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Teaching Art History
Recently a colleague, about to teach a college survey course, asked about the most effective way of teaching ancient art history - Palaeolithic to Medieval. Though I don't recall ever teaching those particular periods, from one who has taught art history at both a high school and college level, though not always too successfully, I think the key word here has to be "enthusiasm." It's contagious. The facts are important, and the teacher needs to know them cold, but that's not the case for the students. Knowing the facts only lends authority to what the teacher says. The trick is to relate the facts with the art and times of the period being taught to the students' art and times. As always, it's not what is taught but how it's taught. For example, I've always liked to include offbeat trivia and humour in what I covered. Along with Les Demoiselles D'Avignon, I'd pop up the image of an erotic drawing by Picasso too. If they remembered the drawing (and they did, believe me), they also remembered the painting.

They also got a very accurate picture of what a rogue Picasso was. I have always loved history and social studies, but it was always the trivial and peculiar that captured me rather than facts and figures. The cool thing about history, whether art or otherwise, is the fact it was made by imperfect people - whether Pablo Picasso, or Paul Gauguin, or Richard Nixon, or Bill Clinton - subject to the same human foibles as we are. And this is the connection students need to make. Whether artists or politicians, their strengths and weaknesses, pride and prejudices of course affect what they do and say (or paint), but it also makes them interesting, and what they did or said more interesting, whether it's "I am not a crook" or "I did not have sex with that woman..."

In art history, whether Palaeolithic or medieval, or modern, it's easy for a teacher to forget, but inevitably, the artists are always more interesting than their art. Students are people too, often artists too; they relate first and most easily to that aspect of art, and only later to the art itself. Teaching ancient art, while long ago and covering many difficult to understand periods and cultures, is actually an advantage from the point of view that there is not as much art to cover and very few names to remember. Thus both teacher and student are much less likely to get bogged down in details and thus it's much easier to, instead, project the "big picture." And in the absence of the artists (names and personalities), one can teach the culture that evoked the art. Speaking palaeolithically, if one looks at cave painting, not from a stuffy, aesthetic point of view, but instead comparing it to the student "decorating" his or her own room, the connection becomes one of the "here and now," to the "there and then."

Contributed by Lane, Jim
26 July 2001

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