Art history department should bridge sociocultural gap

I walked into the spacious auditorium that accommodates Vassar’s widely acclaimed Art 105/106 course on the first day with high hopes. The introductory level class serves as a foundation for Vassar’s Art History program, and I had heard nothing but rave reviews from students and faculty alike. As both a photogra­pher and a lover of art museums, I had no res­ervations about taking an art class that would, according to several sources, “change my life.”

In countless ways, the course has lived up to the hype. On some fronts, however, it has mere­ly left me frustrated and dissatisfied.

The time commitment alone is a deterrent for many students. The course consists of three lectures and one discussion section per week. It is not the extra 50-minute session that dis­courages non-art history majors from taking the class, however, but the fact that it is a year-long course.

I was particularly taken aback by the depart­ment’s unflagging commitment to tradition. The lack of race and gender diversity that has plagued the art history world for centuries is no less prevalent at Vassar, despite its general­ly progressive stance on history and culture. It came as a surprise to me that at an institution where the discussion of discrimination and op­pression is not only accepted, but expected, art continues to be so narrowly defined.

The future of Vassar’s Art History Depart­ment is currently up in the air as faculty mem­bers take potential changes and developments into consideration. The course’s two-semester requirement, an established tradition of the de­partment’s introductory course, is now open to debate.

In a society of rapidly changing cultural and artistic norms, it is high time that the modern world rewrite art history. We need to recon­sider not only the traditionally rigid structure that the history of art typically exists in, but its content as well.

Art history curriculums throughout the United States have long been dominated by cisgender, white males. The discipline of art history as it exists today was established by Western, male academics, and the nature of the field has hardly changed since its creation. Our society needs to turn its attention to opening up the art world to people of all races, genders and backgrounds.

Reworking museums is a slow and painstak­ing process. Therefore, it is up to art history departments—both professors and students—to redefine the past and carefully consider the future of art. Whereas supplementing and rec­reating museum collections and curating more inclusive exhibitions may take decades, images in textbooks and online publications are easily interchangeable. Museums, galleries and the art market will not change until those who in­habit these spaces do.

Changing the ways in which art is analyzed and displayed, however, requires a fundamental understanding of the foundations of art. At the college level, it is undeniably important to have basic background knowledge of art history be­fore moving on to higher levels and more spe­cialized courses. However, it is equally import­ant to represent a broad scope of perspectives and backgrounds. Modifying the requirements to make either Art 105 or Art 106 mandatory would increase the number of students able and willing to experience what Vassar’s Art History Department has to offer. Alternatively, if the department is not prepared to recreate the nature of the course entirely, they could choose to waive the two-semester requirement for upperclassmen or seniors only.

The time commitment that goes along with taking Art 105/106 greatly limits the ability and likelihood of non-art history majors to take the course. Allowing seniors to enroll in 200-level art history courses without the background of Art 105 or Art 106 would benefit both individ­ual students and the department as a whole. It would not only ensure that a greater propor­tion of the student body would expose them­selves to art, but would allow the department to benefit from a larger range of approaches and opinions that Vassar students of every ma­jor have to offer.

The tradition of Art 105/106 holds immense sentimental value for many Vassar alumnae/i, both those with and without art history de­grees. Its syllabus has been tweaked over the years, of course, but the basic nature of the course has remained more or less intact since its conception.

Although the course supplements purely vi­sual interpretations of works with basic back­ground information, it tends to focus mainly on the importance of each painting, sculpture and building in terms of the broadly accepted notion of the artistic canon. The class does not often touch upon the connection between art and the sciences, language, music and other facets of culture.

The art world frequently isolates itself from the “real world” in this way, further restricting its accessibility and limiting visual literacy. Art provides lessons and skills that are applicable in all facets of the humanities and sciences and, in a greater sense, contributes to society’s general understanding of the world and its cul­tures.

Some groups have sought to change the cul­tural, racial and gender imbalance in the realm of art history. Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous group of women, has been creating posters and flyers since the 1980s that critique the art world’s narrow-mindedness. Group members typically wear gorilla masks and assume the identities of dead female artists while taking part in and organizing protests, campaigns and demonstrations. They argue that the accep­tance of “mainstream” limits the category of art to “a bunch of white male masterpieces and movements” (“The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art,” 1998).

There are numerous other feminist art movements besides the Guerrilla Girls. The often deviant interpretation of art that these groups project on the traditional sphere of art history, however, has yet to be accepted into the mainstream art world.

The role of women and people of color in painting, in particular, throughout history, has been to reinforce the hierarchy of white su­premacy. Modern bias, whether intentional or not, retroactively erases crucial chapters of history.

Of course, the internal prejudice of the art world does not exist in a vacuum. In fact, quite the opposite is true: art reflects that which characterizes the world we live in day today.

According to a recently conducted survey, curators occupy “the whitest” profession in the arts: roughly 79 percent of curators in New York City are white (Diversity in the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, 01.28.16). The racial imbalance is unlikely to change un­til prominent galleries open themselves up to a greater diversity of artists. At the same time, it is improbable that the galleries themselves will evolve until the curators themselves do. This catch-22 is not easily resolved; it is up to col­leges and universities to shape a new genera­tion of burgeoning art historians and curators that is more open to change.

When curators and gallerists are confront­ed with the unfortunate truth that most of the artists whose work they accept are white and male, they often respond by arguing that the selection process is based solely on quality. Far from justifying the racial and gender im­balance, however, this explanation reveals the deeply-rooted underlying belief that an artist should be a certain type of person—that is to say, that certain races and genders inherently produce better art.

Although the discussion of diversity in the Art History Department is not exactly new at Vassar, it needs to be acted upon in a way that significantly expands the definition of art and rethinks its place in history.

The cycle of discrimination within the art world will never end if each generation inter­nalizes the same narrow definition of art as the last. A well-rounded art history curriculum would not only give marginalized artists the at­tention they deserve, but also shed new light on currently canonized works by allowing them to be studied in their true historical context.

We have allowed a sexist, Eurocentric stan­dard of beauty to subsist in our culture for too long, and the deconstruction of this ideal be­gins with the redefining of art. It is our respon­sibility to strive to tell an accurate historical narrative rather than the romanticized account of history that the art world has been perpetu­ating for centuries.

One Comment

  1. Emma—odd that you don’t mention the roll of Vassar alum and prof Linda Nochlin for bringing these very issues to the forefront of art history, lo these 50 years ago.
    Even odder if as you claim, the department does not attempt to frame the world’s art history across Continents and spectrum of sexuality,

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