Is There a Traditional Definition of Art History Anymore?
In mid-May, I finished my first semester teaching undergraduate art history classes, one of which was a survey course covering Western art from the 14th through 20th centuries. Having taught in museums for 15 years, I thought I was prepared to plan and teach an art history lesson. But I have emerged from the semester with a barrage of questions about exactly what constitutes art history, and how and why we look at art in the university classroom.
The Bradley University Art Department uses Gardner’s Art Through the Ages as a textbook. This book opens with the question, “What is art history?” and answers itself, “a central aim of art history is to determine the original context of artworks…. What unique set of circumstances gave rise to the construction of a particular building or led an individual patron to commission a certain artist to fashion a singular artwork for a specific place?”
I do not want to argue against this definition of art history. I do, however, want to argue that this definition is neither useful nor suitable for an undergraduate art survey class, nor is it the direction in which emerging leaders in art history teaching – such as Smarthistory or AHTR – seem to be moving. But if we reject framing the survey class around this traditional definition of art history, what goals and guiding principles can we turn to? And how do we relate to the art field and the discipline of art history?
Against the Traditional Definition of Art History
In my survey course, when teaching about Italian Renaissance art, I struggled to give my students information about the Catholic Church, humanism, Italian politics, the guild system and its patronage, and the Medici family’s influence – all of which, Gardner would argue, is essential to understanding art by Ghiberti or Michelangelo. Not surprisingly, it turns out that to teach all of this, in about nine hours of instruction time, in any meaningful way is impossible. Nor does it help students unfamiliar with looking at art, and unfamiliar with Catholicism or the Bible, understand the art itself.
A historical approach might make sense if you are teaching a class on a more defined area – fifteen weeks spent on the Italian Renaissance, or French Impressionism. But the idea that one can teach the social, political, and cultural circumstances of the creation of works of art, for art spanning seven centuries and multiple continents, is laughable. Equally important, those of us who teach survey classes do not have the expertise needed to teach students the historical and cultural context for seven decades of art. If we limit our definition of art history to the relationship between a work of art and the social, cultural, and political circumstances in which it was created, than the survey class makes no sense at all.
Expanded Definitions of Art History
Art History Teaching Resources and Smarthistory are two of the more influential and useful new resources for new art history instructors. While neither argues against a traditional definition of art history, both expand on it. The ATHR website describes the survey class as one in which “students of all majors learn transferable skills in order to critically analyze their worlds through visual means.” And Smarthistory speaks at length about the importance of teaching students to develop their own responses to a work of art, asking, “how can we help students to trust their own responses to a work of art? How can we avoid situations where students rely on the “authority” of the text written by the curator or instructor and don’t trust their own experience or what they see and feel before the work of art. How can we help them to trust their own reading?”
The idea that one can develop analytical skills that allow for independent analysis of a work of art is allied with postmodernist literary theories arguing that meaning comes from the reader rather than the author. College literature classes, at least in my experience, are taught very differently than art history classes, with an emphasis on analyzing and interpreting meaning in the text, rather than providing historical and cultural context for the writing of that text. Similarly, modernist and postmodernist artists often encourage viewers to create their own meanings for a work of art. The world of cultural production has thus shifted to an emphasis on the viewer or reader’s interpretive power.
So how do we, as art history instructors, refocus the traditional undergraduate survey class to teach these skills? Traditional art history survey classes demand lectures and readings heavy with information. And because they are concerned with understanding works of art within an art historical context, they require the instructor to comprehensively and sequentially cover Western art, to support students’ understanding of the way, for example, Giotto leads to Masaccio leads to Leonardo.
If our goal is to teach students to make their own meaning of a work of art, and to understand that historical meanings exist but do not take precedence over the viewer’s experience, than – planning backwards with our goals in mind – we need to (as AHTR recommends) jettison the text book, along with the lecture format. We may also need to jettison our emphasis on being comprehensive and linear. We must also show students that, when shown an unfamiliar work of art, they can look and think (and perhaps write and talk) through the work, making sense of it themselves, even if they have no knowledge of the context in which it was created. And we must find ways to test and grade student learning based not on memorization of names and dates, or their ability to regurgitate the traditional art historical significance of a work of art, but rather on their ability to create new meanings from previously unseen works of art, based on careful looking and sound thinking.
Next Spring’s Survey Course
I end this post brainstorming my own ideas for next spring’s survey class – how will I put these ideas into practice? I have not tried these ideas, so they are untested. I would love to hear the ideas of others!
I plan to spend the first week of the class explicitly thinking about what it means to understand a work of art. I will do this using modern and contemporary works – works that are easier to understand than Giotto’s Lamentation, and provide a platform for modelling and practicing formal and interpretive analysis, and a space for discussion about different forms of knowledge.
I am considering working through a shortened version of the canon by presenting works in groups of three or four, using pieces that have something in common. For example, I might start with Giotto’s Lamentation, Roger Van Der Weyden’s Deposition, and Mantegna’s Foreshortened Christ. We would begin by discussing them without art historical context. Students could then each choose a work to learn more about, using pre-prepared reading and viewing lists, as well as a discussion of what constitutes a reliable source they find on their own. I might frame these investigations around a big question – perhaps, “What makes a painting effective?” a question which asks them to think about the word “effective” as well as the paintings under discussion. This will require me to essentially “flip” the classroom, assigning readings to do on their own time, and leaving class time for small-group work and discussion. Finally, we will come back to the paintings, discussing each in class, as students share what they know while discussing what makes them each effective.