Exploring the Everyday World
I believe that a primary goal for AP Art History teachers should be to show students how to take a meaningful walk. This requires, in the words of Harvard professor of landscape history John Stilgoe, unplugging oneself from the computer and the programmed experiences of postmodern society and learning to explore the everyday world. Slowly, through guidance, the palimpsest of the street reveals its layers.
Studying art history can encourage interdisciplinary thinking as well as being a fulfilling academic pursuit on its own merits, often creating informed travelers and museumgoers; it can even lead directly to a career. However, many students do not live near museums, don't plan to pursue art history in college, aren't considering vocations in the field, or cannot afford a trip to Europe. But all students live in and travel through built environments, whether they live in an urban center, a suburb, or rural America.
The meaningful walk that art history teaches encompasses the following four goals that are on my syllabus:
- Visual literacy/learn the canon
- Value other cultures
- Suspend judgment
- Aesthetic pleasure
Visual Literacy and Cultural Context
Visual literacy, in this context, means students' ability to apply art historical methodologies to their environment. My first goal as an instructor is teach students how to ask good questions. As the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson stated, "Seeing is questioning." Students need to be able to read the ways in which their environments encode social and political ideologies.
We begin the year with our own school entrance, to start a discussion of how thresholds are created to delineate spaces. Teachers could have the students look beneath their feet and see how the school floors change to signify spatial hierarchy. Are the classroom floors the same material and pattern as the floor in the principal's office or the teachers' lounge? Perhaps the students will begin to wonder why the architectural style of a bank is different from the fast-food place down the street. They may note how the spaces they travel through at school, the nearby grocery store, or the local neighborhood may subtly contain the social forces of race, class, and gender. What are the boundaries marking the public from the private spaces in the office building down the street? The art history walk teaches students to be keenly aware of the structures and spaces in their world, which in turn makes them better art historians. Knowing the names and dates of distant and past cultures is important, but so is learning to see your own culture with new eyes.
Watching the visual canon projected in slides, as though they are images in Plato's cave, lets students drift into a world of objects void of texture, scale, context, and sometimes the right color. What makes art history distinctive is material reality within a context. Students are always surprised when encountering the real thing after studying it from slides or books. They struggle to make the adjustments to the new scale, color, and location of the real artifact. Students slowly realize how the angle of the photograph in the textbook affects the meaning of the work. The lesson from these encounters is that art history can be meaningful as a local experience. Distant cultures and museum holdings are important to learn about, but we tend to forget about the complexities of the world outside of our door.
Increasing Cultural Knowledge and Sophistication
The second goal on my syllabus is that learning to value other cultures begins with increasing your knowledge about your own culture. First, students need to see that we tend to think of other people as having culture, and that we, the viewers, are somehow culturally neutral. One should take deeper ownership of his or her own culture before learning about another. If not, there is a great danger of practicing a kind of colonialist art history that advances Western formalism as a universal. Teachers should try to examine works of art from the concepts and values of the culture being studied rather than projecting formalist language upon the piece.
Second, authentic diversity means not merely adding more cultures to the canon or required viewing list but also transforming one's understanding of his or her own culture. This journey might begin by encouraging students to walk in the spaces of their own faith traditions and apply the art-historical language. Even if they don't have a faith tradition, there may be a space where they feel empowered. What makes that space special? Afterwards, they could walk down the street and ask the people running local houses of worship how the spaces accommodate the religious needs of the faithful.
The third goal on my syllabus is learning to suspend judgment, a difficult task for all of us, but one that is especially prickly for students looking at a Carl Andre floor piece or found objects for the first time. Instead, a meaningful walk along the strip mall promotes looking without worrying about aesthetic merits. Students can discuss the relationships between text and image on a storefront, the reasons for the various angles of parking lines in a lot, or the hidden cell towers behind the apartment complex as cultural history without being frustrated by the prices commanded by a monochrome canvas.
Few books address the reason to suspend judgment as well as David Macaulay's Motel of the Mysteries, a book about future archeologists finding an "ancient" cheap motel from our culture. The researchers' errors in attribution and function remind students to be very careful about claiming certainty about other cultures or the past.
A Dialogue with the World
Finally, an art historical walk initiates an aesthetic dialogue with the world that is vastly more accessible than infrequent museum visits. In fact, modern artists hoped to awaken viewers to the aesthetic possibilities of the everyday world outside the confines of the museum.
In his book Total Art, Adrian Henri writes that after experiencing a Michael Heizer earthwork or a Christo wrapped site, one can never quite see a construction site or slag heap in the same way. Artists change how we see the world. Richard Avedon has been quoted as saying that all he hoped for in his art is that some future child will feel comforted by knowing someone else saw the world in the same way.
I've been heartened to notice how in recent years, despite the proliferation of reproduced realities, historians still feel the need to break free of the archives and take walks to make their discoveries. In an increasingly virtual world, thinkers in the liberal arts seem to still value the experience of the real. Robert A. Caro needed to sit in the old Senate chambers before writing his recent Pulitzer Prize–winning history of LBJ. Evan Thomas, the author of a new biography of John Paul Jones, sailed on a replica of a Jones ship in order to feel what life was like on such a ship during the 18th century.
Nearly every art historian I've ever asked has a story about taking a journey to stand in a certain spot in order to understand a work of art more fully. Bob Nauman, art history professor at the University of Colorado, remembered reading Impressionist scholar Robert Herbert's account of Monet's painting Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois and traveling to stand on the balcony of the Louvre, where the painting was created. Bob said he could feel how Monet turned his back on the old art in the galleries and looked across modern Paris for inspiration.
According to the Renaissance art historian John Shearman, art history is ultimately about trying to discover why a work of art looks the way that it does. In his book Only Connect, Shearman offers as the first tenet of art-historical inquiry the task of understanding the implied spectator of the work. In other words, we need to become acutely aware viewers who first consider how the creator of the work wanted us to see it. I remember how my first visit to Arles impacted my understanding of Van Gogh's painting and made me see how he selected only a certain nostalgic image of this city in the south of France.
I don't try to turn the students toward biographical methodology or away from reader-response theory. Rather, I ask them to see art history as unusual because it approaches its subjects as objects created to be seen in a certain way in real space (even if it is a video screen). Getting them out the door and looking, describing, and analyzing the actual world around them makes them better informed about their environment and better art historians, and guides them toward the simple joys of discovery in the ordinary.
Henri, Adrian. Total Art: Environments, Happenings, and Performance. London: Thames & Hudson, 1974.
Macaulay, David. Motel of the Mysteries. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1979.
Shearman, John. Only Connect: Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Stilgoe, John R. Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. New York: Walker Books, 1998.