Art History Today

For more than a century, educators have been teaching visual literacy and the history of art primarily within the confines of two sites: the art history classroom and the art museum gallery. But the ongoing transformation of our concept of education—which has become a “lifelong” practice, migrated online, and merged with entertainment—is already placing pressure on our traditional pedagogical models. Furthermore, as many scholars of visual culture have noted, the internet and other forms of new media have both increased the number of images we encounter on a daily basis, and also flattened the differences between them. What might these developments in both education and visual culture mean for the practice of art history today?

While this is an enormous, and enormously complex, question, we wanted to share how we grapple with it concretely while producing our website,, and its podcast, “State of the Arts.” Founded in the summer of 2014, both ventures are dedicated to exploring how art and its history shape our world today. Though the methods and audiences of art history continue to proliferate, we found that creating a website and podcast best suited our intention to deliver substantive but accessible content to educated adults with little art historical background. In each semester of our careers to date, we have taught between 20-60 students; by comparison, “State of the Arts” has had over 12,000 downloads in the past four months alone (the approximate length of an academic semester). Of course, the type of learning facilitated by a podcast, while not without its own value, is not directly comparable to what happens in a classroom—and actually, that’s the point. Ideally, art historians will continue developing our field as an academic discipline, while also expanding it, without descending to the superficial level of much “edutainment,” such as TED talks. Of course, in order to make this a reality, universities and museums will need to begin valuing this kind of work; nobody really has the luxury of developing new pedagogical models and audiences for art history in their spare time, including us.[1] (Thus far, museum education departments have a much better record in this regard than academic art history programs.)

While websites and podcasting can expand the audience of art history, the format of the podcast, in particular, suggests a new way to conceptualize the field of art history outside of the confines of the survey course or gallery tour. While some podcasts, like “Serial,” have to be listened to sequentially, most podcasts (such as Marc Maron’s popular “WTF”) offer episodes that can be listened to at random, or skipped entirely, if a particular topic doesn’t appeal to you. Similarly, we now randomly access, or are randomly exposed to, images from all periods and cultures on a daily basis, including from the history of art (a fact emphasized by Laura Hoptman’s recent “The Forever Now” exhibition of contemporary painting at MoMA). Therefore, when we first laid out the concept of “State of the Arts,” we eschewed the idea of scheduling our episodes according to any sort of chronological, encyclopedic, or thematic master plan, like one might find in a survey-level course, or a docent-led tour, or even on a website like Smartacademy. For example, our first episode was on the crisis at the DIA, which allowed us to consider the question of art’s value (financial, political, cultural) in modern society; our second was on Kara Walker’s recently closed installation at the Domino Sugar Factory, which foregrounded the idea of art’s complicated relationship with politics and history; and the third was on the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, which examined ideas such as nationalism, classicism, the canon, and patrimony.

Though liberated from the teleological structures that dominate classrooms and museums, we next faced the problem of figuring out how, exactly, we would go about selecting and ordering our episodes. Our solution was to make our episodes topical: we would draw from the range of art history’s objects and concepts according to current events. In recent weeks, we have produced episodes on the terrorist attacks at Charlie Hebdo and on cultural sites in the Middle East, as well as on the allegorical importance of the seasons (in reference to spring finally arriving in New York). As we start to work on an episode, we consciously ask ourselves:

how does the subject in question potentially deepen our listeners’ understanding of the world around them? While many of the strategies we employ to that end, such as providing historical background and ekphrastic dialogue, are the same ones used in the classroom/gallery, the question of contemporary relevance is always at the forefront of our discussions in a way that it may not be in those spaces. To be clear, this does not mean we sacrifice history on the altar of contemporaneity: even though our objects are freed from the teleology of the canon, we strive to keep them within the orbit of their original historical contexts, instead of floating off into the ether. (This is a danger to which “The Forever Now,” the recent MoMA exhibition, succumbed, in our opinion.)

In sum, the overarching principles that guide our website and podcast are:

1) a certitude that art history is relevant beyond the academy and the museum

2) a refusal to circumscribe aesthetic objects within teleological narratives

3) an emphasis on the potential relevance of all art, not just contemporary art, to everyday life.

While these principles derive from our understanding of, and relationship to, the changing status of education and of images in the “post-internet” age, we know they are shared by others, who are similarly engaged in remaking Art History today.

[1] This issue connects with the larger debate over valuing teaching more highly in academia, including the discussion of creating two tenure tracks, one for teaching and one for researching.

The authors would like to thank Karen J. Leader and Amy K. Hamlin of Art History That (AHT) for the invitation to present an earlier version of this paper at the CAA 2015 panel, “What Have You Done for Art History Lately?” [Follow AHT on Facebook – Karen and Michelle]

One response to “Art History Today”

  1. Dear Sarah and Tina, thank you for a stimulating essay on reinvigorating the teaching of art history. I’ve been involved with this topic throughout my career as a cultural journalist and writer of books on art history and criticism, meant for mainstream rather than elite readers.I’ve just released an enhanced eBook on Impressionism, the opening salvo in my campaign to bring art history into contemporary conversation. I’m a proud populist, hoping that the electronic tablet format (iPad) can reach a larger audience than expensive print books on art. If you’d like a review copy, please let me know. Here’s the press release:

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