Art History as a General Education Requirement

Few high schools teach art history, and when they do, the course is often an AP Art History course, designed for rigorous study. Solely teaching AP Art History excludes the majority of students in most schools who may not have good enough GPAs or other requirements necessary to engage in AP study. Art history is not even a solid general education requirement in California for colleges – students are able to choose between art history, fine art courses, and humanities courses. I understand the desire to give students a choice, but art history’s influence is so broad that I feel it should be a general education requirement in high schools and colleges, in addition to the general arts/humanities requirement. Why are exposure to art history and the teaching of art history courses so limited? The answer lies in two parts. The first is that the relevance, importance, and widespread influence of art history is not understood by educators, let alone students. The second is that there is a lack of trained high school teachers, and that people with advanced art history degrees often use their degrees in a museum-oriented capacity, rather than educational one. (Whether this is by choice or by force will not be discussed. I will mention that, when looking through job openings, there seems to be more educational and museum openings in the Midwest and on the East coast than on the West coast.)

You might be thinking that in art history, one only studies old paintings that lack perspective, appear flat and dull, lack excitement on canvas, and, well, how could students possibly be interested in and gain from that? This is only partially true. Studying the “boring” art, introduced and explored in introductory art history courses (and often discussed in detail in upper divisions), is necessary to understand how “exciting” art (and the word ‘exciting’ truly applies to any art that any person finds exciting) came to be. Without Giotto and Masaccio, for instance, perspective in painting would not have been developed (so soon). There is a lot of philosophy and, believe it or not, math behind seemingly “boring” art, which lends itself to the study of world history, philosophy, and geometry. Introductory art history courses have value in their broad, interdisciplinary explorations of world art, cultures, and religions. (For an in-depth look at what art history is, see this post.)

Luckily, for those high school and college students who would resist art history, there is something for every one. If you think dead cats are art, there is an artist (who recently exhibited in Paris) that puts dead cats on display. If you think paint splatters are art, you should and would, in any introductory art history course, learn about Jackson Pollock. If you’re interested in cave paintings and ancient, anthropological forms of art, you’re in luck: such art is among the first to be taught in most art historical introductory courses. Graffiti as art? Some people think so and will tell their students so! These are only examples. There are hundreds of ‘isms’ (subfields of study) for students to explore, and each of those subfields requires thinking on an art-historical, interdisciplinary, broad level.

I’ll let you in on a secret: although it is often perceived as boring and just a bunch of people sitting in a dark room listening to their teacher ramble for a few hours each day, art history is actually a fun, non-intrusive way to study art, world history, religious history, and other fields. It can also, if the instructor so chooses, be a very simple, non-intensive form of studying such fields. The very basics of art history involve merely observing – just having one’s students look at an artwork and write about what they see: the materials used, the piece’s geometry, the overall organization of the piece. This is called formalism. Once a student does this, the next step is to look again, and discuss other visibilities: people, emotions, actions, things, places, buildings, and so on. An instructor can use mere student observation, which generally but not always requires little effort on the part of both parties, to introduce the wider spectrum of concepts involved in the creation of art: history, ideals contemporary with art, laws and ideologies, and many other areas of exploration.

Having students write a formal analysis of an art piece is an excellent introduction to more complex forms of analyses, which are often taught in upper division art history courses and perhaps briefly introduced in lower division courses and high schools. The foundation for complex analyses (such as psychoanalysis and semiotics) are actually other fields of study, such as Freudian thought, linguistics, logic, English/essay structure, which furthers the interdisciplinary nature of art history. If an art history instructor neglects to inform their students about at least the basics of these other fields, the student will not be able to satisfactorily – or perhaps ‘properly’ – analyze art on an advanced basis.

Because art history involves other fields of study, it is perhaps one of the wisest general education choices available. High schools should take note of art history’s cyclical value to their students: As the ‘product’ of an AP Art History course, I can testify that my study in art history began to positively impact all my other coursework. To understate, I became a better critical thinker, a better writer, and a better overall student. My test scores in math (a difficult subject for me) increased. My essays for English, already ‘A’s, were suddenly being marked ‘Excellent’ and being saved for future classes. Why? Not because I’m naturally smart and just randomly began to be a better student and suddenly after years of failing, understood math. I still don’t understand math. But the reasoning, analytic, and concentration skills that art history provided me served me in every area of study.

When I got to UCLA and began taking university-level courses, the quality of my thought and papers skyrocketed. Much was demanded of me intellectually, and thankfully, my mind was quick and able to rise to the challenge of answering questions such as the one presented to me in my first upper division art history course by legendary art historian Albert Boime, wondering how and why we track art historical movements the way that we do. What are a group of 20-somethings supposed to say to such a question, and how can the greats of the field demand answers? Because their students are not just any students. With upper division art history should (but not always) come the expectation that students are willing and able to think critically and abstractly. Such skills would be – I hope – well developed by upperclassmen years if an introductory art history course was a mandatory course for all high school and community college students.

To develop analytical and critical thinking skills early on in students, it is imperative that high school teachers teaching art history present the subject in a fun, well-thought out manner while still maintaining academic rigor and keeping the interest of the class. My AP Art History teacher achieved this by having us turn in one “Style Sheet” daily. He gave us five artists for the week and we had to make charts outlining their style and iconography. He’d mix up the artists enough to where there was something close enough for everyone’s interest (it was a small class, and interest was easily discerned – for a large class, I would suggest taking a survey). He would expose us to art outside of the curriculum just because he thought it was interesting – performance art, post-modern “feminist” art, street art. Each of these had to be examined with the same level of analysis that one would use for, say, Bernini or Dali. All art was embedded in history, through the use of primary texts, film, and interesting details and interpretations (e.g., teaching us in depth about iconoclasm or unconventional interpretations of a work.) In this way, he stretched our critical thinking skills, showed art that different people in the class liked (and others didn’t), and made the point that many things are considered ‘art’ by art history, whether you like it or not, and, in some way, they are all a product of earlier art histories, of earlier thought.

To fully understand art, one must understand history. The abandonment of history in art history courses will be the downfall of the field at all levels. Reform and recognition of art history’s importance begins with teachers. Art history teachers at all levels should put the “history” back in “art history” by teaching the laws and ideologies in force during the time of an artwork’s creation. Whenever possible, primary sources should be used: these often contain wonderful language and insight into past times, contemporary perspectives on art/artists, and “rules” regarding the creation of art in certain times. Biographies of artists and their patrons can be useful, too, to further interest in art as a “thing” created by a person who was human just as you and I are. History tells us for what specific purpose an artwork was made, for whom, and under what guidelines. Draw observations and analyses from contemporary and current scholars in history, religion, and politics. Find ways to creatively and accurately represent and teach the study of art.

Hopefully, teaching methods and course curricula that utilize an interdisciplinary approach will lend evidence to the value of art history as a required general education course, and will encourage educators to institute the subject in their schools. More publicity about the field, its value, and teaching methods is needed to raise public and academic awareness of the many merits that come from studying art history. I hope that this blog, which is but a small piece of art history content on the web, can assist.