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The Benefits of Studying Art History

12 September 21 words: Kelly Palfrey
illustrations: Kelly Palfrey

New Art co-Editor Kelly Palfrey explores the benefits of studying Art history, and the extent to which in can improve your confidence to work in the art sector

When I tell people that I have recently graduated from university with a master’s degree in Art History, I am often met with a response along the lines of, ‘Art history, that’s just looking at paintings, isn’t it?’ I have since learned that this misconception is just the tip of the iceberg. To many, Art History is the degree equivalent of a dusty old armchair sitting in the corner of their grandparents’ house, slowly fading, becoming less important and being replaced by newer technology. This, however, could not be more wrong. Art history is more relevant and more important than it has ever been; studying it gives you the skills to understand life in the digital age. For me, studying MA Art History at University of Nottingham has completely changed the way I see, question and challenge the world around me.

I have always been interested in art and design but art history was a foreign concept to me growing up; it was not a subject that was taught in my school. This, unfortunately, is the case for many young people across the UK. I first came across art history and visual culture as a subject during my undergraduate degree in Illustration at the University of Portsmouth. I was inspired and realised that I needed to know more, so I moved to Nottingham in 2019 to begin studying it at the University of Nottingham. This was perhaps one of the best decisions I’ve made in recent years.

One of the very first lectures that I attended was for a module entitled ‘Visualising Conflict’. In this session we were introduced to representations of conflict and trauma, and challenged to think about the ethics of depicting suffering. Throughout the rest of this module alone we covered issues of imperialism and theft, the role the arts play in healing and remembering after war, and debates around how to portray death. It certainly wasn’t ‘just looking at paintings’. The course content was clearly well thought out and featured a diverse range of artists, artworks and exhibitions which encouraged us to question why female artists and those from minority backgrounds have been frequently overlooked, ignored and side-lined throughout history. In short, through these discussions the lecturers made me more aware of the ever present inequalities within our society, and encouraged a deeper level of self-reflection on my own attitudes, beliefs and actions.

Art history is more relevant and more important than it has ever been; studying it gives you the skills to understand life in the digital age

Perhaps the most important skills that I learned from studying art history were critical thinking and the ability to visually analyse an image or object; being able to examine, deconstruct and decipher meaning from an image, object or exhibition has allowed me to better understand the world around me. In particular, I find I am able to think critically about the near-constant barrage of visual communications on social media and spot disinformation. In the age of ‘fake news’, this is a skill that is becoming increasingly important, as the last year has shown us. Not only this, but I have found myself questioning and visually analysing the staging of certain images and events over the last year, like photographs of the Prime Minister on visits or delivering briefings. I no longer simply look at photographs as an objective medium, I ask questions of them; what story are they trying to tell? Who is this aimed at? Who created the image?

Outside of the academic benefits, of which there are too many to list here, studying Art History at the University of Nottingham in particular has given me the confidence to work in the arts sector and provided me with a strong sense of community. Nottingham has some of the best contemporary art galleries and spaces I have seen outside of major cities and by far one of the best arts communities, which means that the university is perfectly placed to deliver art history as a course; the lecturers took full advantage of this and arranged several exhibition visits to introduce us to the local art scene. This, alongside the skills learned on the course, helped me to feel comfortable in the gallery space and led to me volunteering and then gaining paid employment in two different arts organisations. Of course you don’t need a degree in Art History to belong and feel comfortable in a gallery, but for me the course at the University of Nottingham made all the difference.

My only hope is that universities continue to see the value in it as a subject; it has equipped me with the skills, knowledge and confidence to thrive in the digital age. It is not an exaggeration to say that studying Art History has changed my life for the better, in more ways than I could ever have anticipated.

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