Art History Survey: A Round-Table Discussion

Article excerpt

At the College Art Association 2003 annual conference, the editorial board of Art Journal convened a round-table discussion on the art history survey: why it continues to exist, who teaches it and how is it taught, and what have been effective challenges and innovations to its traditional form. Participants engaged in a spirited, substantive, and inconclusive discussion. Organizer and moderator Peggy Phelan (then chair of the Art Journal editorial board) proposed that this conversation on pedagogy should continue. She convened a round-table discussion, via e-mail, on the survey course with several experienced teachers and scholars. During the course of the conversation, Kathleen Desmond noted, "The Carnegie Foundation found that 80 percent of college teaching faculty listed teaching as their primary interest.Yet we barely discuss teaching. Treating teaching in the same ways we treat research and art making can revitalize and legitimize the essential component of our jobs as college professors." With these points in mind, we are publishing excerpts from the e-mail discussion, hoping it might provoke further consideration of and dialogue about teaching the arts and art history in the new century.

Peggy Phelan: I have been intrigued by the persistence of the survey course as a staple of art history programs, despite extremely radical transformations in the ideological and methodological foundations of the field, transformations in the skills and demographics of college students, and profound revisions in the curricula of PhD programs in art history. Given these changes, it would seem logical that the survey would become an obsolete, archaic technology in a postmodern world. I know it is cost-effective for universities to offer these large courses, but I think there is more than money behind the survey's persistence. Many students love to take survey courses, and many people love to teach them. Have you observed this? If so, to what do you attribute this? And if this is not your sense of things, I would like to hear your thoughts about successful alternatives or replacements for the survey.

The Survey

David Little: I agree with Peggy that many students are hungry for the survey. They want a body of knowledge and desire facts, landmarks, and themes to hold together the complex histories of artistic practices, institutions, and aesthetics. They seem to say, just give me one history for now and then I will adjust it, reject it, destroy it. I think of the survey as a rough framework that helps students begin to think about a theme, period, movement, subject, and so on, but I always remind them of the biases that help to construct the history presented and that the selected content discussed is always, in some sense, contingent. Even though it is often unfashionable to teach chronologically, I maintain this format to help students maintain a sense of context and history. From the few, key time-posts that I give students, I encourage them to develop their own. Most of the students I have taught, however, do not have a sense of the historical trajectory of the twentieth century, and by this I do not mean linear trajectory. I mean simple historic facts, such as Dada emerged during World War I, Surrealism between the wars, and Freud wrote over a hundred years before Oprah and Dr. Phil came to television.

Steve Shipps: I should stress that I don't teach survey, per se. At Emerson, Visual Arts 101 is an "appreciation" course with a historical component, but no more than that. At least half of the eighty students per term who take it expect that it will be a survey of art history, and for most of the students the clear assumption is that to know about "art" is to know about "art history," and vice versa. The other students seem about equally divided between those who do know and care some about art and art history, and those who neither know nor care, nor care to know, about either (those dragged kicking and screaming to the course by distribution requirements). …