The Good Book:
Choosing a Text for the Introductory Art History Survey Course

by Daniel Cornell

Ever since you passed the comprehensive exam, you've been applying to teach an introductory art history survey somewhere, anywhere. Finally the word comes that you've landed an adjunct position to do just that. However, before heading off for a celebration of margaritas at Mary Anne's, you suddenly realize that the thought of actually teaching from Jansen, Gardner, Hartt, or even so-called multicultural texts such as Stokstad, brings only memories of the tortured reading sessions during your exam preparation. What to do? The book store wants your textbook order yesterday. You ask yourself: will your students really read these canonical texts? Better yet, do you want to subject yourself to reading any of them again?

For those faced with a decision about introductory texts, I offer a narrative of my own recent experience teaching the survey as a template that you can hold up to examine your own assumptions when choosing a text. At the outset, however, I want to point out that this is not meant to be an objective review essay. Two recent articles in Art Journal have done that job with a considerable degree of fairness and acumen. I recommend them whether or not you've settled on a text (or even if you're an old hand at it) because both essays articulate a cogent argument for why the standard survey books produce nausea in the initiate, bewilderment in the neophyte, and nearly universal boredom. They are: Mark Miller Graham’s review essay in Art Journal, 55 (Summer 1996): 99-102: and Mitchell Schwarzer’s essay, also in Art Journal,54 (Fall 1995): 24-29.

To begin my narrative, I want to start with a personal history. Several years ago when I was doing extensive research in the field of writing competency, composition was one of the new fertile grounds in pedagogical research and the literature was packed with methodological studies. Debates raged furiously over classical rhetoric versus the new romanticism, reader-oriented versus writer-based modes, writing based in formal exigencies versus problem solving, to mention the most prominent among a host of strategies. To my mind all the participants in the debate seemed to have a point, but I did not see how I could model myself on all of them at once. In the midst of all this theory someone thought to inquire what method was most commonly used on those students who showed marked improvement on assessment tests and at the same time consistently rated their teachers highest.

The results were conclusive and at the same time did nothing to calm the debates. Apparently it made absolutely no difference at all which theoretical model or method a teacher used: the most successful teachers were simply those who believed wholeheartedly in their method and carried their commitment into the classroom with an evangelical fervor. In other words learning was less a matter of the right and wrong method and more a matter of engagement. Not only was this a revelation to me, but it also made me take stock of just exactly what my own commitments were. At that moment teaching ceased to be a job and became a passion, one that has honed my identity and become the whetstone of my intellectual inquiry. The lesson for all teachers of any subject seems clear to me: believe in what you're doing and the passion of that belief will translate into an irresistible enthusiasm. I've based all my classes on that principle ever since.

Which brings me to my commitments when it comes to choosing a text for the survey course. Those looking for a textbook recommendation may want to turn back to the review essays in Art Journal now. Rather, what I propose here is a set of recommendations to help you in thinking through the process of selecting a survey textbook in a way that will be the occasion for your own situational commitments to emerge. In other words, I offer a description of the selection process that reveals the assumptions elided by more traditional reviews and proposes an alternative pedagogical model to that embedded in the survey text itself. As an aside, it will be obvious that my considerations are grounded in the notion of representation as constituted by a web of cultural discourses. However, I am convinced that whatever convictions are held by specific readers of this essay, they will generate their own set of priorities.

First, and this is primary for me, the text must be full of images about which I want, or even more to the point, desire, to talk. Remember, you will be lecturing (and/or discussing depending on the size of the class) for 40-45 hours over the course of the term. If the images are compelling, you'll have plenty to say. In addition, your students will spot duty over enthusiasm with breathtaking swiftness. What's more, if you have something at stake in the images you discuss, you will be more interested in what your students have to say, something else their radar picks up infallibly.

Second, choose a text that includes images you find perplexing. In my lectures, I have increasingly included images that intrigued me but that I did not feel as if I had “figured out.” The process of discovery that is acted out in front of students creates a much livelier dynamic than pronouncements of certainty, no matter how time-honored they may be. Third, make sure that it is a text your students will be willing to pick up and carry from their desks. A book that is too heavy to carry is a book that will not be read. (Remember also that you will probably have to schlep your text to and from where ever you are teaching.) In addition, the visual pleasure of the images will be increased if they are available for your students to peruse during odd moments of leisure time. There’s also a greater likelihood your students will bring their texts to class if it is manageable, an important consideration for me given my interest in exploring the historical narrative that structures the images into the text itself. I will take up this point in more detail as a final consideration.

Fourth, instead of expecting, demanding, or even cajoling your students to read the dense yet diaphanous tissue of discourses that inevitably form the pastiche of most survey discussions, use the book to teach them how it can function as a reference tool. Art is about sensory pleasure, the power of desires, even money and status, but above all it is about an experience of recognition and discovery in the face of artistic creativity. Survey books, by definition, are about information, an extremely diminished form of experience. Allow yourself to choose a book that can be a source of information rather than an end in itself. Students are impoverished rather than enriched if made to master the textbook but never moved to experience the art objects themselves.

Last, remember that the supplement is a powerful tool in the creation of any interpretive frame, which is what authors of the survey attempt to provide for students. An anecdote to illustrate: my first semester teaching the survey I was a discussion leader for several small groups from a large lecture. As a result, the text was chosen for us, and I found myself rereading Hartt’s single volume survey, one of the books toward which I had developed a decided animosity while studying for my comprehensive exam. Although my initial response was dread, I discovered that I could engage my students in the assumptions underlying the narrative threads that Hartt uses to weave art works into his tapestry of humanitarian progress, individualism, and spiritual triumph. It became possible to suggest alternative narrative histories to the one structuring Hartt’s text and to discuss how the narrative itself functions in his choice of specific works. This may sound like heady stuff for students just struggling to become visually literate. On the other hand, it demonstrates to them that authority is invested in beliefs and commitments, which means that they can have an opinion too -- an even headier idea and one that will enliven your discussion once they start asking themselves “why” they have interpreted a particular work as they have.

My hope is that I have given you a way to think about choosing an art history survey book that will liberate you to pursue your own commitments and empower your students at the same time. Good luck and remember the studies that demonstrated it is a passionate belief in one's method that delivers the best results. (You'll note I have avoided imposing my own textbook choices.) May the only nausea you feel be from the quantity of margaritas at the celebration of your first paycheck and not from the trauma of choosing your textbook.