Parallel Art History/studio Program

By Elkins, James | Art Journal, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Parallel Art History/studio Program


Elkins, James, Art Journal


This brief paper concerns a new program that is being implemented at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. When it is in place (and the plan is to begin with a pilot program in fall 1996), it will be the world's first freestanding, degree-granting curriculum that combines studio practice and art history within each class. (Most universities offer a few low-level classes that mix studio art and art history, and a few offer degrees that involve mixing and matching studio and art history courses, but none offer a degree composed entirely of integrated studio and art history courses.)

There are only two essential principles in these Parallel Art History/Studio courses: first, that each class should involve the immediate application of historical ideas to studio practice, and second, that the classes should not be arranged by period, artist, or style, as in conventional art history, but by theme or problem. Both of these requirements are meant to facilitate the use of historical material by artists because the problems that occupy working artists are rarely constrained by period.

An artist may be interested in storm scenes, but she will probably not be interested only in the storm scenes she may see in a course on Renaissance art or in drawings by Leonardo da Vinci; it's more likely that she will want to know the history of representations of deluges, earthquakes, floods, and cataclysms through the entire history of art in all cultures. For that reason a course on Renaissance art, where she would normally have to go to find out about Leonardo's storm scenes, would have only limited use--or to put it another way, she would be listening only a small fraction of the time. This, I think, is the general case with artists: they take art history courses, but what they take away with them is unpredictable and generally minute. In a Parallel Art History/Studio course on chaotic landscapes (or on disordered pictures in general, which is one of a series of pilot courses that have been taught), the morning might be occupied with the presentation of all the relevant scholarship about sixteenth-century scenes of the flood, or of creation, including as many historically grounded terms and examples as possible, and then in the afternoon the students would move into the studio and see if any of those terms and images were applicable to their work.

From the viewpoint of the art history student, the thematic courses have the virtue of exposing the large themes out of which disciplinary art history is built (some examples are "Figure and Ground," "Pictorial Space," "Time," "The Concept of Drawing," "Contrapposto," "Chiaroscuro," and for higher-level courses, "Narrative and Ideology," "Transcendence and the Sublime," and "The Limits of Ambiguity"). It is nothing less than amazing to me that there is no book titled Figure and Ground, Narrative Art, or Ambiguity in Visual Art, and that the few books we have on light, color, and drawing are generally limited to certain periods or told from a standpoint more allied to psychology, practical studio tips, or art education than art history. The art history students in the Parallel classes are not expected to show any skill, but they are meant to think continuously about the connections between their experiences holding pencils or burins and the corpus of art historical literature.

We have developed an outline program for the undergraduate concentration and a four-year B.A. in Parallel Art History/Studio, and I would contend that the sum total of the courses would cover ground equivalent to an undergraduate degree in art history. Ideally, students could elect to receive B.A. degrees in art history or studio art, and theoretically the program could be extended to the M.A. and Ph.D. levels.

There is much more that could be said about the program, its raison d'etre, the specific course titles, their arrangement into lower and higher levels, and the issue of course configurations (for example, classes can be all-day studio classes, with ten-minute historical lectures on specific topics related to particular students' concerns, or they can be two-hour lectures followed by one-hour drawing, painting, or sculpting sessions). …

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