Some odd news has come out of the UK. The #Education department is removing #Art history from all high school curriculum. A department spokesperson told the press that the decision has nothing to do with the importance of the subject. But it clearly does. The telltale sign is the spokesperson’s description of art history as a “soft” subject. What’s wrong with saying that? Let me count the ways. 

When a picture is worth a thousand words

Art history is a written report of the beaux arts’ bygone days and it comes with pictures. What’s more, the report is based on those who lived at the time. The images are eye-witness reports.

Even before people could write, grow food or build shelter, artists then narrated the days of their lives on their cave walls and in their stone carvings. We learned from such images not only how Ice Age people survived – what they hunted and how -- but also what they cared about. Their concern for fertility is made clear in the exaggerated width of hips and prodigious breasts of the 25,000-year-old sculpture known as the Venus of Willendorf.

When painting and sculpture tell stories best

Art history, then, takes the fleeting air of the past and objectifies it. Words tell, but art shows. Consider Picasso’s painting “Guernica” about a small Basque village bombed to smithereens by the Luftwaffe of Nazi Germany in 1937. Many of the men in the village were away resisting the effort of General Franco to rule them.

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This left mostly women and children on April 26 under two-hour bombardment that killed 1,650 of them. Picasso said the town sank in an ocean of pain and death. But it’s his painting that shows you how it was to be there. Better even than photographs, he conveyed the experience with quixotic shapes and colors -- a deadly monochrome black, white and gray and a jumbling of man and beast to signify the dehumanization that war impels.

When size matters

Other pictorial indicators that underscore the tragedy include a figure impaled by a sword across from a bull still alive – a clear twist on Spain’s bull fighting tradition in which the bull dies, not the matador. The switch graphically points up how upside down the world is in war. Also defining the war experience is the size of the painting -- a whopping 25 feet and 8 inches long and 11 feet 6 inches high -- that reads like a film rolling on, except unlike a moviemaker, the painter disfigures to make his point.

When art history matters

A particularly memorable image in the painting is a woman cradling a dead infant as she glowers open-mouthed at the sky. That and a shrieking horse run through with a spear – all of which is set inside the crumbling walls of a house in flames – stays with you. History books can tell this story, but art history makes it palpable.