The Making of History of Art 15

By Alpers, Svetlana | Art Journal, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

The Making of History of Art 15

Alpers, Svetlana, Art Journal

This report on a revised introductory course at Berkeley is being written after the course was offered for the first time. It is still, in other words, provisional. But since to be provisional is part of our intention, perhaps this is as good a moment as any to go public. This report, then, is not intended as announcing a program and certainly not as proposing a model for others to follow. For while some of the problems we have addressed might be widespread, the solution is ad hoc and site specific. And it is provisional.

For some time there have been three introductory courses at Berkeley: the beginning of art (variously defined) to Giotto, and Giotto to Picasso each had a semester, with a separate semester given to the arts of Asia. The first and the last have continued; it is the middle term that has given way.

The need for change was overdetermined. Pressures of funding and intellectual pressures accumulated and together contributed to the result. With two professors (for some years Carol Armstrong and me) dividing the lectures of a long Berkeley term (fifteen weeks, or close to thirty eighty-minute lectures), and five to six graduate-student instructors teaching sections, the old Giotto to Picasso course had been expensive to staff. The university judged it an uneconomical use of professorial time, while members of the department wanted to free graduate instructors for other courses. Meanwhile the history of art defined as Giotto to Picasso increasingly seemed less central to the disciplinary enterprise. A sign had been the wild growth of H. W. Janson's History of Art as new venues and new groups jostled for space in a veritable world history of art. Could the much-disputed core text continue to survive simply because it supplied names, dates, and convenient take-home pictures for our students?

Various proposals were entertained--a thematic approach, perhaps? But it appealed to many of the faculty to try to put something together as a group, without a chronological organization, without a precise notion of coverage, and with the addition of lectures by a number of willing and interested outsiders--a historian perhaps, but also an anthropological archaeologist, a psychologist of perception, a practicing artist, a museum curator, a philosopher. What would hold the course together would be a group of nine to ten core works of art, European and American, but also Asian, which remained to be chosen. Each work was to be presented in a (1 lecture, but all would be taken up from different points of view by the members of the departmental staff in the two to three lectures each was expected to give. A dossier-a photograph and a catalogue entry or its equivalent of each work--was to be assembled for each student, with some works, when possible, established instead by the purchase of an affordable book with good plates. These, together with museum visits, would take the place of Janson photographs. It was decided to forego a textbook. A photocopied reader was to be put together with essays/articles of relevance to the works or of some general interest. The lecturers from outside the field were invited to make a cameo appearance taking up anything they wished from their own work that had some bearing on thinking about or looking at works of art. The purpose was to produce alternative ways of looking.

The scheme has the virtue of flexibility. It draws on the resident art history staff in any year and does not depend on the presence of a particular faculty member. It is also economical. Only one professor (a job I agreed to do for the first year) is necessary to schedule and coordinate the approximately eight internal and six external lecturers who offer their services without compensation. In order to trim down the number of graduate-student instructors employed, we decided to ask two to three students to spend their time reading and commenting on six short papers rather than using the normal five to six to prepare and to teach weekly discussion meetings with time to correct fewer papers. …

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