A Transcultural Introduction to Art
As art history has grown steadily more global, transcultural, and intercultural, many of us have sought ways to revise introductory courses in order to de-center western art, to represent the discipline of art history as inherently multicultural, and – while we’re at it – to find alternatives to the chronological ordering of material. The course I introduced and taught from 2002 to 2012 at the University of Hong Kong took a thematic and transcultural approach, encompassing works of art from multiple cultural traditions and ordering the material by themes. This was not a global art survey and, crucially, did not need to serve as a historical foundation for disciplinary specialization, since our department still offered two annual survey courses, on Asian and western art. Freed of that responsibility, I was able to focus on ideas and interpretive approaches, similar in some ways to earlier forms of art appreciation.
Rather than covering periods and developing deep historical context, my goals in this course were primarily: (a) to get students excited about art by foregrounding remarkable examples and contentious cultural, political, and moral issues; (b) to equip them with lifelong tools for approaching, interpreting, and personally appreciating art of distant times and foreign cultures; and (c) to give them enough exposure to multiple art traditions to help orient their interests for further study if they became interested in this. The results were quite rewarding: the course grew steadily in popularity, from about 40 students in the first year to over 100 in later years; students were most excited by the stimulating ideas the course presented; and while most students took it to satisfy a distribution requirement and then move on, some each year converted to an art history major, noticeably increasing our numbers. Interestingly, the course did not reduce the enrolment figures in our two survey classes; it supplemented rather than supplanted the surveys.
In structuring the course as a whole (A&S syllabus), I divided it into two main parts, with the first focusing on thematic topics related to art’s ideological functions (power, religion, identity) and the second related to the subjects and styles that constitute and differentiate art cultures (approaches to the human body, conceptions of beauty, realism, and creativity). I bookended these with topics related to the nature of art in different cultures and the way art experience today is structured by museums and the global art market.
Within each topic, I developed lectures based on three key principles. First, each lecture would be comparative, presenting and comparing approaches and examples from two to four distinct art cultures. Second, each lecture would juxtapose older and modern examples, helping students appreciate art both historically and in their contemporary world. And third, each lecture would focus on a few major ideas related to important and often contentious issues: how art has been used to reinforce and to resist dominant power, the divine function of religious art and consequent existence of iconoclastic destruction, etc. Lectures were supplemented by small-group discussion sessions (led by teaching assistants), which we used alternately to examine works of art in person (training visual and technical analysis) and to discuss theoretical readings (training conceptual analysis).
In choosing specific artists and works to examine, I selected some that were great or iconic, others that best illustrated a theme (especially if a little shocking or controversial), and others that introduced diverse media and art techniques. To compensate for the lack of deep historical context, I provided a lot of specific context for major examples, training students in general analytic approaches. It also proved very helpful to bring up key examples repeatedly, within different topics, so that students became more familiar with them while also learning to treat works from various points of view, with complexity.
Readings had to be tailored to support particular themes and examples (A&S readings). Within each topic, some readings were contextual, providing background information about a particular artist, period, or practice. Some were theoretical – excerpts from challenging scholarly texts introducing sophisticated art historical approaches. And some were news articles related to contemporary issues or events. I also supplemented the formal readings by handing out a two-page sheet of “topic notes” for each topic, in which I could explain key points about that topic and quote important primary and secondary sources to contextualize and illuminate specific examples.
My thematic and example-centered approach necessitated some adjustment to assessment techniques. The testing format I developed intentionally eliminated memorization of names and dates to focus attention on ideas and analysis. Students had to answer historical and interpretive questions about individual works of art and had to write an essay analyzing a broad historical or conceptual issue (possible essay questions were handed out in advance). The study sheets for the midterm and final shows some of the major examples I used that year and the types of questions I tended to pose.
One of the biggest reasons this course might be beneficial to others is that it is highly adaptable to different teachers and teaching contexts. It provides a certain core structure and methodology – thematic units with example-centered analytical learning – while freeing teachers to choose different themes, examples, and readings to suit their own expertise and their students’ cultural and intellectual background. With my primary specialization in western art and my students’ primary background in Chinese culture, I emphasized western and Chinese art, while also including Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern, and African art (if teaching in the U.S., I would surely include Central and South America and decrease the China content). And one needn’t be an expert in every cultural tradition as long as one learns a lot about individual examples.
One limitation, on the other hand, is that the course depends deeply on the teacher’s particular interests and expertise. I’ve studied a lot of art outside my western specialization, so I always enjoy teaching transculturally, and some of the points I discuss reflect my own contingent knowledge and interests. The course is thus never repeatable in the sense of offering a standard content from one teacher to the next. But the payoff for the teacher – and I think the students as well – is that it models a dynamic, living engagement with art, one bringing art of distant places and times into dialogue with our own contemporary contexts. I found the approach so helpful that I’ve incorporated elements of it into the course I’ve been teaching since 2012 – the traditional, chronological western art survey.
While there is a logic behind a thematic approach, many works that are religious are also political. They can also be reflective of specific individuals. When I think of Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa it is both religious and highly political. Ashokan pillars also encapsulate the political and the religious as does the tomb of emperor Shi Huangdi. How does one talk about that without bringing up legalism? It is also challenging to think about presenting art history in a thematic way and maintaining accurate information about how cultures influenced each other. Religion has been a major factor in colonization and imperialism. A more inclusive art history is definitely needed. But does adding on thematic framing drive a more artificial narrative? The other issues is the need to avoid presenting cultures as if they exist in a bubble. A thematic approach might also contribute to this.