The Art of Skipping Centuries

This semester, I will practice the art of skipping centuries on the 6th floor of Schermerhorn Hall at Columbia University. I have been honing this unusual skill since 2007, when I was assigned the challenging task of teaching Art Humanities: Masterpieces of Western Art, a core curriculum course required of all undergraduates in the College. Like stones that skip across a placid lake, we jump from the Parthenon to Amiens Cathedral, Raphael, Michelangelo, Bernini, Bruegel, Rembrandt, Goya, Monet, Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, Pollock, and Warhol in a single semester with no regrets over the centuries, artistic periods, artists, and monuments omitted along the way. No regrets? Is it not the plight of every art historian tasked with teaching the survey to worry that they have left something out? To fret over the centuries that are squeezed like sausages between the months of September and December (or January and May)? Art Humanities abolishes such worries because it is not a survey in the traditional sense; in fact, it is not even an art history course.


“What is art history?” This question opens Gardner’s burdensome Art Through the Ages and drives Rebecca Herz’s thoughtful posting of June 4, 2014, which has, in turn, catalyzed my own. Historical context reigns supreme in Gardner’s definition of our discipline, so much so that the resulting textbook spins a cultural and socio-political web that Herz rightly finds unsuitable for beginners. Leo Steinberg (in one of our many “cart before horse” discussions), said that “context is the disease of art history,” and while Herz does not go down the thorny path of totally debunking Gardner’s methodological standpoint, there is something to be said for setting our undergraduates’ priorities straight. By teaching to the text, we reinforce the assumption that acquired knowledge is essential for appreciating works of art. In addition to keeping people out of museums, this harmful assumption threatens to color the future of art history itself, for it decentralizes the autonomy of images and dims the importance of our phenomenological responses to them. In “Objectivity and the Shrinking Self,” an essay I assign on the first day of every Art Humanities class, Leo Steinberg describes The Graduate Center’s circa 1967 redesign of freshman courses.  He asks if “objectivity can be made too much of” (826), and concludes that “there is apparently no escape from oneself and little safety in closing art history off against the contemporary imagination” (836). Steinberg pierces the heart of the matter at hand and provides a necessary footnote to Herz’s commitment to viewer response and her valiant call for a return to formalism.

I am cheered that our generation is passionate about the advantages of a flipped versus traditional classroom and wonder if we might address some of the aforemetioned concerns by transferring this paradigm to the practice and teaching of art history itself. Indeed, I see the potential for a very fruitful analogy. Traditional art history survey courses, which favor communicating knowledge over fostering experience, parallel the traditional classroom, wherein students passively receive the contents of a given discipline. Can a student-centered classroom also be an object-centered classroom, ultimately “flipping” Gardner’s hierarchy and placing image before context? Rebecca Herz dreams of such a survey, and her wish is granted by Columbia’s Art Humanities course, which provides both students and artworks the space to interact freely and speak for themselves. When done well, the syllabus is a vehicle for a glorious alignment of pedagogy and methodology.

At its most basic level, Art Humanities introduces students to “a shortened form of the canon,” to borrow the bolded phrase from the end of Herz’s posting. Following the Parthenon and Amiens Cathedral, each unit ideally focuses on three to four key images in an artist’s oeuvre. I would not go so far as to say that historical context is taboo in Art Humanities, but it is certainly not paramount. The main objective is to foster visual literacy, to give students the tools to make meaning in any situation—from visiting a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to analyzing the cover of Time Magazine during an election year.

To this end, the Director of Art Humanities encourages instructors to trade the lectern for the roundtable and facilitate critical dialogues that are mentally stimulating and personally transformative. Multiple responses to a work of art amount to a joint investigation for meaning that weaves subjective experience with formal analysis and historical information. By proceeding from the formal to the historical—and sometimes the theoretical—Art Humanities teaches students the how rather than the what of art history. Readings, which are confined to primary sources, take a back seat to the active discovery of the inextricable link between form and meaning in architecture, painting, sculpture, and a variety of graphic media. The in-class emphasis on visual literacy is reinforced on fieldtrips and in assignments. The syllabus was designed to take full advantage of monuments and collections here in New York, and it is every instructor’s responsibility to ensure that their students have opportunities for the firsthand study of art and architecture. Most classes integrate visits to Grant’s Tomb, St John the Divine, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art.

The connective tissue between units is visual rather than historical in nature. The radical jump from the Parthenon to Amiens Cathedral in the first two weeks of the course is a case in point. In addition to analyzing the individual features of these monuments, students confront prevailing themes and issues that resonate across architectural history. What is the visual impact of the post and lintel system as opposed to the vaults allowed for by the invention of the flying buttress? How did sculptors adapt narratives to the awkward spaces of the pediment and tympanum? What are the ramifications of a rectangular versus cruciform plan? How do architects encode buildings with religious meanings? How does form adapt to function? The brilliance of the syllabus lies in its ability to create such interconnections while also acquainting students with the canon. Picasso’s Demoiselle’s d’Avignon, for example, is an occasion to revisit themes from previous sessions, such as the classical body and the invention of one-point perspective, and Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych, often the very last image I show in class, renews our past discussions of altarpieces, icons, and portraits.

Admittedly, Art Humanities is eurocentric and has failed to add a woman artist since its inception in 1941. Nevertheless, I cannot argue with the course’s ability to send students away with the confidence to make eloquent and profound statements about visual culture. As Rebecca Herz reveals at the end of her piece in a proposed list of objects for her next course, the same result can be achieved with an entirely different set of monuments and artists. If teaching a survey course that flips the classroom—and flips art history!—interests you, I urge you to go forth and write a syllabus that skips centuries without foregoing skills.

2 responses to “The Art of Skipping Centuries”

  1. Rebecca Herz says:

    Olivia – I am honored that you framed this as a response to my post. This is a really useful model, thank you for sharing it. One question that comes up here and in my article (as I have been told in comments here and elsewhere) is what is the line between art history and art appreciation. Any thoughts on that?

  2. Olivia Powell says:

    Rebecca – I am honored that you are honored! You provided such a thoughtful piece to reflect on. I was truly inspired by what you had to say. Ahhhh……Art history and Art Appreciation……tough question! Gonna think on that and get back to you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.