“Time moves fast in Art 105. 3000 years of human creativity is a lot, but then you blink and Rembrandt is gone.” Sitting across from Professor of Art Molly Nesbit, it is easy to see how students would be drawn towards studying art history.
To better support the feedback from students who have gone through the course in the past and to be able to do justice to all of the material the course presents, the Art History Department has been working to change the structure of the Art 105 course that starts many students on their path towards an undergraduate degree in Art History.
Nesbit explained how the discussion arose to restructure Art 105. As she said, “We’ve polled students in the class twice. Once in the fall of 2013, and at the beginning of this semester. This last poll was very interesting to us, because it was clear that the course was not fitting very well into the current campus culture.”
Art History is a very dynamic subject. It crosses several disciplines and can be taught from multiple different angles. Nesbit said, “We have to think about education as an ongoing matter, it’s not the province of any one field.”
The changes to Art 105, then, stemmed from the hopes to reach out to a more diverse group of students on campus. “We needed to understand how to make it more accessible, really,” Nesbit said. She went on, “It turned out that what we heard from much of the questionnaire was very positive. We were going to go from 3 days a week to 2 days, and that would have involved a major restructuring of the course, because none of our lectures would have fit. We were prepared to think about it, seriously. We were thinking about making Art 105 a freshman writing seminar.”
Splitting the course in two was the department’s ultimate response to student input. Nesbit said, “I don’t think we lose anything by a split into two sections, if anything it will grow intellectually from being cut in two.”
Art History Major Angela Brown ’16 agreed with Nesbit that it will be easier to follow the course after it has been split. She said, “I think that splitting the class will encourage a less-linear understanding of time. For years, the class has started with ancient architecture and marched on towards modernism. While this creates a clear historical arc, students sometimes forget to question its linearity.”
She went on, “I think splitting the course, since it will necessitate a re-emphasis on thematic questions, will allow students to think about connections between times and places in a more nuanced way. Creating these connections is extremely relevant to contemporary socio-political questions.”
The new structure of the course will incorporate art from all around the world across multiple time periods, but it will start in the present. Nesbit said, “We included the present in Art 105 because it’s important to look at where you’re standing. For the first week, every lecture will be taught by someone different, and then it will kick into longer cycles. At the beginning you will see the laser scans of Notre-Dame, you will see the Spiral Jetty.”
In addition, Art 105 will cover Chinese modern art in the 1990’s. “After 1989 it became possible for people to see more of what was going on in the west, but as it came over the transept it didn’t come in any particular order. Chinese artists who began to work with these different elements put a past into their present and made different kinds of hybrids that made sense for the Chinese contexts,” Nesbit said.
For the first time the two courses will stand alone, but they will be in conversation. The department hopes students will elect to take both courses; for Art History majors, the two courses will remain part of the required curriculum. “Art 105 is going to end with Leonardo [Da Vinci], and probably with the relation between Leonardo’s sense of the activity of the brain compared with what we now know biologically,” said Nesbit.
Art 106 will work from past to present, looking first at Michelangelo in the High Renaissance and then moving to contemporary architecture and video. The course will emphasize the effects of industrialization and mass media on artists and architects in the 19th century, and the increasing rate of technological change to the present.
In both courses, the department hopes to teach students the tools of visual analysis within a historical context. Most importantly, the course aims to provide a framework for students’ future education. “When art history is taught at its best, it allows you to think about anything,” Nesbit said.
In her freshman year, Brown found an opportunity to learn all of these skills and more. As she said, “Art 105/6 gave me a historical field that I could understand and describe visually. I quickly realized that visual information is never neutral; it forces you to consider where you are standing and what future you are looking towards.”
The skills students learn in Art 105/106 can be applied to virtually any time or subject; part of the reason is that the field is so dynamic. In the words of Nesbit, “Art history is not defined by a group of people very narrowly considering questions of beauty on the head of a pin. Art 105/106 gives you a panorama and allows you to orient yourself and your mind, and proceed the way you would, whether you were going to be an art historian, and English major, or a biologist.”
For those who take the course early on in freshman or sophomore year, it offers the chance to develop tools that will be relevant in other coursework later in life. Art History major, Sophie Asakura ‘16, said, “Art 105/106 was definitely one of the most formative courses for me while at Vassar. I am glad though, that the department is trying to be responsive to student and institutional needs.”
The three-day-a-week lecture course is team taught by the department, and is unlike any course at Vassar. “You start in the dark, and you’re not sure why, and there are these beautiful projections,” Nesbit said. The high quality images are displayed on the same kind of projector used at the Sundance Film Festival.
The dark lecture hall provides a unique educational space for thought, and as the semester’s weeks pass by, Art 105/106 students fall into a kind of rhythm. “Usually, in Art 105, you’re sitting in the dark while the story unfolds before your eyes. In a funny way, that can be the place to have a conversation about our culture, about our campus. I don’t think one is well prepared to enter a global culture unless you can hear and see other languages, other cultures, with more nuances,” Nesbit continued.
The Art History department polled students twice to determine the kind of changes students would like to see in a course that has been a staple of Vassar’s course offerings since close to the founding of the college. As Nesbit reflected, “I want every Vassar student to feel they want to take it. That it’s not an obligation, and see it as a way to learn more about the world, to begin to learn more about the world. To see it as a way to launch.”