Problems in the Survey are Problems in American Art

by Alan Moore

After over a year of teaching a one semester western art survey course at a community college, I have come to some tentative conclusions about this business of teaching art history.

Where I've taught, art history is a `breadth' requirement. The course is a short-run exposure to a habit of thinking about things which are highly imprecise, and subject matter that is emotionally demanding. In teaching it we instill a kind of flexibility and adaptability to changing and indeterminate conditions. Art history also offers a relatively painless synoptic view of the high culture of a parade of societies.

This is a cursory description of the purposes of art history in the academy. But what is the utility of this study to society, to the citizens whose taxes pay for public education?

Chief among the benefits is learning to negotiate our `cultural government,' a political economy where forms and functions are promoted to us in aesthetic packages, units of representation and mythos. We must receive these bursts of highly formalized and encoded information clearly and respond appropriately in order to function successfully as social and economic beings.

I have aimed to give students some sense of this lineage of representation and myth as it is embodied in art, to dunk them quickly in the grand, deep, and long-running themes and fashions that inform our culture. To think of this complex lineage of visual culture is to think ultimately of ``what it means.'' And what it means, finally, may be simply an assertion of what is, of what has been at any given historical moment, and therefore, the inevitability, the naturalness of what is now. Art is affirming; it comprehensively ratifies our consensual understandings of reality -- and, appositely, transgresses these understandings in comprehensible manners.

This is the basis of a point of view, a set of lazing, leftist tropes. But what determines the routine, that is, what answers to the question of purpose in teaching art history in a community college? In the workaday classroom, this instruction is intended to improve reading, studying, and note-taking skills, and to drill the ability to take tests based on memorization for students who are not well prepared, but have elected to go to college to train for a better job. It is also intended to provide some historical consciousness about the techniques and purposes of visual imagery for those training for work in the design field.

The survey of western art is, to a great extent, a study of luxury: it is a survey of the habits and limits of the human capacity for pleasure, interest, and amusement when basic needs are fulfilled. Why have people strived? Just what is treasure, pleasure and wealth? In examining this question, we look at the possessions and houses of those who have held great power and wealth. We study the vistas and visions they favored, and so are schooled in some deeper mode of desire, ways of wanting, some vision of possible futures towards which to aspire. This study of the objects and modes of consumption supplements the life-long schooling in consumption given free to all in this society through commercial media. The study of art multiplies focal points of desire in a bourgeois democracy.

In addition to delivering perhaps unintentional lessons in aesthetic ideology, we are educating future consumers of museum services. In museums and historic houses, the treasures amassed by the wealthy repose on public view, given for tax advantage so that the heirs to fortunes may enjoy them in liquid form, and make their own choices in constituting luxury anew. Education in art history, then, sustains these institutions of high culture, and gains them an audience among the working and middle classes. That maintains a system of tax advantages that preserves great fortunes by assuring the assent of the educated among the governed.

These are general considerations and contradictions which complicate the position of the teacher of the survey in western art history. In the City University of New York, on the community college level in particular, the students are largely working class, and many are new to this country. My classes are made up mostly of people of color. Most art historians, like myself, are white and from the middle class. We are, in short, broadly privileged, and our discourse is elitist, that is, it speaks from and to that privilege as an a priori condition.

Facing my classes week after week and showing picture after picture of rich white people, was very problematic. The content of the survey of western art history was accreted during the era of nationalist colonialism, and it is determined by sexist, nationalist and racist biases. I don't believe my students see this intellectually, although some understand it in general terms. Most of them simply don't see themselves in most of the pictures I show them.

This problem is addressed only spottily in the textbooks we are given to use, as some few artists of color are introduced later on. I have paralleled this approach, using images of Africans and Native Americans as they begin to appear, without comment on the historical situations of these peoples, to discuss general aspects of style (e.g., Albrecht Dürer's drawing of a young African woman, various 18th century French portraits of Africans, and the Indian portraits of Hesselius, C.B. King, and Catlin).

It would be nice if the problems of historical inclusion were addressed programmatically, throughout the survey. But how should this be done? There are such tremendous absences and silences to be faced and overcome.

My ideal survey would deal directly with the cosmopolitanism of Egyptian society (following parts of Michael Wood's video series Legacy), Greek racism, and the questions around Martin Bernal's Black Athena. (This line would be rejoined in the 18th century with a discussion of Winckelmann's art history.) We would look at Rome as the prime example of empire, conquest and slavery; in the medieval period, closer attention would be paid to Islam.

The central historical fact of the late Renaissance is contact with the new world, yet it is nowhere reflected in the imagery we teach. It is present only in its absence. The wealth of the new world financed the art of the Counter Reformation. As the codices of the Aztecs were burned in South America, so artists in Europe codified personification in art; one pictographic system was destroyed as western art became richer and more convincing. This tentative and abstract historicizing competes poorly with the parade of titan artists this period produced. But there needs to be a way to speak about the Conquest and processes of colonialism in art historical terms, in terms of a culture that, as we are given it to tell, was blind to the big news of the time.

In discussing neoclassicism, the key period in American art, the survey privileges the French story of David and the revolution, Napoleon and romanticism. This art is indubitably compelling: its style is crystal clear, its psychological appeals are direct. But for some interior understanding of the dynamic of artistic style reflecting cultural fact, the classical example in America is more important for students here to grasp. I used Benjamin West, his early bald neoclassicism and subsequent history painting in plain dress (compared to Zoffany's portrait of Robert Townley among his Roman marbles) to discuss both the progression of the neoclassical style, and the historical realities that artistic recourse to an the example of an antecedent ancient Mediterranean culture covered up: that is, dispossession and slavery. Native Americans were being pushed off their lands, superseded by those who professed to admire their nobility and simplicity; just so had the Romans conquered the nude and noble Greeks.

Thomas Jefferson at first proclaimed, and the nation later made de jure, liberty and human rights. At the same time Jefferson and other revolutionary gentry owned slaves. As the Hemings DNA evidence published in late 1998 made clear, for all his neoclassical Deist rationalism, Jefferson located eros in property rights. These great contradictions of this nation's founding, which have baffled and dismayed many since, were resolved aesthetically through recourse to neoclassical form, continuous stylistic citation of ancient cultures where conquest and enslavement were basic parts of the social mission, regardless of whether the form of government was tyrant or republic.

These problems only gain momentum in the 19th century as an aesthetic ideology of racism and conquest is rationalized as science. By the time we speak of modernist primitivism the disconnection of survey art history from social reality is glaringly obvious.

Since this argument may be so easily seen as a tendentious call for an agenda-driven history of art, it is necessary to mention that all this brief recitation concerns historical facts and conditions well known to most educated persons, yet omitted from the standard textbooks I know, even those that treat of world art. The survey is an opportunity to speak to our heterogeneous student body about the great unresolved crises of the American century, racism and imperialism, as they are embodied in images which have come to seem entirely natural and properly expressive to a white American majority.

A history of objects is necessarily conservative; we agree these things matter, they must be preserved, and their significance likewise seems fixed. It requires continuous effort to put the boulders of the canon, stuck in the mud of survey, into motion. The spectacle of art masquerades as a sort of synesthetic proxy for high culture generally. The study of art promotes an illusion of a kind of comprehensive ``understanding'' of historical periods which is even more acute in this optical age where the ubiquitous commercial `pitch' has riven swift channels through our reason and feelings to our centers of assent.

The problem is to unveil this costume drama. Seeing art -- and beyond that all the visual representations which art most richly and completely models -- should be a conscious process, still rich with ineffable pleasure, still a vehicle of transport, but less competent to surbornation to deceive us.

Yet the discourse of the art historian tends toward the architectural. It will be as difficult to build for the student a historical understanding that will challenge itself as it is to build a house that fulfills its function, yet regularly collapses of itself. (Peter Eisenmann's architecture might be an image of this.) Finally, art is itself. It explains nothing, it stands for nothing. As a historian of art, I feel it is my duty to engender a certain level of confusion in my students, and a Brechtian mistrust of the very illusion which is western art's principle achievement. If this proves intellectually productive, it will prod them finally to set all historical explanation aside (since, after all, it is inadequate to art), and see for themselves.