Last year, I took the famed two-semester Introduction to the History of Art and Architecture course, warmly known as Art 105/ Art 106 which provides the foundation for understanding how to interpret art and the world. Until this year, Art 105/Art 106 was a two-semester commitment, but this year, students are allowed to take just one semester of the course. That said, the course has been reworked to allow students to avoid a year-long commitment. Two weeks ago, I visited the class to listen to the three new lectures. Despite enjoying the new lectures, I left considering the changing academic interests of current Vassar students.
“Vassar is known for having one of the best Art History departments at the undergraduate level in the world,” claimed Professor of Art Molly Nesbit. Unfortunately, the department still finds itself challenged by contemporary shifts in academia, which favors STEM-based education, seeing it as a beacon to success. “With STEM,” Nesbit said, “you’ll be prepared for the economy of the 21st century.” This promise is one that directly affects the interests of students that go to colleges like Vassar. Our Art History department has observed a decline in art history majors as students are more inclined to major in the natural sciences. This tension between the arts and STEM is further highlighted by the restructuring undertaken by the department to accommodate students who do not want to commit to a year-long course.
I spent this summer as a Vassar tour guide and experienced first-hand our institution’s shifting focus to STEM. We highlight the new Bridge Building, peek into Olmsted’s laboratories and spend almost a quarter of the tour speaking to the College’s commitment to STEM. In contrast, no time is spent in Taylor Hall, any of the art studio spaces or the Loeb. Because of the institution’s deviation from the arts, the Art History department had to restructure ust to acquire the same level of interest they have in the past. This is seen in the format changes in Art 105/106, ushered in by the first three lectures of the course.
The first lecture, entitled “All about Art,” by Professor of Art Susan Kuretsky, served as a warm welcome to the students embarking on the journey that so many others before them have taken. Kuretsky explains that the first lecture should set the pace for Art History’s ability to understand “the kinds of vocabularies and cultural practices to think of the world.” In the slideshow, she featured the image of a hammer, to which many students expressed confusion and discontent. At that point, Kuretsky brought up images of a hand-crafted gold hammer from ancient India and Yoko Ono’s “Painting to Hammer a Nail.” Once these connections were made, it sparked awe within the lecture hall. The hammer was not a silly example; it was a frame of reference to seemingly distant art objects. In speaking to the contemporary disconnect of students to art, Kuretsky made clear that the problem does not always lie in “not taking the time [to see art], rather it is because of not knowing how to see more.”
The second lecture, “The Digital World,” by Associate Professor of Art Andrew Tallon, discussed the negative repercussions of a “reality represented by digits.” In a world immersed in social media, people become disconnected from art and do not take the time to look. Kuretsky explains, “We can all be fast and accurate, but we all know…the thing we call wisdom is not split second.” Overall, Tallon’s lecture bridged the gap between technology, the ever-changing world and the art object. It was well-received by students: “The lecture was unlike any other lecture I’ve ever sat in. It was like Steve Jobs introducing the iMac to the world,” exclaimed student Dane Marshall ’20.
Finally, Nesbit’s lecture, “World Heritage,” asserted the idea that all objects of art are part of a world heritage and that our humanity lies within this heritage. “A museum could never hold all of humanity,” stated Nesbit. Time and space is expanded once it is realized that the objects of art that we study are a part of a larger social whole. This is why art history is interdisciplinary and is endlessly connected to all forms of knowledge. “It is a capacious discipline. It is not just for snobs and connoisseurs,” explained Nesbit.
Collectively, the first three lectures of Art 105 are the cornerstone on which the new direction of the course is built. The lectures demonstrated how Art 105 is a tradition and a way in which to see the past and present of the entire world. Marshall exclaimed, “I’m starting to garner a deeper appreciation of ancient works of art and seeing the importance of having the foundational knowledge of what once seemed uninteresting to me.” We find Vassar at a crossroads. The school has an important historical commitment to the arts and continues to provide top-rate programs in many of these areas. However, the growing commitment to our STEM departments seems to come at the expense of our arts programs. My goal for Vassar is not to dismiss STEM, but to highlight the ways in which our arts programs find themselves dwindling in interested students, financial support and ultimately their place in Vassar’s image and history.