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Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Crisis in Art History Part Two: Pedagogy

It seems to me that the real crisis in art history is that despite the advances in technology, the ease of access to archival materials, and the changing nature of the student body, the pedagogical approach to art history has remained essentially unchanged.  Although the job market continues to evolve, graduate education in art history remains stuck in past: assuming in most cases that there are essentially two tracks available, teaching and curating. While a graduate education remains a prerequisite for employment, there has only recently been any emphasis on building the skills necessary to excel in these positions.  There was virtually none during my time at CUNY from 2001-8.  Graduate students are rarely taught how to teach or how to prepare effective lessons, let alone assess the condition of an object or look for evidence of alterations.  As a field, we routinely ask prospective students to sacrifice substantial amounts of time and money for their studies but fail to alert them to the fact that they may finish with a degree that represents a lot of knowledge gained, but little in the way of actual preparation for the employment market they are entering.  Elizabeth W. Easton’s and Stephen Murray’s perceptive papers were among the bright spots in this panel.
         Other papers took a resentful view of shifting technologies and the need to align pedagogical approaches with them, insisting that kids today have things to easy and that “real” research requires sustained periods in the library.  The idea that sustained library time is required for research is a seductive one on its face, but misses the point.  In an age in which the library was the only repository of resources, one went there not to sit alone like St. Jerome in his study, but to access this knowledge and information.  The digitization of resources has caused a fundamental shift since so much can now be accessed outside the library.  If the quality of those resources remains the same—and I’m thinking of JSTOR or the American Periodical Series in my own work—should the manner or ease with they are delivered matter?  If I can read all of John Steuart Curry’s papers online from the comfort of my home (and I can), has the quality of information within them somehow changed because I am able to conduct the research more efficiently? 
         I found the first part of Pepe Karmel’s paper “Just What Is It That Makes Contemporary Art So Different, So Appealing?” quite interesting and the second part a bit disturbing.  Although contemporary art, he posits, should be taught in the university and by the art history department (but only so that other departments (like the art department) don’t beat art historians to the punch) and not with full time professors, it is not a subject he feels is appropriate for a PhD, and those dissertations that presently exist are quantifiably less impressive than other fields because they take less time on average to complete.  Ignoring the effect that the digitization of information has on access to materials necessary to conduct research Karmel posits that “the simplest explanation [for the reduction of time] is that less work goes into them.”  In fact, for Karmel, the whole enterprise of a scholarly approach to contemporary art is suspect because it requires only “comfortable shoes, physical stamina, and a large travel budget.” 
         It was equally troubling to me that Karmel also presented a view of history, shared by others on the panel and evident throughout the field, as a static, objective truth rather than a fluid set of interpretations shaped as much by the historian’s own time and biases as by the necessarily fragmentary and incomplete nature of knowledge.  His assertion that “Since there is no way for us to know what their art or their art history will look like, there is in fact no way for us to know who are the truly important artists of our own era, or what are the important questions to ask about art today” should raise some serious questions. Consider for a moment that the relentless conceptualization and drive towards abstraction of the later 20th century suddenly dissolves—will Pollock be as important then as he is now?  In 100 years, will art history surveys worry about the many “isms” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries or will that text—like those today do to the 18th century or American Art—need to condense it into a smaller point?  When is it too early to write about an artist or object in an art historical manner?  Do we need to wait a set time after the work is completed, or should the artist be dead?  As the absurdity of these questions should indicate, there is little useful or relevant to be gained by treating history (and art history by extension) as an objective, unwavering truth whose aims, rules, and values are unchanging.
         Beneath the absurdity of those questions however, there is a larger issue at stake: what exactly should art history do? What purpose does art history serve and to whom does that matter?  Is it, as some papers in the panel seem to suggest, merely a guardian of past values and beliefs, unwilling to self-examine and adapt with the changing environment in which it finds itself?  Is the goal simply to create a taxonomy of artistic production?  Does it have the potential to say meaningful things not only about the culture in which the objects were created, but also about the culture in which the author exists?  Should art history really be its own field—or, if the ultimate goal is a better understanding of the culture and circumstances of an object’s creation—would art history be more usefully thought of as a subspecialty within an expanded field?  

Please feel free to comment as you wish, knowing that I have chosen to moderate comments after receiving numerous commercial posts and one rather unprofessional post directed at a student and her work.  Provided you are not selling something, I am happy to approve your comments whether you agree with my review or not.  I'd even welcome some healthy debate on this topic.

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