Notes on the Precariousness of an Art History Education

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Towards a new form of self-criticism in the art history classroom.

Adam Barbu

Is there a topic more swiftly ignored in art school than art school itself? Across many years of practice, I have yet to enter into a classroom where the question “Why do art history?” has been suitably addressed. In a time and place where the doctorate is the new master’s and the master’s is the new bachelor’s; where unpaid or underpaid work is the new normal; and where damaging lateral violences intensify the competition for these few viable job opportunities, this simple question “Why do art history?” has reached somewhat of a tipping point amongst students, educators and patrons. To interrupt the standardized rhythms of everyday academic life, our challenge is to locate the institutional forces that prevent us from directly and productively engaging with the question of the precariousness of an art history education.

Recently, the question of the legitimacy of the discipline has been raised to advocate either for its inherent cultural necessity or its outright futility. One the one hand, the art history classroom is characterized as one of the few remaining spaces dedicated to the rigorous study of visual culture and the protection of beauty; on the other, it is seen as a repository for wasted public funding that only serves to strengthen self-serving elitist thinking. The public university justifies and is justified by a rationalist discourse that is orientated towards the efficient output of virtuous, successful young professionals. The rationalist discourse projects the image of the university a neutral benefactor. However, what the university cannot disclose is its financial dependency on the overpopulation of the art history classroom and the overabundance of humanities degrees in general. Outside of paying back student loans, the university is altogether uninterested in whether its former students actually accomplish their goals outside of the system. The good undergraduate art history educator thus ensures that the deep-rooted hierarchies of value that surround the disciplinary institutionalization of art history remain untouched and undisturbed.

We find ourselves in a situation where entire degrees are tied positively or negatively to the supposed purity and virtuosity of avant-garde expression, warranting that the red herring “art-for-arts-sake” remains at the center of the discussion. Conversely, when the art history classroom calls too much attention this absurdity, it fails to do what it is supposed to do and thereby transforms. If, as Hito Steryal writes, that contemporary artists cannot continue to escape the demand of addressing the question of labour in their own work, then it is also true that educators can no longer ignore the question of the cool rationalism of the university within the art history classroom itself. The quintessential art school problematic “Why is this art?” should instead be overtaken by “Why are we in art school?” This subtle interpretive shift depends on both our willingness and ability to re-imagine the idea of disciplinary self-criticism.

Here, we might briefly evoke the ghost of Clement Greenberg to trace the discontents of art history pedagogy in the university today. As one of the most polarizing essays on art, criticism, and aesthetic value coming out of the mid-to-late 20th century, Greenberg’s Modernist Painting (1960) advocates for “the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” Variations of this “formalist” logic have influenced an entire pedagogical approach that stresses the primacy of that which is internal to the object of study, preventing us from exploring what it means to wander beyond the frame. Following this tradition, the good art history student arrives at a supposedly rigorous, rational and exhaustive interpretation by following visual cues and forms of evidence that source from the discrete structure of the artwork. Plainly stated, we hammer students on the importance of the Greenbergian art historical moment of modernist self-criticism and yet deny them access to the appropriate tools and spaces with which to question the discontents of the classroom in a profoundly self-critical way.

How does one teach failure in the art history of classroom? Audre Lorde writes that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Working in this spirit, art educators must begin to adopt a certain “beyond the frame” self-critical attitude. The “beyond the frame” attitude pursues the mutation of Greenberg’s self-criticism just before its logical point of collapse - where the supposed a priori conditions of the discipline are not meant to be strengthened but increasingly loosened. This means explicitly raising the difficult question of the legitimacy of the art history classroom within the art history classroom itself. What emerges here is an opening to different modes of inquiry that are not simply focused on the study of the exceptional lives of artists but the precarious experiences of art history students. On the one hand this allows us to negotiate different expectations of post-degree life; on the other, it allows us to encourage a more complex theoretical and practical engagement with the institutionalization of art history that reaches past our traditional formalist, disciplinary academic obligations.

To further this point, I would like to briefly recall one moment that has deeply affected the way I approach the question of art history pedagogy. It occurred many years ago in a rather unspectacular and routine course on the development of style in late modernist American art. The class reached a lull when the discussion turned to the assigned reading on Greenberg’s Modernist Painting when a physics major taking the course as an elective spoke out on the possibility of a loophole in the theory from the exact quotation listed above. Addressing the class and the professor in a pointed tone, the student bluntly stated, “If we simply choose to disrespect Greenberg’s ivory tower, if we refuse this veiled abstraction of value, then none of this means anything at all - not the text, not the classroom, not the degree. So, is this about belief?” At this time, more than half of the students were oblivious to the comment, consumed with their computers, smartphones and each other. The other half grew more curious at the exciting thought of a potential conflict within the classroom. However, unable to provide an appropriate response to the critique, the professor straightened his back and stated, “We owe it to art to take Greenberg’s text seriously.” The student’s comment was altogether dismissed and we proceeded to be told about the importance of graphite in the work of Agnes Martin. This somewhat passive aggressive dismissal was clearly not the fault of the professor himself, but of his responsibility as a representative of the university to maintain a justifiable, grounded art history curriculum. We can return to thus question: Does one “owe it to art” to undergo years and years of study only to manage this student debt by settling for another more sensible career choice?

In the spirit of the “beyond the frame” self-critical attitude, we pursue an unobstructed view of the classroom at once as outsiders and participants. Educators need to explore this sense of displacement within the context of their own localized theoretical constellations. Overall, adopting this attitude means rejecting subservient, interiorized pedagogies that keep the knowing, benevolent hand of the university hidden from view. By highlighting the institutional powers that both legitimatize and marginalize the disciplinary function, we enter into the liminal space between acceptable critical inquiry and outright sabotage. Cultivating open and honest dialogue on the precariousness of an art history education marks a necessary first step in deconstructing the rationalist discourse that protects the ivory tower and ensures we remain good educators and good students.

Adam Barbu is an independent researcher and curator currently living in Toronto. He is currently pursuing his graduate studies at the University of Toronto. He has produced international contemporary art exhibitions that explore themes of failure, doubt and the politics of spectatorship. He is the recipient of the 2015 Middlebrook Prize for Young Canadian Curators.

Image credits: Marcel Duchamp's L.O.O.H.Q., courtesy of Wikicommons; Clement Greenberg admiring a particularly flat Kenneth Noland painting from

Copyright © Adam Barbu. All rights reserved.

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