Once Upon a Time in the Teaching of Art History
Monday, February 08, 2021
I had several expectations when I took this class. I wanted to revisit theory. I wanted to apply it to critical pedagogy. I wanted to share experiences with a like-minded community. And I wanted to revise my teaching philosophy statement.
So far, the class fulfilled my expectations. I worked through - and posted on - bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. I’m doing the same with An Urgency of Teachers. I am more comfortable with, more empowered by theory. (Also with art theory. To great profit, I’m taking an autodidact course on 20th century art theory. Already, it’s had a huge impact on my critical practice.) And I’m meeting monthly with - and reading weekly contributions by - a group of committed colleagues.
I can see how I can apply these lessons to my asynchronous and online introduction to art class. I have set hooks’ idea of play loose on the way I’m going to set things up for Fall 2021. I like her idea of comes off the throne to decenter authority granted there by droit du professeur. Of coming to voice with students, so that each class is a chorus (and here) and each term a performance. It’s going to be a fun summer.
As a result of this class, the structure of the class will alter to a great extent. So will the content. Introduction to art textbooks frustrate me. First, they cost too much. They’re not even coffee table books, of value after the term ends. I’m now part of the Immediate Access program here on campus. Enrollment in a class triggers an email from the publisher. Students have a prescribed amount of time to buy the book from a link within the email. It saves the bother of trundling off to campus to get a textbook. Better yet, the publisher finally got an eBook version that is readable on a tablet. Best of all, the price has gone down from $200 to $43. That last point alone is a huge selling point.
But there’s still the content. According to art critic Robert Hughes, pale penis people wrote textbook art history. This accounts for problems with exclusion. Publishers have addressed the issue but not, to my thinking, in a satisfactory way. Ham-fisted efforts to feature overlooked artists doesn't feel organic for a survey course. My goal is to write my own textbook, using relevant material available on the Web. But. That. Will. Take. More. Time. Than. I. Can. Currently. Afford. For now, it's a work in progress.
I had a problem with content that wasn’t inclusive, fair, or valid. And then it hit me. I had my evaluation three days ago. I discussed my goal to teach a comprehensive art history course. A class that would include everyone who, for any number of bad reasons, history had overlooked.
In the course of the conversation, the solution hit me. Structure and course and its content like a story.
Once upon a time there was a story of art. People who didn't know better called it THE story of art. It worked for awhile; but it didn't work well enough. There were a lot of artists who didn't fit the traditional demographic. A demographic determined by magisterial pale penis people. For that reason, history excluded them from THE story of art. Along came the Transgressive and Urgent Seventies. People of all ilks, persuasions, and enthusiasms said, Enough! We want a seat at the dinner party.
The content solution presented itself. (The structure solution is a joyous work in progress.) I will package the first half of the class as the Old Canon, white, Western, and withered. As in the problematic traditional textbooks. The second half will feature the New Canon. In the first class I’ll tell the story of how art history used to be. Then I’ll tell the story of how it should be. In that same first lecture, I’ll contextualize the story. I'll cite the whys and wherefores of the way it was, what the problems were. I’ll conclude with the whys and wherefores of why the old way was inadequate to present needs. No one gets knocked off their pedestal. Instead, I will increase the number of pedestals.
I will divide this restructured content into two parts. The Old and the burgeoning New Canon(s). Old Canon, until the midterm. New Canon, for the rest of the class. We will compare and contrast the two Canons. Students will see how art historians is write, codify, and revise the story of art. That empirical knowledge and qualitative assessments are dynamic, not static. That, as with any means of production, the study of cultural activity is relative. Not the production itself, but the way it’s considered. How a comprehensive of art means a fair history of art.
Thanks, bell hooks, I appreciate your inspiration, passion, and insight.
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