Studying Art History a challenging but rewarding college experience

Diligently working on my Art History thesis (or “Senior Essay”, as the department would like us to say), I am forced to confront the thought over and over, “Am I prepared for this?” With just four years (almost) of college under my belt, am I really in a position to be able to write an academic article of publishable quality? I’m hardly capable of feeding, clothing and bathing myself, let alone performing such high functions of thought as directing and producing my own research project.”

In fact, coming to Vassar just a mere four years ago, I didn’t even know that art history was a thing—as in, I literally did not know that the field of studying art objects exists. Sure, I knew about historians, and art—more than the average person, most likely—but I didn’t realize that there is an entire world, the “art world”, dedicated to the study, promotion, production, and every other aspect of the arts. Imagine my surprise when I saw Art 105-106 in the Course Catalogue the summer before freshmen year.

So this whole thesis thing has forced me to really reflect on my arts education at a liberal arts college. Most extraordinarily, I happened to have chosen a school with a particularly fabulous Art History Department, renowned throughout the art world. At every arts internship I’ve held over the past four years and every arts-related event I’ve attended, there have been Vassar Art History graduates or at the very least someone who says, “Oh, Vassar, it’s weird I know a lot of museum people who went there.” I guess the fates had me on this one—they knew this would be my calling before I even knew what it was.

Okay, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to that first week of freshmen year, after I had already pre-registered for Art 105. I knew I wanted to be a French major, which was the department I was assigned my pre-major advisor. (Shout out to Prof. Parker—four years and still going strong!) All I thought about Art History was that it sounded kind of neat—and let’s be real, how hard could it be to just look at beautiful pictures for an hour a day? Oh, how little I knew.

If you have been reading my column, (and at this point I think I know all three of you), you know that I am a big advocate of Art 105. It’s a mind-blowing experience that everyone should have, and we are just lucky to be at the place where it’s offered.

But as awesome as my experience was in the “darkness at noon,” I didn’t exactly have the aha! moment where I realized that art history was the passion to which I would devote countless hours and brain cells. I simply knew that I liked it more than any other class, and therefore decided to take a few more in the department.

The Art History Department is actually very crafty in this way—they have a whole bait-and-switch routine going on right under our noses. They tempt you with this fancy-schmancy, high-tech, utterly unique experience that promises to only take a year and then, bam! you will know everything there is to know about art. But the truth is, it just wets the palate—anyone who’s anyone immediately wants to know more and swims deeper into the abyss of paint drips, pencil shavings and marble dust. Before you know it, you have taken so many classes that you’re a minor and it’s only sophomore year—so why not make it a major?

The 200-level courses really aren’t that different from Art 105—you look at the images, you listen to the professor and take notes to regurgitate for the final. Rinse, spit, repeat. There is a more focused topic—say, only two centuries of art over a five hundred mile geographical range—but the biggest change is the expectations of the writing assignments. In the blink of an eye, the 1-2 page formal analysis from Art 105 becomes 10-15 pages of research—without forewarning; it is expected that you push yourself to succeed at a much higher level that involves course reserves, Connect New York and yes, a thesis.

Of course, seminars are the real deal. Another quantum leap and suddenly, there are only six students and a professor who is nursing laryngitis from all that talking in other classes. Students are expected to do all of the work in weekly presentations (that if you are lucky enough include the object itself) and multiple, high quality written assignments. There is a sort of role-reversal that happens—you are given the framework and resources, but the learning is up to you. And if you didn’t do the reading, then woe is you—that’s $10,000 wasted.

Outside of the classroom there are extra lectures, conferences and round-tables (whatever those are) that you can use to beef up your growing encyclopedic knowledge. There are Late Nights at the Loeb, art shows in the Palmer Gallery, and I’ll remind you that we sit in the cornucopia of American art (I’ve been telling you about it all year long). Not to mention New York City: just a hop, skip and a jump down the bunny trail and you are surrounded by some of the most famous art institutions in the world.

All of this supplements what you are learning in the classroom, and gives you the opportunity to apply your knowledge to the real world. That sharpie drawing on the subway wall that everyone finds kind of offensive and pretends to ignore? Yeah, you can explain exactly how that cartoon sits in the context of Western Art starting with the caves of Lascaux and the lost Greek paintings described by Pliny the Elder.

Some may describe college as a ladder—climb steadily up each rung and you are sure to succeed—but I prefer the analogy of a high jump. The bar is high above our heads, we are given the fancy shoes and running head start, but it is up to us to make the effort and get over the bar. Once we have achieved one height, the bar is simply set higher—and I am pretty sure this happens at striking rates. You have written a fifteen-page paper? Good, then you are clearly capable of writing anywhere from forty to one hundred pages.

The only real comfort we have is the knowledge that history repeats itself, and since we have succeeded before when it seemed impossible, logically we will succeed again.

So the answer I’ve come to is this: I’m not fully prepared for this thesis, not at all, but it has to be done and so it will be done like all the past obstacles. The bar is set impossibly high, but I have the wind at my back and a spring in my step, and in the end the only way is up and over.

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