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Was your Art History class an endless succession of names and dates and movements? Art History doesn't have to be that way! We discuss new (and much more compelling) approaches the study of art.

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(PBS Digital Studios logo)

Art history can be deadly.  If it's happened to you, you know what I'm talking about.  A dark room, an endless succession of flat images on a screen, names and dates and movements and napping.  If you've had a great art history class, I'm so glad, and if you've had (?~0:20) art history class, well, it's maybe better than none.  I'm thinking about this because I've been watching the new series Civilizations which takes a wide view in talking about the beginnings of human creativity and its development in many different parts of the world. 

It's a follow-up to a series the BBC aired in 1969 called Civisation, singular, where art historian Kenneth Clark outlined a personal and very Euro-centric account of "The great works of Western man".  He wasn't telling the history of art, per se, but he called "all the life giving human activities we lump under the term civilization.'  Barbarism, was in his view, the opposite of civilization and nearly wiped out civilization entirely, but he does clarify that great works of art can be produced in barbarist society.  

Now, this is problematic from a number of  angles and was even old fashioned at the time, but people loved it.  In Europe and in the US, they felt empowered to understand cultural history, had watching parties, and bought the book.  Afterward, there was even an uptick in cultural tourism.  50 years later comes Civilizations, in which three art historians attempt a much more global history of human artistic production, starting with the first human marks we've discovered in caves and skipping around the world through history and up to today.

It's a lot to cover, but rather than promoting an understanding of civilization fighting to hold barbarians at bay, the new series emphasizes how cultures around the world have influenced each other, constantly evolving and borrowing and exchanging ideas.  They add an extra 'S' to the Renaissance as well, telling us of the flourishing of art in areas other than Italy.  

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We're told of Rembrandt's interest in Mughal art and its impact on his work, stemming from the Dutch East India Company's trade between the Netherlands and India.  There's a tendency in art history to tell the story of influence moving in one direction, but here, we see the tides flowing both ways, weaving a much more complicated tale.  This shift from civilization to civilizations reflects a wider transformation in the way art history and history in general is taught.  

Now you can take classes not only about art history, but classes about how we teach art history, or methodology, a word I hoped I'd never say publicly.  These days, there's a wider acceptance that any one topic can be approached from a variety of directions.  Like, you can look at a work of art formally, analyzing only what you can see, color, line, composition, etc.  You can read a work iconographically, recognizing the symbols it might contain and what those symbols meant when the work was created.  You can take a biographical approach, researching the story and intentions of the person or people who made it, or you can use a whole swath of what are called critical theories to better understand your subject, like psychoanalytic theories, seeking out the subconscious drives that might be at play in a work, or Marxist theory, looking at the economic and social conditions that inform the work, post-colonial theory, you'll be surprised to learn, seeks to understand a work through the colonial or imperial forces that might have shaped it.  

The new Civilizations doesn't shy away from these readings, pointing out European artists' interest in Islamic culture as a source of the exotic, often concocting scenes and history's whole cloth, fantasies propogating steroetypes, rather than reflecting anything based in reality.  We can also look at the ways race, gender, and sexualities have and have not been represented in art and how whole categories of people have been excluded from our history books or were prevented from making work and showing it in the first place.  These are just a few of the many lenses you can use to look at art, deploying one or many of them to inform your understanding of a thing.  

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Not to complicate the matter further, but what even is art to begin with?  You'll note Civilization side-steps the question by using their amorphous but now more inclusive term.  There's art, anthropology, architecture, design, visual culture, material culture, thing theory.  We use these terms to talk about all of the stuff and environments and experiences that humans have made, understanding that none of them is sufficient on its own, but for all of the nuance we've added to the study of art at the upper levels, very little has changed in our introductions to art.  What's most often communicated is a linear narrative of cultures and movements, at least in America, focusing on the yes, significant contributions of ancient Greece and Rome, the Italian Renaissance, perhaps touching on a few non-Western parts of the world.

In general, we're told a story of advancement and progress, from one school of art to the next.  Impressionism to neo-impressionism to post-impressionism, ism begetting ism, as if the creation of art is a single timeline rather than a vast, confusing web.  The art of the last 50 years and of today is either left out or smushed into the final 15 minutes of the last class.  Complication and nuance are reserved for higher level courses where, if you get there, you'll steadily pick apart the narrative you were originally presented with in your introduction.

The more linear version of history you first learn may have been easier to memorize and promptly forget, but it recklessly sacrifices so much in its efforts to simplify and smooth over.  It also tends to gloss over the important factor of you in the story of art and yous of the past.  By this, I mean how artworks have been interpreted historically and in the present and the biases inevitable in whomever is telling the story.

Kenneth Clark's Civilization was flawed for sure, but he was very effective in sharing with others what it is he loved about art and architecture and philosophy.  

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Just a few years later, one of my personal heroes, John Berger, came out with a BBC series of his own called "Ways of Seeing", which he also adapted into a book.  Rather than attempt any sort of overview of art, he sought instead to teach us how to look at things in the world in a critical but altogether revelatory way.  Seek it out and watch it.

I have chosen to teach art history through this show in my own particular and flawed way.  It's inefficient and scattershot, jumping around in time and space, bringing up stories of art from the past as they relate to the present.  I privilege the things I happen to learn about in my American schools and career.  I use the term 'art' in a broad way, trying not to give it boundaries but instead let it be a shapeless nebulous catch-all.  Every way we talk about art, or whatever you want to call it, is flawed and incomplete and biased, but it's a matter of which flawed and incomplete and biased way or ways we pay attention to.

I would argue that you don't like art history because the stories you learn usually don't bear any resemblance to the world as you experience it, which is messy and complicated and hard to make sense of.  With hindsight, we're able to craft totalizing narratives, which are helpful when the AP Collegeboard tries to test your mastery of a subject, but those narratives are ultimately unhelpful in getting you to like art, in teaching you how to see, and how to be a critical thinker.   Maybe the goal is to absorb as many of the flawed, incomplete, and biased histories as we can, appreciating what is there, what's missing, and who's telling it, and to let ourselves live with the chaotic, asynchronous story of art, allowing for diversity and difference and change, which is ultimately a more accurate and more compelling representation of the fullness of the world.

If you're interested in absorbing a tremendous amount of art and architecture and history, you should check out Civilizations, the new series produced by PBS and the BBC that tells the story of art from the dawn of human history to the present day.  

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It's a rigorous and thoughtful and mind-expanding look at how art and creativity helped forge our societies and cultures.  Click the links in the description below to find out more.

Many thanks to Indianapolis Homes Realty and all of our Patrons for supporting The Art Assignment. If you like our show, subscribe and if you'd like to support our show, head over to patreon.com/artassignment.  

(Credits/Endscreen)