Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Blogger Visits Art School Open House

Actually, the Open House involved many of the departments at the University of Washington, but I went because (1) I could visit the University's Henry Art Gallery for free, and (2) there were supposed to be some interesting activities at the School of Art where I did my undergraduate work.

Let's look at some photos I took to set the scene, and then I'll do some follow-up commentary.

This is part of a timeline display in the Henry Gallery. I'm probably being delusional, but somehow the selection of events strikes me as having a political bias.

The founding collection of the Henry Gallery contains some noteworthy late 19th century paintings including a Bouguereau. Here, alone in a room, is the only item of traditional art I could find on display.

Two of several examples of Installation Art on view that day. The people at the far right of the lower photo are real, by the way.

These are student drawings for Art 190, the introductory drawing course. I was told that not all those taking 190 are art majors. Nevertheless, these are part of a hallway display that apparently serves to demonstrate what the students are up to. The items shown here are typical of the quality of the entire display. Note that perspective is poorly done and that ellipses are also incorrect. Why didn't the instructor actually teach the students how to do these basic tasks?

Another hall display, this probably from a life drawing class where the students must have been asked to draw with expression but not violate the model's proportions. The results are better.

An event at the School of Art that I wanted to attend was a set of lectures by Art History majors. Unfortunately, I was about to leave for Florida and didn't have the time. Here is a list of the lecture topics taken from a handout:

"Constructing a Colonial Identity: Eighteenth Century Paintings of Indigenous Families in New Spain"

"Magic and the Miracle - Working Image: The Interplay of Art and the Supernatural in Fifteenth Century Italy"

"Enduring Disassociation: Mixed Racial Identities and Historical Interpretations"

"Modernity and Artistic License: Neo-Victorianism as Other"

"Classicizing Proximity: The African in Seventeenth-century Rome"

Okay, let's unpack those lecture titles that with one exception are likely related to Masters theses and PhD dissertations of the presenters. Race/ethnicity? Three of the five seem to deal with that, an obsession of a certain line of politics common to most colleges and univerities.

The title mentioning "the Supernatural" is harder to puzzle out. Could it have to do with religion? That would make sense where Italy in the 1400s is concerned. I can't think of many (any?) paintings featuring ghosts from that era, but I'm no expert and could easily be wrong.

Wikipedia indicates that the term "Neo-Victorianism" has to do with a number of things including people doing dress-up in 1880s clothing and the Steampunk literary genre. The term "Other" has been used to refer to racial/ethnic/subcultural groups that are ignored by the mainstream, yet pose some kind of ominous threat or other to it. Well, that's my superficial impression. So where do Modernity, Artistic License and a possibly sinister Neo-Victorianism intersect? Beats me, so I'm sorry I couldn't get to that lecture.

What strikes me is that none of the titles suggests serious study of the history of art. I'll accept that MA theses aren't expected to be much more than dry runs for further scholarly exercises. But every subject listed above (the last two by PhD students) is trivial and to my mind greatly off-topic if the topic is art history. Where current academicians see scholarship, I find strong evidence of politically induced intellectual rot. If I were running the university I would fire the Art History faculty to ensure that no other students waste precious years of their lives on the study of the irrelevant.


JDelle said...

Yikes. No, you're not delusional, there is certainly a bias there. And based on my experience, the "magic" they are probably talking about probably has to do with Christian miracles as depicted in the art of the time. None of this sounds relevant, but it does sound agenda driven.

Hermon said...

I don't understand that studying paintings of Spanish colonial families is trivial, off-topic, irrelevant or politically induced intellectual rot. The same goes for images of Africans in Rome in the 17th century or the study of artists depictions of racial identity in past eras.And as far as topic of magic and the miracle-working image is concerned, my take is the the speaker would be discussing paintings of Jesus, the disciples, other saints, and legends, not ghosts. All of this is clearly covered under the heading of Art History. It is not all about descriptions of technique, paint layers, and mediums used. Art History is the what, where, when, who,and why of the art which is now belongs to history.
When an 18th century artist decided to paint a picture of an African-American when he or she could easily have avoided the subject, there is no reason to believe that the artist was killing time or had backed into it somehow. It must have been significant enough for the artist to carry through on the painting and this is the essence of what an art historian should seek to explore, aside from the usual analyses of technique and style.

There would indeed be evidence of intellectual rot, politically induced or not, if art history students were to concentrate only on art by and of white people. They need to do more than that. Some universities see that and some really don't.

Since when does the study of black or other non-white people in art history imply something political. Your implication seems to be that something more important is being neglected or that the politics, if there are any in this line of academic study, is somehow harmful. This country is about 28 percent non-white according to the census figures I looked up. The interest is there among all ethnic groups for academic research into art which depicts this part of our population. This does not represent a political obsession. It is not a sideshow the removal of which would let us return to more important things; it is part of the important thing, Art History which focuses on the art of history.

Donald Pittenger said...

Hermon -- If only one talk had a race-ethnic focus, then I would have no call to complain. As for the demographic makeup of the USA, that seems to be a side issue; would that mean I should only be interested in art created by people with ancestry similar to mine?

What set me off was that what I saw was one more instance of what has been happening in "soft" disciplines in colleges and universities across the land: academic departments being highjacked to promote the goals of certain political/ideological groups. Which is one reason why I no longer have any use for my own PhD field, Sociology.

I find the decline in academic standards over the last 40 or so to be tragic.

Hermon said...

Academic standards have declined across the board for all disciplines and if it was happening 40 years ago it was happening well ahead of any deviation from the standard range of subject matter for dissertations.

I regret the decline of spelling and the seemingly diminished capacity for editing, revision, rigorous research and critical thinking exhibited in much of the academic work I've read. This is, however, far removed from the study of art history which includes race and ethnicity. In criticizing this focus you could also be wondering why as much scorn wasn't heaped upon academic studies of "The Irish in America". Ditto for Italians, Scandinavians, Spaniards and Jews. There was, I remember, a great deal of antagonism toward the focus on the female in art history, but this has all but disappeared.

No one is suggesting a 100% focus on race and ethnicity in art history. But some members of my family told me that racist laws prevented them from even entering an art museum, much less going to school to study art. Before 1969 or so they would be told to leave if they went into an art gallery to see a solo exhibit of an artist's work.

If people such as these were somehow able to learn to make art or were themselves the subjects of works of art in spite of the obstacles placed in their way by society using race and ethnicity as an excuse, I think it is valid that some scholarly work is devoted to this issue in art history. Even if the volume of these studies is
60% of the total it still won't make a dent in the mass of what's already been done which had excluded the subject.

And once again, I don't see the study of race and ethnicity as a political or ideological hijacking. Everyone has this kind of identity and it is rather a study in-depth which can make an account of it in art history. The standard models and guidelines have been expanded. People can still write their papers on the same subjects as always and the faculty still gives them more or less the same evaluations. I think it is a testament to the interest among students that fewer do so.