Monday, January 11, 2010
Art History teaches works of art. In teaching art history, objects constitute the text. Those in the humanities who teach literary texts don't readily understand this elementary fact; some are incredibly dim-witted about it. Students studying Dickens are expected to come to class having read the assigned novel, and the professor gives them her ”explication de texte” consisting of the work's historical context and the diverse interpretations based on secondary sources. With older literature like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Beowulf, and foreign literature in the original, the professor will have to go over the primary text together with the students first. Students studying works of art, left on their own, can get little beyond its general impression, something comparable to the summary plot of the assigned book. Literary material in art history is exclusively secondary sources, and close reading of the visual text -- objects -- must precede the critical discussion. Work in the art history class, therefore, compresses the exegesis of the visual text with that of the interpretive texts much more than is the general practice in literary courses. Relevant secondary sources are accordingly more effectively assigned after the particular work had been dealt with in the class. There are still such incurable idiots who think showing slides with a running commentary constitutes art history.