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.”[1] 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?”[2]

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.


[1] AHTR

[2] smarthistory

28 responses to “Is There a Traditional Definition of Art History Anymore?”

  1. Parme Giuntini says:

    Bravo! I think you have made some critical decisions that will dramatically shift the focus of your class for the better. I think that the single most important aspect is that you went from teaching in a museum (where the assumption is that all that stuff on the walls is ART) to a university setting where a different set of assumptions kicked in: what is art? who decided? what was the function of those altarpieces when they were made? what kinds of boundaries and assumptions does the canon produce?…

    I teach in an art and design college and what you experienced is very familiar because that was my experience as well. Eventually, I jettisoned the traditional survey (and those textbooks) and replaced it with an Intro to Visual Culture course that let students grapple with the questions that I noted above. Still can use renaissance works (any works really) but now students can acknowledge and talk about their responses to the work, historical perceptions of it, canonical issues about it, and how those same works influence popular culture.

    Makes for more critical thinking and no one misses memorizing all those names and dates (which they forgot pretty quickly).

  2. Talking about myself is the most difficult and embarassing part, but you shoud add to your resources “Art History Lab”, which is the best art history resource on the web and can be used by students at home.

  3. I am struggling with these specific issues myself, particularly in the teaching of survey (Renaissance-1855) and Modernism. have been pondering the “flipped” classroom as well. (I too teach in a college of art and design – MICA–and come out of a background of art museum education.) My question are: what do you plan to use for readings? And what if your students persistently come to class not having done the readings? What instruments are you devising to assess BOTH that the students develop the ability to find “new meanings” and that they engage with the artist’s intentions and the intended subject and content of a work? Finally, how many students are in you class on the average? Does your course meet once, twice or three times a week? My classes meet once a week for 2 hrs 45 min. Finally have you established concrete goals and objectives for your course? Do your personal goals and objectives mesh, miss or conflict with your institutional and departmental goals and objectives or is that irrelevant? I would be interested in continuing this conversation if there could be a workable forum.

  4. Olivia Powell says:

    What a brilliant post! It really resonates with the teaching I’ve done in Columbia’s core curriculum. Rebecca, I think you’d really like the Art Humanities syllabus at Columbia. It’s a very cool way of doing a survey. I’m happy to share it with you.

  5. Randall Edwards says:

    A very insightful essay — especially with the distinction of expanding one’s milieu to periods beyond our cultural expertise.

    I love the idea of a flipped classroom, but it strikes me as an ideal that does not play out in reality. Firstly, the students have to actually prepare at home and, secondly, the class size has to be manageable enough for the teacher to actually vet the material being discussed. If it is more of a short break-out session, this can be helpful, but an entire day predicated on what students have (hopefully) done outside the classroom seems like it could leave quite a few students behind.

  6. I think this thread is raising really important issues, not just how the discipline of art history is/should be changing, but also about the role of art museum in teaching academic art history. As we move more into a digital realm, it seems both academic institutions and museums must renegotiate their traditional missions and educational approach.

    Although museums have long been seen as sites of informal learning, they could develop more extensive on-line resources to support learning in formal educational settings beyond K-12. I’ve often incorporated on-line exhibitions and podcasts as part of my required “readings” for class topics (I use a flipped class model), but I usually develop my own assignments around these materials to make them appropriate to a college level class.

    Does anyone know about museum education (perhaps in collaboration with curatorial/conservation) departments that are creating materials for more advanced students?

  7. Rebecca Herz says:

    For those interested in considering these issues in relationship to museum education, please see my most recent post at my blog, which examines these issues in the museum context – Virginia, for reasons that I hope are clear in this other post, I think most museum resources useful for traditional art history teaching are those created by the curatorial department. But I would love to see a team of art history teachers and museum educators come together to consider how to create resources that engage students in learning how to look and analyze, and also take seriously issues of context and content knowledge.

  8. Adam says:

    My guess is that those survey courses were designed at a time when instructors assumed that students had a basic knowledge of European history, bible stories and Greek myths, and at least a sunday-school version of Christianity.

  9. Neil Miley says:

    I’m a student (online) at Curtin University. Have just completed a similar subject and found your searching article interesting. Perhaps you could look at the way online students cover this topic, in the case of my course the method applied seemed to follow what you were searching for. More research work for the student and more self direction involved…. covering how to understand a work in a face to face would have helped me.

  10. We have asked Olivia if she would draft a post for AHTR on the Columbia method. We are all curious as to the approach!

  11. Larissa says:

    I’ve been struggling with the issue myself, and as a new instructor who recently finished my second semester teaching art appreciation after years in the museum realm the thoughts you’ve shared definitely resonate. I’ve been looking to restructure the historical timeline approach with a theme based approach as I include some curatorial assignments that are directed towards the students creating an idea around art and making choices about what artwork expresses their ideas. I discovered the textbook, “Exploring Art: A Global, Thematic Approach” by Margaret Lazzari which I’m considering switching to for my next semester. The structure is very similar among all these texts, but the theme concept provides another avenue for including interactive participatory discussions and activities that are driven by an idea and the objects that may express that idea or others to create a connective flow. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  12. drmariegh says:

    What a fantastic post — thank you for sharing these insights!
    There really is a fine line to walk, I think, between providing models for how to think about art and getting the students to trust their own instincts as viewers. In my survey classroom (also using a flipped model), it can be tricky to balance _everything_ that students can sometimes bring to the table when they view a work (which, if taken too far, can lead to superficiality) and _everything_ that the discipline of art history (and all the affiliated interdisciplinary connections) has to offer (which, if taken too far, can mean rapidly losing students’ engagement). This was a great post to read because it got me thinking a bit differently about both sides of that tightrope.

  13. drmariegh says:

    Oh, also: If any of you are interested in continuing the conversation re: flipped classrooms, technology, museums, and redefining what it is that we do in the survey course, please take a look at this CFP for a panel I’ll be chairing at FATE in Indianapolis next spring. I’d love to meet and interact with more of you in person!


    How to Teach Art History Naked

    The subtitle of José Antonio Bowen’s renowned 2012 book, Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning, poses unique challenges to art history instructors. Few of us have the luxury of regularly teaching in situ in world-class museums, and therefore we rely on classroom technology. So how can we “teach naked” while still beholden to electronic reproductions in order to access the very material which we teach?

    This session will be conducted as a round table panel discussion. Art historians who experiment with “teaching naked,” who “flip” their art history classrooms, and who use technology to promote active learning will discuss questions such as: What best technological practices within the classroom facilitate active learning? How can lighting, projectors, personal electronic devices, and electronic images be pedagogically helpful or harmful? How can we model the kinds of experiences that teaching in museums can enable? Can it ever be pedagogically productive to hold an in-classroom art history class using no mechanically-reproduced images? Participants should submit narratives of how they innovatively answer such questions or otherwise implement Bowen’s practices in order to teach art history in survey courses and beyond.

  14. I have enjoyed following this thread. I wanted to share a development from the high school AP world. Recognizing just this problem, and how difficult it is to test student knowledge in any global AND meaningful way, a committee made up of mostly university faculty and a few experienced AP Art History teachers have designed a curriculum framework for Advanced Placement Art History that is both global and specific. They have chosen to include 250 exemplars that AP teachers will be expected to teach. The curriculum will begin to run during the 2015 academic year, so the jury is out about it, but the more I dig into it,the more I think it is a potential model for the global survey. Here is a link to the curriculum framework, if anyone is interested:

  15. gretchenmckay says:

    This post makes me think about a couple of things:

    I think there needs to be a careful implementing the idea of helping students develop their “own” responses to works of art. This is one way of teaching, but it is not art HISTORY as a discipline. Art History as a critical discipline interprets art from many different contextual sources and you can in fact, do that, in a traditional semester-long course that covers that many centuries. You may, however, need to do so with students spending more time outside of the class preparing FOR class (and there are ways to do that – quizzes on works of art, giving unknowns as a quiz, even if not graded fully). Others can comment on that and there have been some great posts on this great blog about that (aka “flipping” the class).

    If you are uncertain as to whether art history is truly a critical discipline, I would suggest you read Linda Nochlin’s essay “The Imaginary Orient.” While it might not be reading level for survey classes, it *is* a great exposition on how art history itself is a critical discipline in the humanities.

    And finally I would suggest that the best way to introduce art history *as a critical discipline* might not be to teach the all-encompassing survey, but rather introduce students to art through the various methodologies of art history. Perhaps others might have some ideas on how that might be done?

    • Gretchen, at MD Inst Coll of Art, we have something called “Art Matters” for entering freshmen. It did indeed start as an effort to approach AH through methodologies. What we have discovered is that trying to grasp the methodologies while having no foundation at all in AH makes things very hard on the students. There is a balance somewhere, I think, getting some familiarity with art and art history in place while exploring a range of issues thematically–rather than just focusing on chronology and traditional issues of style.

  16. Neil Miley says:

    I would tend to think that a first year class needs to learn context rather than focussing on specific works. To accept the limitations of the student’s prior education is going to leave them unable to independently analyse works in a meaningful way as the student progresses. Western art without social context becomes quite meaningless and the word “history” could easily be dropped from the course name. (I do think Gardner’s is what needs reconstruction as it no longer works from the position of the student or with the current society in which lecturers are trying to instruct in art history).

    • Lori Rusch says:

      In defense of Gardner’s…As one who is about to abandon the texts altogether for my survey courses, I must say that Gardner’s is really the best text for my students. Stokstad is good for me,not my students. Janson’s writing style is needlessly elevated and the other’s are “different just for the sake of being different, not better for students . Gardner’s readable style and recent improvements in graphics, sidebars, and “backpack” editions for $70.00 is the lesser of the evils.

    • Ellen B. Cutler says:

      Finding texts that really work in the introductory AH classroom is such a problem! It’s not just a problem of finding relevant content–it’s a problem of finding writers who can deal with complex ideas in language accessible to the college freshman. That’s complicated; no matter who you are or what you are writing about, there are going to be some assumptions about what people already know. And, as was my experience in the art museum education world, materials written for youth and novice audiences are frequently simplified until they become wrong–distorted in what they imply as well as denote. It’s never a matter of just making the reading “easier” in terms of it’s grade level; it’s a matter of figuring out a way to express complex and difficult ideas with great simplicity and clarity. And in my experience, art historians, critics and curators are really really bad at that…

  17. Karen Leader says:

    Two observations: in most curricula there is a distinction between the “survey,” which is usually core curriculum for art and art history majors and courses such as “Art Appreciation” “ArtHum” or “Expressive Cultures”. Some of the renovations proposed by the author seem well suited to the second type, but profoundly misguided for the first. Art History is a scholarly discipline, not an interpretive strategy. What is presented in a survey course will be deepened and strengthened in upper division breadth requirements. If an instructor feels ill-prepared to present topics with the appropriate depth, then add relevant readings, videos, and time for discussion. It also gets better with repetition. Yes, reduce the number of objects presented, but no, don’t take the history out of art history. How can students come to understand the ways in which culture shapes societies if they know nothing about the societies that produced works of art?
    The second observation is precisely apposite to the editors posting this article: teachers are not taught to teach. We all have that feeling of being woefully unprepared to speak with confidence about something (ask me about the Stupa). Teaching is a craft which requires constant effort, renovation, and self-reflection. So kudos to Rebecca Herz, and Karen and Michelle for this forum.

  18. Mary Helen Burnham says:

    I’ve gotten a lot out Rebecca’s essay and the discussion. I think she raises an important point related to how we interpret the concept of criticality. As she stated, she draws on postmodern interpretations of literary criticism that put the individual response of the student at the center of the pedagogical model. The reading Gretchen and Karen suggest seems to keep the content of art history (all the data) in that central position. To say that one is art history and the other isn’t might be shortsighted though given the range of methodologies on which art history as a discipline is based. So perhaps in brainstorming ways to expand traditional approaches to the survey class, we may need to begin by revisiting the full continuum of ideas that originally informed our field of study (Wölfflin comes immediately to mind).

  19. john says:

    Consider mathematics as a metaphor. There are simple computations and properties about numbers that need to be learned before you try to solve a quadratic equation. You then need to understand various properties of these equations in order to even begin to understand abstract algebra, graph theory, etc.

    The same is true for art history. Begin with the numbers: When was it made? Who made it? Where was it made? What was it made from? Then move into the quadratic equation: Can we place it into a movement or context? How does its use of material inform its presentation? Do we sense the artist working independently or within the ideology of a patron or institution? And then try the abstract algebra: What is a movement or a context anyways? What is materiality and how does it relate to culture? How does the relationship between artists and patrons in the 15th century relate to sociological theories of art? Etc.

    My point is, like it or not, you simple need to know the terrible, awful, and oppressive western canon in order to do anything else. It’s simply part of larger curriculum planning for the art history major. It doesn’t end with the survey … the survey is an introduction, a taste. The idea that it can be comprehensive is not possible. Solving this dilemma with a post-structuralist approach that transforms the discipline into a search for personal meaning actually cheats your students out of a continued engagement beyond the survey. They will be stuck in the rut of privileging personal experience and meaning-making above the acquisition of encyclopedic art-historical knowledge, deep engagement with the way history is written, and the discipline itself.

    I am in favor of a critical survey course which sets out to teach content aligned with the art historical canon, but repeatedly admits the failure of such a canon to accurately describe the multiplicity of content, theory, and experience that the world of art history constitutes …

    Accept that you can’t cover everything. Admit this to your students. It will encourage them to pursue art history even farther, taking classes and trying to fill in the gaps of the traditional canon and finding the richness therein.

    • John, I’m completely revamping my “Modernism” course–which covers art from about 1860 to 1970–as well as Survey (“Renaissance to 1855”). I agree entirely with you and several other posters that the “history” has to remain in “art history.”

      I went and looked at the AP revisions recommended above. They are actually pretty interesting and I like the way the objectives are arranged under Big Ideas/Essential Questions.

      And under objective 1.1 there is this: “Students should clearly describe a PLAUSIBLE relationship between form, function, content, and/or context of a work of art, providing visual and/or contextual evidence to support the relationship.” (Emphasis mine.)

      PLAUSIBLE. This means–to me–that the meaning of a work of art is NOT a purely personal matter but requires that the art history student think about what the artist’s experience and intentions might have been. This means–to me–that students should be expected to clearly distinguish between private response (which indeed they should have and analyze) and a sense of function and context that is essential to any notion of the place of a work in its own time and in memory and in the disconnected present.

      I think the challenge is how to keep the art history and invent a new pedagogy that is not captive to the old one under which we were all trained.

      Thanks for your comments.

  20. […] community. Please get in touch if you have an idea for a post. (We encourage posts that follow-up Rebecca Herz’s great essay on changes in the art history discipline.) Please contact any of the four contributing editors (for more information on these editors see […]

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