressed with the communication and presentation skills of art history graduates who, apart from the usual auction houses, galleries and museums, secure jobs in a wide range of jobs in the media and creative arts.

"Like many many other students, he [William] will end up in a profession where you have to present things publicly," Shearer says. "Students are taught to be visually aware and to be able to engage with an environment - his environment may be a different environment to most other students, but the whole point about the expansion of art history, and the expansion of the kinds of artefacts we are looking at, is that we are looking at artefacts that might be in a country house, but they also might be in a town centre. So the range of what you can look at and learn to talk about is huge."


Lee Elliot Major

The GuardianTramp

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