Smarthistory: bringing art history to the world and the world to art history—by Dr. Nara Hohensee

This is the introduction to a four-part series of posts authored by Smarthistory’s Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Naraelle Hohensee. The rest of the series will appear on this site over the following week.

“What’s visible becomes thinkable, and what’s thinkable becomes doable.”

Timothy Snyder

In 2003, when Colin Powell went to the United Nations to make a case for going to war with Iraq, U.N. officials decided to discreetly cover the tapestry reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica that graces the entrance to the Secretariat. As Maureen Dowd observed in the New York Times, “Mr. Powell can’t very well seduce the world into bombing Iraq surrounded on camera by shrieking and mutilated women, men, children, bulls and horses.” The fact that it became necessary to hide Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece in order to make a case for militarism reminds us just how much power images and objects have in the world. As Timothy Snyder, a prominent historian of the Holocaust, argues in the quote above, images communicate ideas and influence people’s attitudes in consequential ways. This means that what we do as art historians—interpreting, contextualizing, and thinking critically about visual culture, and teaching others how to do so—really matters: not just for those involved directly with the art world, but for society at large.

A conservative discipline?

“Art history is relevant” is not how our discipline is typically framed in popular discourse. Most people picture art historians as wealthy, white, intellectually conservative, and disconnected from the rest of the world. If the humanities are viewed by many critics as outdated fields with little to contribute to “productive,” STEM-driven society, art history (as President Obama once unfortunately made clear) has become their poster child.

This representation is frustrating. I was drawn to art history not because I am narrow-minded, but because I deeply respect objects that I study, and want to make sure I treat them with the same meticulous rigor that other types of scholars afford texts. While texts are vitally important for understanding history, images and objects also have immense communicative power, and they deserve equally meticulous and nuanced study. I want to put the works first, giving close attention to the conditions of their makers, making, and use. In doing so, my approach doesn’t stop with formal or iconographic analysis, though these are important foundations. Alongside my profound respect for objects, their particular meanings, and their histories, my perspective has also been deeply influenced by critical theory. Feminist, post-structuralist, and postcolonial critiques of power, politics, and representation form the basis of my worldview and provide the framework within which I pursue my research. My view of art history is not as a conservative discipline. My art history is relevant, critical, and a product of its current moment—just like art itself.

Scholarship vs. survey

Many—perhaps even most—people working in the field today would probably say something similar about their own work. And yet, when we (whether as overworked and underpaid adjuncts or graduate students, or tenure-track faculty under pressure to publish) walk into the classroom to teach an introductory art history survey course, even the most radical among us may feel that we have little choice but to fall back on what has been handed down to us through textbooks, departmental requirements, and our own foundational art historical education: the traditional Western canon. If the courses that we’re assigned include “global” in their titles, as many now do, we are also required to squeeze in absurdly pared-down units on non-Western art—subjects about which the majority of us have received little to no training in graduate school—alongside the accepted narrative trajectory of the Western survey. Despite the “global” title, the real focus of this type of class remains clear. Heaven forbid we leave anything “important” out of the Western units! These classes, sadly, become surveys of “the West” with a smattering of “the rest.”

Art history’s awareness of these problems is nothing new. To name just three key (dare I say canonical?) texts: John Berger tackled these issues in his seminal 1972 series and book, Ways of Seeing; Edward Said’s 1978 Orientalism has become its own shorthand; and Hans Belting’s many writings on globalization in the art world are a touchstone for anyone who studies contemporary art.

So why, in 2018, is anyone still teaching the survey basically the same way it was taught in the 1960s, using a framework laid out by Gardner and Janson? Why do our course offerings and major requirements still reflect an overwhelmingly Western bias? How can our introductory-level teaching begin to reflect the same rigor and reflexivity that we employ in our scholarly work, and how can the tools available to us in the digital age aid in this endeavor?

Seizing an opportunity

The rise of digital media and the Internet means that we—especially we here at Smarthistory—have an opportunity to act decisively to address these decades-old problems. Open educational resources like Smarthistory not only have unprecedented accessibility and worldwide reach, but our platform and publishing methods are iterative and agile enough to respond quickly and directly to the current needs of the discipline.

This series of posts examines the questions above, looking at the content, methodologies, and structural conditions of how art history is taught today. The next post, Decentering the world,” will provide an overview of some recent attempts to reframe the history of art in global terms, and considers a few of the promises and pitfalls of expanding our discipline’s geographical reach. The following post, Reframing the world,” takes on art historical methodologies as they are commonly applied in the introductory survey, arguing that, rather than sticking to the accepted format of static periods, styles, or movements, we must adopt the notions of contingency, interconnection, and exchange, as well as an awareness of power and privilege, as our guiding frameworks for the discussion of art. The final post, Connecting with the world,” summarizes how we can begin the aspirational work of achieving these various goals within the realm of digital art history—starting right here at Smarthistory. 

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One Comment

  1. Thank you for articulating a complicated, confounding conundrum in our field in a straightforward & solutions-oriented way. Can’t wait to read the rest!


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