"From Giotto to Jesse"

By Condon, Patricia | Art Journal, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

"From Giotto to Jesse"


Condon, Patricia, Art Journal


It seems to me that the handicap of the available textbooks (even the newest) is their objective, dispassionate tone, as if all works were equally interesting (or uninteresting), important only as they further a too neat narrative. Once an artist is superficially discussed, he/she rarely reappears. Because of the infinitely large numbers of artists surveyed, there is no time to go into detail with any. A text's format usually favors sweeping generalizations and avoids confusing detail. History is made to appear as an absolute, closed set of sequences that can be memorized. Artists' careers and lives are trimmed or sanitized with an eye to something considered more important, historical development. It's like clarifying the broth for a chicken soup. Some (maybe quite a few) students like such nourishment, perhaps because they are so familiar with it.

There is another type of student who wants to "engage" deeply with whatever they are learning, wants learning to be passionate, personal, varied in its presentation, and subjective. They would rather learn a subject in terms of its complexity and relationships, synthesizing and integrating it into what they already know. This dichotomy in learning approaches is, of course, at the heart of the educational psychology research on "left brain/right brain." Most art history is written from the "left brain" by historians about a subject that is gloriously "right brain." If art history can instead become an ambidextrous study of the creative artistic personality in its varied manifestations across historical time, it would be,

think a better discipline. Such an approach would allow each reader to seek within art history clues to their own creativity, to see in the personalities and working habits, in the interpersonal relationships, and in the historical and art historical influences of a selection of artists some indication of how humans like themselves have responded to and coped with the social, economic, and personal circumstances of their lives.

After more than five years of trying different approaches to beat the problems inherent in teaching introductory surveys (the most extreme being the semester I taught it in reverse chronological order), I have recently adopted an approach that I believe is both conducive to my principles and effective from the point of view of enjoyment and retention. This has meant structuring the semester as a series of topically focused lectures on particular aspects of the chronological unit under consideration. I think of these as the type of talk I might have given a museum audience on a Sunday afternoon: entertaining, scholarly, and personal. I make no attempt at a global or universal perspective. I treat the material from an engaged position, one that I identify as such. Although I discuss broad issues, I make no attempt at survey coverage, preferring instead an in-depth treatment of a particular facet of it.

The level of information is sophisticated, closer to what might otherwise be discussed at the intermediate or seminar level. It is my conviction that students are more apt to retain those things they know the most about. I discuss primary material and recently published secondary sources. I assign outside readings from these sources to stimulate class discussion--even in the large (sixty-student) classes where my style combines the presentation skills of a multimedia performance lecture with the question-and-answer flow of the Oprah Winfrey show. Students seem to like the casual atmosphere and their nonpassive role. From the right side of the brain, so to speak, I focus, as an artist might, on "what matters to me in all of this?" I include the "shock" of Karen Finley's performances, the legal controversies surrounding the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition's X Portfolio pornography trials in nearby Cincinnati, and Jesse Helms's and Newt Gingrich's attacks on public support for the arts through the NEA and NEH. I use today's popular culture to illustrate my points from the Renaissance forward; for instance, I compare such celebrities as Madonna and Michael Jackson not only to the "celebrity" artist par excellence, Andy Warhol, but to Lorenzo Ghiberti, when I discuss his self-portrait and autobiography.

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