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How to Really Introduce Art History: the intro course

I have been thinking this summer about my introductory art course. It is meant to be a “survey” of the art of the west (I recognize there are problems with that approach, and we have a World Art course I'd like to teach as well). But for now, I am stuck with the survey of western art course.

And I say stuck because I am not sure that it teaches about art history because it’s really a survey as the title of the course implies of art and culture. It's the "greatest hits." I think there is value to that, but it just doesn’t feel like an introduction to the discipline. In my upper level courses, I do try to have students interpret art, visually dissect a painting and pose a possible thesis of its meaning, which is more inline with the discipline itself.

But in the survey class it is a bit harder to do that. Even having limited the number of works that I talk about, it is still challenging to find a way to have them engage in the art historical inquiry that is the backbone of our discipline.

However, I am teaching the course in a hybrid manner this coming fall, as I have the past two years. The students were overall positive about the experience. I’m going to do it again, putting in some suggestions that they made to hopefully make the course better. This will give me more time to try some new things that might have them engage in the art a bit more, and perhaps help them engage in the works as an art historian might, albeit on a very general level.

For instance, I am thinking of have them all work as advisors to a pharaoh or leader from the Near East. Each group is tasked with creating a museum for their leader/pharaoh that has art from all the periods we cover in that module (of ancient Near East and Egyptian art) but work cannot be ones we have covered. They must search for other examples. And I plan to also “surprise” each group with an image that they then research. They must explain their choices and why the work is one from the culture that it represents.

What do you think? Does this engage students for a purpose that connects to the discipline of art history?


4 thoughts on “How to Really Introduce Art History: the intro course

  1. Aziz Abdur-Ra'oof

    I like the idea and think it’ll work. You are giving your students autonomy, tapping into their curiosity and allowing them to be creative.

    I think I would do much better in my art dish class now than when I took it years ago.

    1. Gretchen McKay

      I've been trying to find ways to do that. I had them do some similar things last fall when I taught this course and I think they appreciated the time to try to figure things out. I need to find more experiences like that for them.

  2. Christy Thomas

    I also think a lot about the problem of the survey course. Within my discipline, there is a fairly commonly understood distinction between "Music Appreciation" and "Music History" that (at least to my knowledge) doesn't have an exact parallel in Art/Art History. (Perhaps this is due to the specialized terminology needed to be able to read music, which is usually not a pre-requisite for appreciation courses but can be for history courses. Typically, then, appreciation courses are cast as the "easy" courses and history courses as difficult.) I have strong feelings about the importance of teaching history rather than just appreciation, especially in the context of liberal arts colleges, because of the implication that "appreciating" something doesn't necessarily mean using your brain much. Consequently, in order to introduce students to the discipline and not just go through the "greatest hits," one of my main goals in survey courses has been to push into historiography: to have students explore the difference between fact and history so that they can understand the subjective nature of an historian's task. (Lots of transferrable skills here, too!) Over the course of the semester, students spend time together in class comparing different textbooks' treatments of a handful of works (e.g., Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Verdi's La traviata, Cage's 4'33", etc.), and analyzing the authors' arguments, aims, and biases. Ultimately students produce their own comparison of historians' treatments of a composer/work of their choice in two textbooks that I assign (one of which we use for the course). At some point, I'd love to explore the possibility of having students write/talk/etc. about a piece from multiple perspectives and to multiple audiences...

    1. Gretchen McKay

      There is such thing as "art appreciation" which is not a critical discipline the way that art history is. It is very difficult to think of ways to have introductory students actually engage in the discipline, but I want it to be more than a "greatest hits" course. So far what I have had them do is to take a work of art from our library collection and have them describe it and use it in an art exhibition that connects their works to art that we cover in the course. It's a start. I love the idea of comparing different textbook approaches. Might have to look at that one! Thanks for that idea!


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