On Teaching the History of Western Art For the Very Last Time
I enjoyed reading this so much. Your students are very lucky.
This thing called "Leftism" (whether of the Marxist or Social Justice variety) pronounced a death sentence against European civilization and capitalist liberal democracy over a century ago and has worked nonstop to put it into effect, and now that it has entered into an marriage of convenience with global capitalism it is (ironically?) about to achieve its goal.
The reasons why Western Civ had to die have shifted depending upon time and place, first it was because of the crimes of the capitalists against the "proletariat", then once the working class raised its standard of living it became about escaping traditional conformity and achieving a post-Freudian sexual/spiritual liberation, and lastly the reason is Bigotry, or the crimes of Europeans against women, blacks/browns & gays.
Either way, the reasons shifted but the leaders were always the same: secular mostly non-creative intellectuals who imagine themselves a tribe of enlightened philosopher-kings who promised "socialist liberation" and a ticket to the Promised Land if only we gave them unlimited power.
At a certain point post-60s the New Leftists decided that their best hope of fulfilling their power fantasies was invading and conquering the Academy and gradually converting people to their belief system, one student at a time. They styled themselves as "official defenders of the Oppressed" which allowed them to seize the moral high ground and smear any opponents with all sorts of promiscuous bigotry accusations.
And now their victory is complete: young scholars only choose a specialty so they can denounce and demolish it, and there are very few works of art, thought or scholarship that are not infused with their propaganda.
The only consolation is that these termites of civilization can only destroy, not build. Art, art history and scholarship thrived and survived before American academia existed, and will do so once again after American academia commits suicide.
One of the scriptwriters for The Wire, a former inner city school teacher, remarked that class attendance and participation soared whenever there was a Greek myths unit. Kids who hadn't been to school in weeks suddenly started showing up, eager to hear about Achilles and the Illiad.
Great essay and very balanced, I have to say. I went through a similar experience as a student. In 2011, I was a student in the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Vermont. The program was modeled on what I believe is called the “great books” program from the University of Chicago. We spent the first semester taking English, History, and Religion courses treating the time period from around 500 BC to 500 AD and largely centered on Greece and Rome. Think Aeschylus’ “Oresteia,” “The History of the Peloponnesian War” from Thucydides, “Gilgamesh,” and of course “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” The second semester was all about the Renaissance up to the 20th Century. “Anna Karenina,” “Frankenstein,” Hegel, Marx, Rousseau, Freud...the list goes on. God, I wish I could find those old syllabi now. The program only had 30 students and in addition to taking classes together, we also lived together in a block of suites in the residence hall. You can imagine what that was like. The program attracted the best sort of student, not strivers or grade conscious, but kids who actually wanted to learn. We’d spend late nights “symposifying” in the Greek sense of the word.
A few years ago, I heard the program had been disbanded. Part of the reason was that the professors who ran it had all retired or passed away. Without them, there was no one to pull the program along. Maybe there were no younger professors passionate enough about antiquity and “the classics” to keep the program going, maybe there was less demand among incoming students, maybe trying to justify a year long program that views “the canon” as an essential part of a liberal arts education was a non-starter with the administration. Whatever the case, the program that shaped my understanding of the world and gave me one of the best years of my life is gone. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.
I wish you good luck with your job search. 25 yrs. ago I graduated with an academic doctorate from an Ivy League school in the humanities in my mid-40s. There were hundreds of applicants for every job for which I applied, such that the committees could select on the basis of hair color if they were so inclined, and they were. After years of futility and bouncing around in adjunct jobs I ruefully observed to my wife that there were more openings for her as an RN in a small town than there were for me on the planet. So I hope that you, too, have married well. I eventually found other things to do, but never made serious money.
The Nigerian immigrants at my Episcopal church sing the old Church of England hymns with the rest of us with no complaint. Their kids performed in the traditional Christmas pageant along with my little Anglo kids. And the kids whose mom is from Wales and whose dad is Hispanic Texan. And the kids whose father is from Antigua and whose mother is from Chile. And for that matter none of us is saying “hey we can’t act out a story that originated with ancient Semitic peoples in the middle east!” No one is demanding to put art in their lives that Reflects What They Look Like.
I’m no fancy art historian but I do know that the purpose of art is to cause us to look up, to ask why, to reflect what we see, to explore what it means to be a thinking person in the world. To seek out and create and enjoy truth, beauty and goodness. Some of it is to assist us in worship. Some of it does that better than others. I will never not listen to Messiah this time of year, and I will never not sing to myself “the Lord God omnipotent reigneth” and feel joy and connection to all the people who have come before me who have done the same. I will never not listen to the audible math that is Mozart or Bach and be thrilled with the artistry and the skill. (This experience is for everybody! I’m an American of English, Czech and Portuguese extraction. Mozart and Bach and Handel are not my people! Who cares!) I don’t care who tries to deny me this because of the demographics of the artist. the Western art is not the only art that is worthwhile but I feel sad for those who will be denied it for such petty and small minded reasons.
Your students are lucky to have you, T!
Thank you for this essay. As a fellow relatively green teacher of cannon in the arts (philosophy for artists) there is much that rings true here, not least the excitement and joy of that first semester.
I teach the modern classics — Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Baudelaire, Adorno etc — heavily supplemented by contemporaneous contributions from less canonical "non-white-dudes" (as my students would say). Even still, it's the old way, and I'm well aware that the days of this syllabus are numbered. But oh boy has it been worth it.
Nice work. Inserting a bit of the elegiac into the mix without ranting about the sky falling on our gilded past is no mean trick. I’m a high school art teacher in LA w/an art history MA from a low-profile st. U commuter school and I feel ya. 2 points: opening up the scope of art history survey courses isn’t a bad thing and, truth be told, isn’t likely to be very consequential. Anyway there isn’t exactly a dearth of material available to the truly interested. Also, most right wingers have generally sternly re-directed their children away from serious study of the humanities for generations now, and are witnessing the consequences of that. Point 2: the Greeks refuse to go away, and people still want to know more. How cool is that?
But at what point does Global Art History unravel into a pointless exercise of spotting cross-cultural superficialities? It reminds me of how Hume botched the understanding of “religion” by seeking to bring it all under the same umbrella, only to have recast everything as another form of Protestantism, with “belief” at the center. The sad fact is that “dismantling” the canon is just recasting the same vocabularies and assumptions to object to which they don’t belong.
I remember taking a modern art class taught by an Indian (South Asian) woman prof. While I was expecting we would start with Impressionism, pointillism or even Turner, she started in the renaissance with the revival of classical (Ancient Rome/Greece) subjects (art, literature, sculpture), explaining that the history preserved by the Byzantine and Muslim world was being rediscovered by Western Europe and also introduced a bit about scientific experimentation and observation. She showed the progression/evolution into modern art from there.
So a non-white, non-male full prof (so she can choose how to teach) decides to spend a couple classes mentioning the Greeks and Romans and covering the European renaissance whilst ostensibly teaching modern art, but what will happen now? Will such allusions be banned?
Fantastic essay, thanks and good luck in your new role and coming works
Is it really eccentric to get a PhD in your fourties? Seems like your students will benefit from your life experience and accumulated wisdom.
I earned a B.A. in history from UC Berkeley about a 100 years ago and while I was never given an opportunity to focused on his writings, I am still inspired by historian Martin Gilbert. I would imagine this philosophy would apply to Art History just as it applies to a traditional study of history. It was not always easy, even back then, to separate historical fact from opinion. One had to dive deep (something Martin suggests) in order to do so -- not always popular with those who graded your papers.
“It would be wrong to judge a historical figure solely by the standards of the present day. Every generation has its own morality. The historian is not primarily a judge who drags people from out of their environment and places them before a contemporary tribunal. His first aim is to see whether the people he studies acted for the good of their own society, as they envisaged that good. His second aim is to ask whether the ideas which he is examining are valid in terms of present values.” -- Sir Martin Gilbert.
Good luck in your future career. I know it will be a hard road.
I really liked this. I especially like the bit (and subsequent replies) about how everyone simply wants more Greek mythology. I shared it with my Thai-by-way-of-Texas wife and it's no mystery to her: Greek myths are endlessly fascinating and relatable.
One nitpick: The Romans invented concrete not cement. I think of it like this: cement bonds like glue--concrete is hard like stone. We use cement to make concrete.
Anyway, great essay and good luck with teaching!