in London With the Art Historians

the splendid and beautiful Somerset House, on the Strand; home to the Courtauld Institute and Gallery and several other galleries

I spent half of the past week in and around Somerset House at the Association for Art History annual conference, listening to all kinds of scholars discuss aspects of art history. There was a massive range of talks, plus keynote speeches from the artist Sonia Boyce, the head of the V and A Museum Tristram Hunt and the UK’s most eminent art historian Griselda Pollock. Pretty amazing!


I spent the first day attending a strand on pedagogy. For quite a while I have been engaged in teaching art and film, and I am constantly trying to find ways to insert art history into the teaching of art making. I have benefited so much as an artist and filmmaker from the pursuit of art history – and all the great books by art historians – that I want new filmmakers to have that opportunity too.



That’s what my own book Art History for Filmmakers is meant to do – open up the pursuit of art history (which i simply define as the informed understanding of art) to help filmmakers (directors, producers, cinematographers, lighting designers, production designers, art directors,  screen writers and so on) create more visually rich, profound and satisfying films.



I was surprised to learn that many art historians feel their discipline is under threat. I mean, at a time where we are just inundated with images, and where museums are just heaving with visitors (and new museums opening all the time all over the world!) surely there must be more demand for art history than  ever before!  However, some of art history’s remit has been hived off by “visual culture studies” – which i think is a mistake because they are very different and we need both.

More overwhelmingly though, the Anglo-American world that I am a part of is right now suffering from a crisis of anti-intellectualism, lowest-common-denominator populism and instrumentalised education – by which I mean that there’s an idea that higher education should be about job training, no more.

To reduce “Education” simply to mean ‘job training’ is stupid on at least two counts. First of all, anything you get ‘trained’ to do today will be obsolete in a short period of time. Secondly, this kind of attitude ignores what we know about how the brain works. Education is about brain training – literally opening and expanding the mind – so it has the capacity to learn and relearn and supersede old knowledge.


For example, I ‘trained’ at film school on literally film – 16 and super-16mm – and to edit using a Steenbeck, and DV video with a wayback version of Media 100. It was useful, no doubt. However what really mattered was everything I was taught about how the image operates, how to compose and frame, the principles of montage, of continuity and eye-lines and all of that – these are applicable across technologies because they are conceptual.

They are essentially philosophies of vision, not techniques. Because I know these very well, I can use any kind of camera or editing  system. So, my education was really about philosophies of vision and the ways these are manifested. That’s the education I try to give my students.

And the philosophies of vision have to begin with the understanding that MAKING ART is the one thing that sets us apart from all of the other beasts of the planet. You can give a monkey paint and brushes, and she will make a painting, But she won’t make the paint or the brush. We did that.

RISDM 1997-82
Paint Box |  Egyptian |  1302–1070 BCE | 
Ceramic and pigment cakes | Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design


Somebody, millennia ago, worked out that if you take a handful of earth from the ground – in Egypt or Mesopotamia or Mexico – and heat it up, you will get paint. Worked out that a particular stone deep in the mountains of Afghanistan, will give you the perfect blue. And went to Afghanistan to get it. That is art. That is our human history. How can we be so ungrateful and stupid to dismiss it?




Listening to the art historians talk about art history and pedagogy made me more determined than ever to find ways to deliver that art historical content to students, makers and readers. It’s given me a refreshed attitude to my current writing and researching.