Saturday, December 17, 2011

Art/History

This semester for this first time I allowed students in my seminar (on the Virgin Mary in Medieval Art and Culture) to choose to make a work of art as the final outcome of their research projects, instead of requiring them all to write papers.  This is my favorite of the pieces that they made.

To talk through it a bit: it was made on a mirror because it's about images of women in contrast to women's own self-images.  It represents St. Anne, the Virgin, and the Christ Child (although one of the problems with the piece is that it was supposed to center on imagery from books of hours, as patriarchal imagery projected at a female audience, but the real source images here are paintings by Durer and Leonardo da Vinci).  In one of my favorite touches, the images are actually made up of bits of advertisements cut from magazines: the Virgin's blue mantle is made mostly from tampon and sanitary napkin ads!   The idea is to liken the roles of book of hours imagery and the Virgin in medieval culture to that of advertisements and models in our own (although another problem is that it would be hard to tell that's the source of the material if I didn't tell you or the student hadn't told me.  She did include some of the text of the ads in a few places, but its hard to find).  Mary is meant to look a bit skeletal, in reference the "holy anorexia" idea.  Finally, the text on the mirror is from Mechthild of Magdeburg and is meant to refer to mysticism as a potential place for medieval women's self- production.  Its not 100% successful, there is probably too much going on for it to be entirely successful, but I still like the ideas and find it visually compelling.

And its the work of an art history major.

This is interesting to me because when I decided to allow this option in my seminar, I was really thinking about the studio art majors in the class.  Up until now, our studio majors have been required to take an art history seminar and that has been a real problem in my opinion.  It's been a problem for them: they had to take, and pass, this course that most of them didn't have the background, the skills, or the interest to be successful in.  And its been a problem for the art history majors, MA students, and professors as well: the level of our work has been brought down by the presence of unprepared and unmotivated students.  I fought to have this requirement changed and was successful; now the studio majors only have to take a 300 or 400-level art history course.  But I decided to allow the creative project in this Fall's seminar, at least in part, to provide a way out for studio students, to allow them to do something they would be more prepared and more motivated to do.

When I introduced the options for the project, however, I didn't say that studio majors were to do the creative project and art history majors were to write papers.  I let them chose for themselves.  Only 5 of 15 students chose to do the creative option, 2 of them were art history majors and the 3rd might as well be since she is well prepared and academically motivated (I may try to convert her), and 6 studio majors chose to write papers.

This has me thinking about the relationship between studio art and art history, in particular within my department.  Because where the outcome of this project suggests that our students don't see a strong line dividing the two - so art history students chose to make art and studio majors to write papers - the faculty do seem divided to me.  I'm in an art department, not an art history, or even art and art history department.  But its a department that clearly falls into three - or maybe now 4 - parts: art history, art education, studio art, and probably graphic design should be recognized separately as well.  But that's largely because our studio area is so fragmented, or at least it seems so to me: each studio faculty member is his/her own area, with a separate "concentration" within the major, an independent sequence of classes, and a discrete space both in our old and in our new buildings.  I was not really surprised that when our administration, looking to be more efficient, looked at our studio program, they didn't see one big program with many students in many different classes, but saw a half-dozen tiny little programs - some of them perhaps unsustainably small.  We as a faculty need to find more ways of tying the department together if we are going to survive.

So this piece, while not entirely successful, suggests to me that we need to learn from our students.  Learn to see art making and art history in a closer relationship to one another.  To recognize creative work as another potential outcome for art historical research - and to see research as another potential resource for art making.  


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