Monday, July 7, 2014

The Fig Leaf of Cognitive Training: Navigating Our Mediated World by Conforming to Contemporaneity

In response to “The Crisis in Art History,” which I cited in my previous post, Amy K. Hamlin and Karen J. Leader, in “Art History That! A Manifesto for the Future of a Discipline,” characterize art historians as having “Highly developed visual discernment, a deep knowledge of history, [and] a nuanced understanding of cultural heritage.” They assert, “we need art historians because they are equipped to teach the skills urgently required by twenty-first century citizens to navigate the complexities of a visually driven information age.” The last point, that the study of art history is vital to navigate our mediated world, is related to the rationale I heard in my old department: that art history, unique among college offerings, uniquely offers an irreplaceable training in visual analysis. Any criticism of the curriculum, pedagogy, or methodologies currently trending in art history, for Hamlin and Leader, are attacks on the humanistic development of critical cognitive faculties; the real problem, as they see it, is rather the exorbitant expense acquiring a college education. [1]

This is a disingenuous argument for two reasons. First, while art historians are equipped to teach some of the skills required for citizenship in the twenty-first century, they are neither uniquely equipped or even the first choice for doing so. If we seriously want to prepare individuals to navigate modern visual media, if not inoculate them to the more subtle forms of visual manipulation deployed by advertising, political campaigns, and visceral entertainment, what is called for would be a practical and theoretical course in film editing and theory, and it would be mandatory in every undergraduate curriculum.

For starters, the Odessa Steps sequence from The Battleship Potemkin would be analyzed frame by frame (preferably in an old Moviola), and students would have the opportunity to edit their own footage (and tell their own truths or fabrications) in Adobe Premiere. The theoretical writings of Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein would be read and debated (preferably vehemently, in a café), and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, one of the most brilliantly edited movies I can think of, would be dissected for its fluid technical mastery and somewhat crude cultural and ideological assumptions. Static images would be studied as well, particularly in their juxtaposition as storyboards or comic strips. (I am, of course, describing my own early training in the study of comic book storytelling, except that I viewed the Odessa Steps on an 8mm film viewer, and spliced together a few shots together on 16mm with pieces of adhesive tape, the old fashioned way.) Still life and figure drawing would be optional but strongly encouraged, as well as basics of photography (composition, lighting).

To this course of study, art history could perhaps be offered as an ancillary curriculum for those wishing to explore the ways in which manual images were made prior to the advent and inexorable conquest of photography and cinematography over the past 175 years, as well as studio courses for those wishing to master manual image making (figurative drawing, painting, sculpture) for themselves (filmmakers such as Eisenstein and Fellini, and art theorists such as Meyer Schapiro were all skillful and gifted artists in their own right, practices that informed their work).

Donald Simpson (American, b. 1961), Light Up! (With Apologies to Tony Smith), 1979. Photo-mechanical transfer on photo paper from found clip art, 8 1/2" x 11". Collection of the artist. © Donald Simpson, all rights reserved.

To another of Hamlin and Leader’s points, that art historians having a “Highly developed visual discernment, a deep knowledge of history, [and] a nuanced understanding of cultural heritage,” Patricia Mainardi and Pepe Karmel, in “The Crisis in Art History,” already dispute that. With the surge of contemporary art study threatening to overtake that of “historical art” (i.e., precontemporary art), the authors see an increasing neglect of historical study and a cheapening of the art history curriculum. Mainardi laments, “the vast amounts of wealth now moving through the world of contemporary art, in museums and auction houses, galleries, and international art fairs” are seducing art history students away from “the libraries and archives of previous generations.” She notes, “Wherever contemporary art studies have become dominant, the same results are apparent.” Students no longer study “the art of different periods and cultures,” but instead focus on the art of the twenty-first century, and almost exclusively on texts written in English.[2] Karmel notes that the average time to complete a dissertation in art history overall is 4.2 years; for premodern topics, the average is 5.5 to 6.3 years; modern art, 3.9 years; but for contemporary only 2.6 years. Karmel remarks,
You interview the artist a few times, you persuade the artist’s gallery to let you see their files and their photo archive (the real-world equivalent of a catalogue raisonné), you read the published criticism, you follow up on the artist’s remarks about texts and ideas that influenced him or her. Then you sit down and write. The resulting text may be very good. It may become a terrific book or exhibition catalog. But it simply is not the same thing as a PhD dissertation in other fields of art history. And the degree it earns should not be a PhD.[3]
What Hamlin and Leader’s (and my old department’s) defense of art history ignores is the overwhelming expenditure of energy, not on training students to navigate our mediated world or even to visually analyze right-wing print propaganda, but on genuflecting before all-powerful art world institutions (including the academic discipline of art history itself). Why would one-of-a-kind treasured works roped off in a museum, or a Jeff Koons guarded by bouncers at London Frieze,[4] best serve as examples of visual phenomena for such study anyway? Art history involves all kinds of fascinating side trips into aesthetic theory, the chemical analysis of pigments, and internecine doctrinal fights, but very little of this is of any practical use to the college student trying to make critical sense of the media barrage emanating from her smart phone. As I said, justifying art history on such grounds is tantamount to advocating the study of the history of world religions as the surest remedy for high blood pressure since we all need a quiet, meditative break from the frenzy of our lives now and then. It is absurd.

Far from a useful training in the navigation of our highly mediated world, art history is currently little more than an indoctrination into the current world of art. It is crucial to make this explicit as the wealth of that art world increasingly seduces and obtains a stranglehold on academic programs, away from the study of what Mainardi calls “historical art” to contemporary product, of which we are urged to “think historically” as Terry Smith puts in is ubiquitous writings on contemporary art.[5] Of course, it is not impossible to consider the present from an historical perspective. Indeed, an historic sensibility is desirable; hence the study of history. However, rendering pseudo-art historical judgments on what is valuable in our present visual culture, judgments that are immediately ratified and reified by institutions with the power, authority, and economic clout to makes such choices forever fixed and unalterable by later generations (by the inclusion of certain works in public exhibitions if not permanent collections and in textbooks) is not a historical process at all. Such complicity in contemporaneity is not a critical function but corruption itself. It is scholarship shilling for the current art world.

From this view, the promise of cognitive training can only serve as a cynical fig leaf to what is really going on in art history programs today: the spread of conformity and complicity in the pseudo-cultural machinations of capital.

[1] Amy K. Hamlin and Karen J. Leader, “Art History That! A Manifesto for the Future of a Discipline,” Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 138-144; quote p. 139.
[2] Patricia Mainardi, “Art History: “Research that ‘Matters’”? (pp. 305-307) in Patricia Mainardi, “The Crisis in Art History,” Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, vol. 27, no. 4 (December 2011), pp. 303-343; quote p. 306.
[3] Pepe Karmel, “Just What Is It That Makes Contemporary Art So Different, So Appealing?” (pp. 318-327) in Patricia Mainardi, “The Crisis in Art History,” Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, vol. 27, no. 4 (December 2011), pp. 303-343; quote p. 326.
[4] See A.A. Gill, “Frieze Until the Numbness Sets In,” Vanity Fair, January 2014, pp. 44-45; p. 45.
[5] Terry Smith, “Contemporaneity in the History of Art: A Clark Workshop 2009, Summaries of Papers and Notes on Discussions,” Contemporaneity: Historical Presence in Visual Culture [], vol 1 (2011), p. 13.

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