‘Darkness at noon’ illuminates the value of art history

“In darkness at noon.” This mysterious phrase is how Professor of Art and Chair of Art Molly Nesbit describes the seminal Vassar course Art 105-106. She is referring to the thrice-weekly ritual when students are submerged into darkness to absorb the whole of man’s artistic production in both time and space.

Specialists guide the class on a journey from the first monumental constructions of Mesopotamia to contemporary short films using larger-than-life projections, 3D technology and cutting-edge research.

Since the course’s founding in 1928, thousands of students have entered the Taylor Hall auditorium and Art 105-106 has become one of the cornerstones of a Vassar education. Unfortunately, that cornerstone has become slightly unstable. A dip in enrollment is causing the Art Department to commence a mission of recruiting new students. “Periodically, because of the changes in technology and communication, we lose the bridge to the prospective students,” explained Nesbit. “I think we are at a moment where the bridge is out and we have to rebuild it.”

Part of rebuilding that bridge is battling a wall of misinformation about the course requirements and disinterest by students who don’t immediately understand the relevance of the course to their lives. I would like to take this opportunity to battle common misperceptions and explain the many benefits of taking Art 105 for every Vassar student.

First of all, the rumors that Art 105 requires copious amounts of coursework is simply not true—each week usually requires a maximum of twenty pages of reading. There are two writing assignments per semester, usually two to three pages each, plus a midterm and final exam. This is far less work than any other class I personally have taken at Vassar. The emphasis of Art 105 is on learning and transcendental experience rather than regurgitation and proving yourself—it is up to the individual student to make her own experience, and engage with the material at her preferred level of comfort.

Yes, students are required to memorize the monuments list, and this can be daunting the first time around. The department recognizes the challenge and provides numerous tools for students, including mixers with Art 105 veterans to share strategies for memorization. As Professor Nesbit points out, to grasp the material you need information, just like you need to know the periodic table or how to conjugate verbs if you major in chemistry or a foreign language, respectively.

Speaking of chemistry, this class has tremendous value to non-art history majors. An integral part of a liberal arts education is engagement—applying classroom knowledge to grapple with the world and our place in it. The subjects in which we specialize are not isolated from one another, and interdisciplinary thought is vital.

Biology major Kate Czechowski ‘13 took Art 105 in her freshman year and has since nearly completed a minor. Addressing the overlap between the two, she wrote, “Both disciplines ask you to look at a problem in a similar way. There is a similar process of analysis and dissection, and with art history you learn to write about sort of complex notions in a graceful way.” This is just one example among many of how art history can positively contribute to your Vassar education.

As Vassar students we have been given both the privilege and the responsibility to be stewards of human knowledge. These objects that have been lovingly created over thousands of years, representing all of human history, must somehow be preserved. In darkness at noon, blown up on a screen, they are activated by the lecturer, passing down an epic oral history. This tradition, the carrying of epics, is bigger than any of us. The desire and struggle to produce art is an integral part of our humanity, as is the necessity of preserving it.

Examining the evolution of human artistic production allows the exploration of the whole of human experience.“Art history is a map of ideas, things, works of art, buildings, philosophies, religions, individual people’s dreams or nightmares,” said Nesbit. Artists both react to and drive political upheaval, scientific inquiry and social revolution. It is through taking Art 105 and following this map across the world in both space and time that one can, according to Nesbit, begin to understand the world from a more holistic perspective.

No other course at Vassar currently covers this vast amount of material in such a comprehensive way—no other class conceivably could. In fact, this experience is unique amongst our peer institutions. Each section of the course—be it Gothic architecture, Japanese printmaking or American folk art—is taught by an expert in the field. Nesbit calls the class a gift to the students, explaining, “The introduction comes with expertise loaded into it that nobody but another specialist can see. And so the introduction is extremely refined and intellectually very sharp, and it’s something that is just being given to you.”

I strongly encourage all students to consider pre-registering for Art 105, or at least start planning to incorporate it into your Vassar education. Recognizing schedule restraints for upperclassmen, the Art Department has recently changed registration policies. It is now possible for juniors and seniors to NRO the course, and the two semesters do not have to be taken consecutively (although both must be completed at some point).

“It’s there, it’s waiting for you when you have the time to do it,” said Nesbit, expressing the new, more open policies that emphasize how important the course is to our development as a whole.

You would be hard-pressed to find someone who wasn’t profoundly affected by their experience in Art 105. As Czechowski summed up, “My education here without art history would be incomplete. The department is so amazing that it’s really silly of anybody to pass up on the opportunity to take a class with them. It teaches you how to look at things in a way I don’t think any other discipline can.”

For the professors’ part, they are determined to keep Art 105 going for generations of students. “History has given us gifts, and it’s our job to pass them forward. Art 105 is the place really where we can pass it forward to the greatest number of people—in darkness at noon.”

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