Seeing through Art: A Course on Images of Women and Men in Western Art

By Witcombe, Christopher L. C. E. | Transformations, March 31, 1995 | Go to article overview

Seeing through Art: A Course on Images of Women and Men in Western Art


Witcombe, Christopher L. C. E., Transformations


Seeing Through Art: A Course on Images of Women and Men in Western Art

Two years ago I decided to drop all my courses and start again from scratch. I became very frustrated with traditional approaches in the teaching of art history and increasingly troubled by the narrow and self-indulgent concerns of the discipline. I decided to teach courses that would provide my students with knowledge and skills that had relevance outside the classroom and academia, and that would serve them not only in intellectual ways but would also have meaning and application in the real world in which they lived.

Despite significant shifts in the discipline in recent years, there has been little change in the structure of art historical pedagogy at the undergraduate level. Almost without exception, the curriculum in most colleges and universities remains filled with historical surveys of art history, usually offered in the context of an era (Medieval Art, Renaissance Art, etc.) and/or nation (Greek Art, Italian Renaissance, etc.), that exhibit little interest in issues that fall outside what is regarded as the art historians' principal tasks: identifying artists and their works, identifying subject matter and conventional meaning, identifying personal, regional, national, and period styles, and the dating and placing of works of art as neatly as possible within the developmental continuum of an artist's oeuvre (or a regional school, or national, or period style) and within the stylistic continuum of the history of art. Although the ostensible results of these tasks is the history of art we teach our undergraduates, the practice, in fact, caters more to the needs of the museum and the marketplace and provides the student with only a very narrow understanding of art. I felt my students digested a lot of art history but learned very little about art in history.

One of the major problems with the discipline of art history, as I see it, is its self-referential character. A work of art may have historical significance, but for the art historian, its importance (and this is apart from the problematic issue of quality) is gauged principally through its relationship to other works of art. A work of art acquires art historical status according to the degree to which it derives from, or sums up, or challenges earlier stylistic developments, and the extent to which it lays the stylistic foundations for the next step, artist, or period. There has been developed thereby the illusion of a history of art composed along one great thread of stylistic interconnection. The system allowed works of art to be connected forwards and backwards through history by means of a perceived logic of development. The history of art has been made to unfold largely in reference to itself. In order to do this, the machinery of the discipline effectively removes the work of art from its historical context and, except in the most general terms, denies it the role of historical document. The reasons for this lie at the roots of the modern discipline of art history in the 19th century. 1

From the beginning art history was permeated by the philosophies of Kant, Schiller, and Hegel. As Margaret Iverson explains:

These philosophies celebrated the formative activity of mind in shaping our experience, and conceived the view that works of art either embody a universal characteristic of mind, or bear traces of a particular stage of human spiritual development. This conception of the nature of art led to an interest in those aspects of art which transcend the merely literal. Not the object depicted, but the form or style of depiction was regarded as the mind's own contribution and, for that very reason, was thought to be the essentially artistic element. The way a thing is represented became the salient factor. 2

Both Heinrich Wolfflin and Alois Riegl (two "fathers" of art history) regarded stylistic or formal characteristics as the fundamental and essential elements of art, and, moreover, as constituting a system or structure by which they could impose a rational order on art. …

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