What Will We Do With Art History?

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I recently came accross an article in Art News Jan.97, "What Are They Doing to Art History" by Scott Heller.

It seems that Harvard had almost given up art history in the early 1990's because professors no longer believed it could be taught. The field had grown too large having come to embrace non- western work, once seen as unworthy of study. The standard two- semester race from ancient to medieval, renaissance to modern just wouldn't do anymore. The old coarse that combined students snores with the whir of the slide projector and was given the nick-name, "Darkness at Noon."

Lately the coarse was scaled down to one semester called Art and Visual Culture with many copied handouts and team taught by Bryson and Zerner. It concentrates on methods and debates in the field rather than memorizing names, dates and works of art. Rather than detailed history, the simpler goal is to explain that works have meaning. They are messages about their societies and social uses.

To make this point, for example, the professor would compare two structures, the fifth century B.C. Parthenon in Athens and a 20th century mud home, common among the Batammaliba people of Togo, West Africa. He would explain the way nudity in terms of style spells out civic ideology, from the friezes and relief sculpture on the Greek building that values marriage over the unregulated sexuality of the African culture, but both echo a ritualized way for community to pass on its values.

Many faculty members want to oppose this new approach yet the coarse has achieved some success from undergraduates and increased numbers of students who have selected fine arts as their major.

Humanities and History also have made changes from the immigrant scholars like Erwin Panofsky of the 1930's to their students of the social and political upheavals of the 1960's, which competed with the earlier connoisseurships. In 1980 a Marxist art historian T.J.Clark entered the college.

This small, relatively conservative field proved surprisingly elastic, stretching to accommodate the new without breaking, so far. As the century draws to a close, relative calm prevails. Rather than waging war a thousand flowers bloom. Marxism, feminism, gay and lesbian theory, semiotics, all have their advocates. Amazingly there is even a renewed interst in esthetic theory. Our visual culture has become an umbrella for scholars with many strangely bizarre views which appear to be chaotic.

The explosion of images in this late 20th century, not merely on gallery and museum walls but in advertizing, media and popular culture has affected the way we precieve our physical, social and cultural environment. Is it any wonder that our young are begaining to believe every thing is permissible.

Relativism declares you must tolerate it all, and if you don't we won't tolerate you, so they become intolerant. Are there no standards? I've been in that garden of nuts to inspect the fruit. There is a story from begaining to end. There is virtue and there is vice. Lies are wronge even at the top and when its tolerated, our youth watch on and script their lives in the same manner. History proves this point from similar aspects of civil- izations in the past.

Change will come from the fall of mainstreaming weirdness with the more hopefull visionarys that are searching for purpose and meaning in life itself rather than the isms of art. They will bind the disruptive elements and focus on freedom in the timeless truths such as love truth justice faithfullness and hope.

What are your suggestions be?

-- Anonymous, December 11, 1998

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