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Like most people in Italy, I studied some Art History for three years, back in Grammar School. A couple of hours a week or so, starting on the third year…. and I remember that I’d been looking forward to it – if in a rather hazy way. I didn’t quite know what to expect – but, at fifteen, I had no doubts that a subject with “history” in its name just had to be wonderful.

Still perhaps some little doubt would have been in order…

Because the fact is that, for three years, a couple of hours a week, I ended up listening to endless descriptions of statue after statue, painting after painting – always with this somewhat emotional slant. It was… nice, if you like – but it wasn’t interesting.

The more we proceeded – observing sweet gazes, dramatic gestures, and softly draped cloth, and vibrant colours, and stuff, the more I wished they’d tell us other things: why did they paint, carve, build what they did, in the way they did? What influenced each artist – generally and personally? Who paid them to do that work, and why? What techniques, what materials did they use – and how? How did great changes – discoveries, wars, the fall of empires – impact on art? How did art, science, economy and society impact each other? What was the artist’s place in society? How did he learn? Where did great innovators start from, when they came up with their ideas, innovations, rebellions…?

But no – nothing of the sort. Each chapter started with a page of vague historical context that nobody bothered to expand, or even much explain, then there was the briefest bio of one artist or two – and then we were back with the soft drapery, and the sweet gazes, and the lovely colours, and stuff – work by single work. As though art were a pretty accessory, pinned in place because of some vague notion of beauty and bursts of native genius. As though art existed on its own – lovely, and ethereal, and untouched by what went on all around. Even at fifteen, the idea seemed to me both annoying and unsatisfying.

And so it was that, in three years, I never managed to really like Art History, and never bothered to do much with it. Oh, I could have – should have worked more on it, to learn about drapery, and sweet gazes, and stuff – and then dig deeper on my own… but I was a rather impossible child, in my own way. I seldom grumbled openly, rather showing my uninterested disapproval by not bothering very much and acting bored. I now realise that our Art teacher must have practiced a good deal of restraint in not throttling me…

Anyway, I then grew up, and began to dig deeper on my own indeed, and read things, and go to talks – and loved what I found. Also, I came to the conclusion that my poor Art teacher hadn’t been especially at fault. He only followed the unfortunate educational mindset that will confine history, art, and literature, and each other subject, each in its own watertight little box. I don’t know – perhaps things are done better in your corner of the world – but in Italy, this was, and still seems to be, the way of things. It is, if you ask me, a dangerous mindset… I could tell you about the school friend who later got a degree in Art History – and had her dissertation heavily criticised because it utterly failed to take into consideration the political elements of a Renaissance seigniory’s cultural policy… But quite apart from minor academic disasters, I’d say that such a mindset robs one of a great deal of perspective…

And this should hold true for the arts, for science – in fact, for each and every field in which mankind operates. Where did (or does) your painter/philosopher/poet/scientist/reformer/younameit come from? What kind of world did they live in? How did they live in it, and thought, and learned, and practiced? How did they live off their art, or thought, or science – or did they really? How did this influence what they did…? Art, history, economy, society, thought… they were never separate things. Does it really make sense to study them as though they were?