Wednesday, June 23, 2010 • 12:00 AM Comments ()

Teaching Art I Love

posted by Jack Cheng

A lot of professors hate teaching survey courses.

In art history, the typical survey would be something I took as an undergrad: from the Parthenon to Picasso. At Harvard, where I did graduate work, the class was traditionally scheduled at 12 pm and earned the nickname “Darkness at Noon.”

While I was there, the art history department got rid of Darkness at Noon (this is disturbing to Harvard alumni). The reason for revamping the survey? No one wanted to teach it. There were lots of reasons why, but I don’t think I’m too far off base to state that the reason was, no one wanted to look stupid.

I mean, if you are good to earn tenure at Harvard, you know how much knowledge has accumulated in your subfield, much less in fields you don’t study, like Romanesque architecture, or Renaissance portraiture, or Roman graves. So if it’s time to teach about Baroque art and the guy in the next office is a specialist who can write one footnote that contains more data than you are about to deliver in a 75 minute lecture, you feel like a jerk. Asked to teach 4000 years of art, most professors would feel pretty good about teaching 100 of those years and like a numbskull for the other 39 centuries.

Me, I love teaching the survey. Lack of shame has no small part, I’m sure, but also because it gives me a chance to teach about art that I love.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my subfield, Mesopotamian art. But what I love about it is intellectual. It’s the thrill of finding the jigsaw piece that connects two sections of the puzzle that you had thought unrelated. However, I rarely find myself moved by the beauty of Mesopotamian art.

On the other hand, I love 19th century French paintings. How could you not?! Gericault! Ingres! Delacroix! Cezanne! Not to mention those Impressionist fellows. And they are painting naked ladies, and beautiful landscapes and dynamic horses. And the colors! (Paint doesn't survive millennia and thus color is hugely lacking in ancient art.)

If not for the survey class, when would I be able to wax rhapsodic about my 19th century favorites without boring my wife or getting shushed by museum guards?

Now, I know how little I know. I’ve never read a biography of any of those painters. I’m sure there are childhood traumas, financial distractions and dozens of other reasons for their choice of subjects, styles, media. All I tell my classes about are historical contexts, explaining the technological changes (photography!) and social shifts (end of royal patronage!) that influenced artists.

And then I swoon. I am acting like an idiot. But isn’t that pretty much the definition of love? Isn’t love the emotion that makes you a blathering idiot?

This part of the lesson is perhaps closer to “art appreciation” than “art history.” I was always suspect of “appreciation” courses, because really, who needs more than an hour of that? But maybe that hour is necessary, just a nakedly emotional moment during a semester long art history 101.

Maybe it’s good for the students to see that. Because what that hour lacks in factual knowledge is made up for by showing the students the visceral power of art. Students have approached me after class and said, “You really liked that one, didn’t you? I could tell.” Maybe they didn’t learn as much about that particular painter, but I hope they learned something about the effect of finding a painter who speaks to your heart.

Honestly, just a fraction of my students will ever take another art history course. But I hope a good number of them will continue to visit museums to find an artist who speaks them in such a way that they’re left a babbling idiot. In other words, I hope that their hearts are open to falling in love with art.

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