John Lobell addresses how new technology changes our consciousness, which in turn leads to cultural paradigm shifts. He received his degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and is a professor of architecture at Pratt Institute. His interests include creativity, architecture, cultural theory, consciousness, mythology, and movies. He has lectured throughout the world and is the author of numerous articles and several books.
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20th February 2014

Why The Liberal Arts

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Recently the President made a remark critical of art history education, like you might get a better job in manufacturing.

So then critics piled on. Hey, the teaching of liberal arts is a massive industry that receives massive federal subsidies. Go gore somebody else’s ox.

People speak up for the study of art history in particular, and the liberal arts in general, but few say why we should study these things.  Indeed, the liberal arts are under question in American education, and the defenses of it I have found over the past few years say little that is meaningful.

So here is an explanation of what an art history education should provide. This explanation is a model of what I expect from other defenses of the liberation arts, but I am not holding my breath.

IN DEFENSE OF ART HISTORY

First note that I use the term “art history” here as an abbreviation for the history and theory of art, architecture, design, and popular visual culture.  Likewise I use the terms “art” and “the arts” to refer to art, architecture, design, and popular visual culture.

WHO WE ARE

In order to discuss education, we have to know what it serves.  Its propose might be to acculturate one into one’s culture.  Or its purpose might be to aid one in identifying one’s identity and aspirations, and providing the means to manifest that identity and fulfill those aspirations.  (Of course there are other possible purposes.)  My choice is the latter, although the former also plays a role.  So, who are we?  We are, in Western culture, I contend:

1. Individuals. To become an individual, one must identify one’s identity and one’s aspirations.

2. Historically layered. We are not just material creatures that come into being at a moment in time, but also historical creatures built over time in layers, and we contain those layers, like an onion.

3.  In culture.  Our historical depths are more than we, individually, can contain, and much of our selves is in our culture.  Here we might use a computer analogy:  A computer holds as much as it can of what it needs in its memory, but memory is limited.  More of what it needs is in its hard disk, but that too is limited.  Much more is in “the cloud,” which it can dip into as needed. In other words, we “store” vast parts of ourselves in books, paintings, movies, etc.

So, there is a brief look at who we are.  How does the study of art history serve this?

THE SCIENCES

There are disciplines that work contemporaneously, mainly the sciences, and those that work historically, mainly the arts.  In physics, engineering, medicine, etc., practitioners do not care about the past.  Historians and theorists of physics, engineering, medicine, etc. do, but not practitioners, who care only about the current state of knowledge—what is known to work now.

But artists always work within traditions and then seek to extend them, respond to them, or negate them.  So history is fundamental to the arts.  Artists position their work in historical contexts, respond to the past, push into the future.  They swim in seas of the traditions of their own culture and of other cultures.  Works of art are always within the culture of art.  To paraphrase Bloom, there are no works of art, only relationships between works of art.

Picasso saw his early Cubism (and we understand his early Cubism) as growing out of Cezanne, who was responding to the Impressionists, who were inspired by Manet, who was reacting against the academy.  Similarly in architecture we say that Mies incorporates Wright’s open plan and Schinkel’s neoclassicism; Saarinen in his TWA building rejects Mies; and Gehry in the Bilbao reaches back over the proceeding four decades and relates his building to TWA while only passingly in dialogue with Eisenman.  Art is always in historical contexts.

Thus art embodies our historically layered human nature.

THE ROLE OF ART HISTORY IN EDUCATION

Thus the traditional art history survey of world cultures is fundamental to education in an art school, but I would argue that it is fundamental to any education.  The art history survey is necessarily brief, but it provides a framework for later in-depth explorations that students might undertake in school and on their own.

An art history survey does the following, among other things:

1. Provides a rich survey of history and cultural, outlining and contextualizing major cultural developments

2. Provides a model for critical thinking in showing how art of a period can be a criticism of previous periods, and enhances the student’s ability for critical thought

3. Provides contexts in support of studio art and of life in the world

4. Provides a context for students to develop an understanding of themselves

Below I present some all-too-brief development of the above:

1. PROVIDES A RICH SURVEY OF HISTORY AND CULTURAL, OUTLINING AND CONTEXTUALIZING MAJOR CULTURAL DEVELOPMENTS

The art history survey presents an overview of history and culture.  In addition it looks in depth at such issues as notions of what it means to be human.

For example, the art history survey addresses major cultural changes in the West, looking at:

  • The rational Humanism of the Renaissance
  • The emotional depth of the Baroque
  • The Sublime of Romanticism, showing that nature and the human psyche transcend rationalism
  • The scientific world-view of Impressionism and Post Impressionism
  • The exploration of the unconsciousness in Surrealism
  • The questioning of art and culture in Dada

(Note: Of course one can discuss non-Western cultures in similar ways.)

All of which helps students access their inner onion layers.

In each case, the survey looks at the arts in historical and cultural context.  For example in the case of the Baroque, art history addresses:

  • The Reformation and Counter Reformation
  • The elaboration of the understanding of the emotions
  • Developments in science and astronomy, including Kepler’s elliptical planetary orbits, showing that the “heavens” were not a separate metaphysical realm.
  • Stylistic dynamics, from archaic to classical to mannerist to baroque

2. PROVIDES A MODEL FOR CRITICAL THINKING IN SHOWING HOW ART OF A PERIOD CAN BE A CRITICISM OF PREVIOUS PERIODS, AND ENHANCES THE STUDENT’S ABILITY FOR CRITICAL THOUGHT

Art and art history/theory are continually self-critical, so for example we can see Cubism as a commentary of previous perspectival and therefore human centered modes of representation, and the Marxist and feminist criticism of the 70s as a rejection of Clement Greenberg’s formalism of the 60s.  In being exposed to such developments, students can learn how to develop their own critical approaches.

The historical approach to criticism enhances a student’s power to exercise independent critical thought, as it provides backgrounds for understanding where various approaches come from, thus providing a deeper basis for students to accept, reject, or build on positions being presented to them.

3. PROVIDES CONTEXTS IN SUPPORT OF STUDIO ART AND OF LIFE IN THE WORLD

Art is always in context.  Life is always in context.  A studio critic has to be able to say things like:

“That is an austere, classical approach.”

“That is a rich baroque approach.”

“You have a choice of focusing on the object in itself as in neoclassicism, on the light coming off of it as in Impressionism, on how we process visual data as in Cezanne, or on how art is art as in Duchamp.”

None of these remakes will make sense to a student who is not familiar with the periods, works, or figures being referred to.

4. PROVIDES A CONTEXT FOR STUDENTS TO DEVELOP UNDERSTANDINGS OF THEMSELVES

A person cannot engage meaningfully in life without this kind of context.

OPENNESS TO CHANGE

There can be many approaches to the teaching art history.  All of us have experienced changes in the field since we were students.  Openness to change keeps art history relevant.

THE LIBERAL ARTS

Again, I am surprised at how little explanation I have seen for what the liberal arts should actually do.  Much of what I see seems to imply that we should teach the liberal arts in order to train teachers of the liberal arts and to provide jobs for those with PhDs in the liberal arts.

Given the importance of education I am surprised by the utter blather I find in documents from universities, commissions, and the government.  And when something is written that actually says something, it is vilified.  Two of my favorites are:

• Paul Copperman’s 1978 “The Literacy Hoax,” in which he describes primary literacy: the ability to read; secondary literacy: familiarity with the record of one’s culture; and tertiary literacy: the ability to apply the first two in one’s life.  How clear is that!

• David Denby’s 1997 “Great Books,” about his return to Columbia to re-enrolled in the core courses on Western civilization that he had taken thirty years earlier. The book received wide praise in the general press, but was approached with suspicion in academia and hostility in my discussions with my colleagues at Pratt.

If anyone can recommend any intelligent presentations of why we should study the liberal arts, let me know.

 

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