Can Art History Be Taught Without Someone Becoming Angry?

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As a current practicing artist and critic and a former art faculty member, art museum director and curator, I feel as if I’ve seen and heard it all when it comes to responses to art. In art history classes, more than one exasperated student has screamed at me, “It’s just a chair. A chair isn’t art!” when discussing the work of Charles and Ray Eames.

Once, a group of business school students initiated a petition to remove a giant two-headed outdoor rubber ducky sculpture (and me from the job for displaying it) because they felt it wasn’t dignified enough for the campus. I’ve witnessed an old Southern woman angrily swat a pedestal showcasing a piece of African art with her cane and exclaim with unbridled rage, “What Yankee put together this @#$% art show?”

All these responses and more have made me consider the question, “Can art be experienced or art history taught without someone becoming angry?” Without hesitation, I answer, “No.”

But why isn’t it possible? The answer: because people have opinions, beliefs, agendas and values coloring the way they view the world. If a work’s content, materials or artist’s identity and their ideas run counter to those things, people often reject them, sometimes with visceral vitriol and violence. Sometimes these responses to art help us see more clearly justice, truth and beauty; other times, they illustrate disturbing aspects of human existence. Either way, art represents an ever-necessary, ever-changing reconsideration and recalibration of how we see the world.

  • Art reflects the person who created it and the time, place and culture in which they lived. (It often represents the dominant power structure, both politically and economically, as well as the prevailing tastes of consumers.) In this context, I often think of the work produced by the most skilled silversmiths in the 17th and 18th centuries. As objects in and of themselves, they might seem glorious for their craftsmanship and design. Still, one considers what made them possible (namely, patrons who amassed wealth by exploiting and subjugating others via slavery). The objects hold a different weight and become offensive reminders of greed and terror.
  • What is offensive in one moment in history may not be in the future. And vice versa. For example, in Leonardo da Vinci’s (Italian, 1452–1519) time, the dissection of human bodies was forbidden, yet he made drawings of dissections to learn to depict bodies more accurately. When Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926) painted his now famous landscapes, they were derisively categorized as Impressionism. People were angry and thought they were terrible; now they are considered great art. On the other hand, the photographs by Edward S. Curtis (American, 1868–1952) of Native Americans were once seen as beautiful and significant ethnographic depictions by some. Today, these same images are rightly seen as offensive for misrepresenting Indigenous peoples and misappropriating objects from various cultures.
  • Sometimes the point of an artwork is to offend you and make you mad. Norman Krasna’s (American, 1909–1984) Lest We Forget (1945) is a short newsreel depicting Buchenwald and Dachau shortly after the liberation of these concentration camps after World War II. The atrocities revealed are impossible to contemplate, but Krasna insisted on recording them, narrating what he saw and sharing them with the world to ensure the Holocaust didn’t happen again. I can think of many examples of art that are difficult to look at but have essential issues to consider: Lewis Hine’s (American, 1874–1940) photos of children toiling in factories, Dorothea Lange’s (American, 1895–1965) Depression-era photos detailing poverty, Gordon Parks’s (American, 1912–2006) photos illustrating discrimination and segregation, to name a few. All these images helped change the world and our thinking; we need to see them and talk about them when teaching.
  • Art that is offensive to one person may not be to another person. Art exploring topics related to politics, religion, sexuality and identity often falls into this category. The works are typically the most challenging to teach because the issues surrounding them often polarize people, and people are very resistant to anything representing that which they are not. These works are most likely to elicit censorship and undermine academic freedom and freedom of speech.
  • A work doesn’t have to be “beautiful” to be art. For that matter, whose definition of beautiful are we talking about when we do? Are we talking about European, African or Chinese aesthetics? Do we define beauty as something that congratulates our sensibilities or challenges it? Can something be ugly but so truthful that beauty is found in its profundity, bravery and vulnerability? Teaching art calls for exploring all possibilities and learning to consider our assumptions about cultural preferences, the artist’s intention, and the range of human thought and expression.
  • Art isn’t defined by whether you like it or not. Can a painting of an opera singer by John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925), a urinal posed as sculpture by Marcel Duchamp (French, 1887–1968), a photograph of nudists by Diane Arbus (American, 1923–1971), a Bwa culture plank mask, and a chaotic wrapped fiber sculpture by Judith Scott (American, 1943–2005) all be art? Absolutely. Do you have to like the piece or want to live with the work and look at them daily for them to be art? No. Art historians offer them as art, explain their significance and provide students with a foundation to discern what to like or hate based on knowledge, not ignorance. For example, one can accept Pablo Picasso’s (Spanish, 1881–1973) art as significant and hate it simultaneously because you believe the style is unappealing and he was a despicable person.
  • Art isn’t mathematics. There isn’t a formula for defining art and artists or great art and artists. The definition changes and evolves (sometimes devolves, then changes again) in time. Some of the most well-known artists today, such as Rembrandt (Dutch, 1606–1669) and Vincent Van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890), were not well-known or prosperous in their lifetime. Alternatively, some women artists like Artemisia Gentileschi (Italian, 1593–1653) were prominent in their time, then edited out of art history because social mores changed about women’s roles, and now these women artists are being celebrated again.

Evaluating and re-evaluating art history may also incite anger because definitions can be fluid, and there are many elements to consider; everyone wants concrete ways to understand art, but it will never be simple.

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