ART 105/106, rooted in past, looks to future

As ART 105/106 moves into the future, this nearly 90-year-old legendary course has embraced change, such as incorporating more technology and updating its format this semester. / Courtesy of the Vassar Art Department

Autumn is a time of great flux. Change is in the air as the sweet summer descends into the wily wintertime, and the earth prepares to put on its yearly show. To the panoply of Hudson Valley foliage is added a diverse new crop of students, and the mosaic of our campus takes on fresh color and breadth. Spring may be known for rebirth, but fall holds sway over the visual delights.

There is thus no better season than our current one in which to immerse oneself in the very human undertaking of making permanent and material the fleeting notion that is beauty. Now nearly 90 years old, ART 105: Introduction to the History of Art & Architecture is proudly still on offer for the Fall 2017 semester.

“Darkness at noon,” as the course is fondly called for its thrice-weekly midday lectures, remains a cornerstone of Vassar’s liberal arts curriculum. However, just as paintings can be rehung or sculptures freshened up from years of wear, ART 105 is forever subject to change; its roots may be in the past, but its vision is unfailingly trained on the present and future.

“It’s not the same course—by a long shot—as it was [90 years ago], and it’s not even the same course as it was 10 years ago, or even two years ago,” said Professor of Art Susan D. Kuretsky, who is now in her final year of teaching at Vassar, in her introductory lecture for ART 105. “Today’s students are taking something that’s really shifting, because the field of art history is developing, and student needs have also shifted considerably.”

Last year, the great split was made between ART 105 and its companion ART 106, and now both exist as semester-long courses that can be taken together or separately, in any order. Relying on a list of carefully chosen monuments, 105 wends its way from the ancient world into the medieval, through East Asia (by way of the newly hired Assistant Professor of Art Jin Xu) and onto the renaissances in Italy and Northern Europe.

In the spring, 106 carries the narrative forward, tackling art of the late Renaissance up to the modern day. Along the way, the brilliant faculty lecturers explore the unique interdisciplinary nature of their field, connecting art to social history, economics, religion, science, technology, literature, geography, philosophy and beyond.

This year, further reformatting has taken place in both courses, with shorter and more frequent papers, no slide ID memorization and only one exam: the final. The added focus away from testing and more toward writing is intentional, giving way to bigger-picture thinking that guides students new to the discipline through its many pressing questions. “I think that the presence of a monuments list and the emphasis on its memorization has sometimes given the false impression…that there is a canon,” explained Associate Professor of Art Yvonne Elet.

“[What] we are trying to emphasize is the importance of monuments, not only in their original context but also going forward in time, by talking about what a monument is and who controls it,” she continued. “Certainly the news in recent years—whether ISIS or the Taliban blowing up ancient sites, museums or religious sculpture, or the removal of Confederate statues—tells you about the symbolic importance of monuments, how their meanings change with time and context, and the issues around who controls that kind of memory.”

These urgent matters, to be sure, require a strong foundational perspective. “The material that we present here is so varied that people often wonder, ‘What in the world is art anyway?’” Kuretsky posited in her lecture as the first and, perhaps, most fundamental question in art history.

Such big questions and their answers, though, do not remain fixed or static. Humanity’s interpretations of different queries and of other people’s responses depend on a multiplicity of factors, which requires new and repeated approaches.

The museum, that grand institution of cultural remembrance, is one such “confrontation of metamorphoses,” as stated in the first assigned reading by French writer and former Minister of Culture André Malraux. ART 105/106 functions in a similar way with these confrontations. Memory is work, after all, and like any worthwhile craft requires careful persistence and adaptability.

As Professor of Art Molly Nesbit put it, “ART 105/106 gives us a way to weigh legacy with all of its conflicts … The past is in the present in ways we cannot control.”

As she continued, “Developing one’s ability to deal with the visual world—which doesn’t come to us in words—is a daily challenge.” Elet added, “One important and engaging aspect of art history, which goes back millennia, is the relation of word and image, a fundamental issue around which the course turns.”

Vassar—and we are lucky for this—is particularly well-suited for this kind of training. Our founder inculcated the importance of visual learning in his inclusion of an art gallery in the original plan for the College, and thus Vassar became the first U.S. university or college to do so. Originally located in Main Building, the gallery has transformed into our renowned Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.

Opened in 1993, the Loeb serves as an invaluable complement to a class all about created objects. In addition to the rotating lecturers’ presentations on their specialties during class, students meet with a regular conference instructor once a week in the Loeb. There, they discuss readings and look firsthand at artworks in the gallery, including the original collection of what were then up-to-the-minute contemporary paintings of the Hudson River School.

In this way, ART 105/106 is and always has been committed to the forefront of scholarly tools, such as the plaster casts of master sculptures sent over from Europe in the early days of the College. The course has, similarly, withstood countless permutations of curricular redesign, enduring as a core introduction to visual learning and thought on a campus whose only remaining general requirements are verbal, numerical and linguistic in nature.

The gradual incorporation in recent years of cutting-edge digital technology mirrors the field of art history as a whole. The emphasis, however, is on presenting in new and dynamic ways a practice that necessitates slow looking, an increasingly important skill, paradoxically, in our fast-paced modern world.

In this spirit of technological embrace, ART 105 now has a public Moodle page that serves as its syllabus as well as an active presence on arguably our newest visual and curatorial medium, Instagram (@art105live).

Regarding this year’s iteration of the course with a perspective to its storied past, Associate Professor of Art Andrew Tallon stated, “[T]he inspiration is a similar one, that to really learn about the world as a part of the liberal arts education at its best, you need to be able to see and think about what you see. That motive has not disappeared—it’s never going away.” As Elet elaborated, “In a way, it is recognizing the dynamism and expanse of the field more fully than the course has before.”

W. H. Auden wrote in his “Musée des Beaux Arts”: “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters: how well they understood / Its human position…” They were right about a lot of other things, too, as the course explores, and many more were masters who have before been overlooked.

“Art, after all, outlasts the lifespan of the people who created it,” Kuretsky asserted in her lecture. “The works we study, therefore, also connect us with timeless realms beyond the ephemeral temporality and confusions of everyday life.”

Whether bathed in the orange glow of a Cairene sunset over the Giza pyramids or in the auburn poignancy of a Rothko composition, students in the noontime journey of ART 105/106 gain a feeling of immense universality in the diverse works they encounter. The modern starts to look a lot more like the past, and the past a lot more like the future.

“Do not—I repeat, do not—leave college without this course,” Kuretsky declared. “It will mean a lot to you in later life, as much as it does here.”

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