Salvation by Art History
An Appreciation of Smarthistory
by Jay McDaniel
The Passionate, Subjective Side of Art History
"They believe that Smarthistory can involve and inform students with video 'conversations' that allow the passionate, subjective side of art history to shine though in a way that traditional textbooks, with their authoritative and singular viewpoints, do not allow. Harris and Zucker put it this way: 'We find that they (traditional art history texts) are difficult for many students, and just are not particularly engaging.'...more
"Is Smarthistory the Art History Textbook of the Future?" John Seed, Professor of Art and Art History, Mt. San Jacinto College. Huffington Post: 09/05/2012
Dr. Beth Harris:Beth is dean of Art and History at the Khan Academy. Before joining the Khan Academy, she was the first person to hold the position of Director of Digital Learning at The Museum of Modern Art, where she started MoMA Courses Online. She also co-produced educational videos, websites and apps. Before joining MoMA, Beth was Associate Professor and Director of Distance Learning at the Fashion Institute of Technology where she taught both online and in the classroom. Her scholarly work includes editing and contributing to Famine and Fashion: Needlewomen in the Nineteenth Century (Ashgate, 2005), many book reviews, and “The Slide Library: A Posthumous Assessment in the Service of Our Digital Future,” in Teaching Art History with Technology: Case Studies (2008). She received her Master's degree from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and her Doctorate in Art History from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.Follow Beth on Twitter, email - beth[at]khanacademy.org
Dr. Steven Zucker: Steven is dean of Art and History at the Khan Academy. Previously, he was chair of History of Art and Design at Pratt Institute where he strengthened enrollment and lead the renewal of curriculum across the Institute. Before that, he was dean of the School of Graduate Studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology, SUNY as well as chair of their art history department. He has taught at The School of Visual Arts, Hunter College, and at The Museum of Modern Art. Dr. Zucker is a recipient of the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. Together with Beth, Steven wrote “The Image Library as Learning Environment” for CAA News and “The Slide Library: A Posthumous Assessment in the Service of Our Digital Future,” Teaching Art History with Technology: Case Studies (2008). He has published on Abstract Expressionism including his essay “Confrontations with Radical Evil: The Ambiguity of Myth and the Inadequacy of Representation,” in Art History. Dr. Zucker received his Ph.D. from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York
Why Study Art History?
I don't want to beat around the bush. I think that a study of art history, in combination with other factors, can help us become kinder, gentler, more creative, more respectful of diversity, and more sensitive to the inter-becoming of life. It can also help us unlock several of many forms of intelligence: logical, visual, emotional, and philosophical. It can help us reflect upon the big questions in life. And it can help us better walk in the ways of a mystery at the heart of the universe: a mystery whose name is Love.
Yes, as I see things, a study of art history can be a spiritual practice in its own right, complementary to meditation and prayer, pilgrimage and service. It can widen the mind and heart so that they become more spacious, more open to beauty and more honest about violence. That's why it is good to study art history.
So Why Doesn't Everybody Want to Do It?
So why don't people want to study it? Part of the problem, so an art historian friend tells me, is that the study of art history has been reduced to an allegedly "scholarly" enterprise undertaken by people with authoritarian voices, who catalog information and data about the past; as if the living memories of the past, the art itself, are but artifacts to be placed in museums, lacking any real relevance to how we might live our lives. In the language of Whitehead, they reduce art to inert ideas or, at best, items of mere curiosity to be discussed at cocktail parties.
I have experienced this side of art history. One time I took a class in art history in college and it was about as boring a class as I could imagine. We were supposed to take notes on the works of art, memorizing where they came from and knowing a bit about their styles. But we could never ask: Does it reveal something true about the world? Might it help me become a better person? Can it speak to me?
In short, when I took this course, the are did not seem especially relevant to how I might live my life. In the language of my friend, it had nothing to do with the virtues. Or, as my Chinese friends would put it, it has nothing to do with the tao of living.
Recovering the Big Questions
There's another problem, too. One reason people don't want to study art history is that, until recently, it has been hard to gain access to art. You had to be in a place where you could visit a museum or, and this was even more formidable, buy a book that costs over a hundred dollars. My book in college cost me much more than I could afford. I sold it back immediately.
But that is changing with help from online sources. The Internet makes it possible for millions of people to have access to images without much expense, if only they have the teachers and facilitators to help guide them.
For my part, I find myself turning to Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Stephen Zucker, innovators behind the Smart History project at the Khan Academy. You can read about them below, in the column on the left. Or listen to them in the video above. With their "video conversations" er get to sit in on a discussion, hear different points of view, and add your own voice on blogs if we wish.
We have a conversation that pulls us in and, along the way, introduces us to some of the big questions in life: What is truth? What is goodness? What is beauty? What is the role of the individual in society?
These questions have been abandoned by many in academic philosophy; but they are very much alive in the freshness of Harris and Zucker. The approach of Harris and Zucker is creative and collaborative, democratic and relational, philosophical and often spiritual. It is very Whiteheadian.
Conversation as the Soul of Education
If you happen not to be familiar with Alfred North Whitehead, don't worry. He is the intellectual catalyst for a tradition alive and well called "process philosophy" and "process theology" which is now being developed by thinkers in many parts of the world, especially China. You can get a sense for his ideas by reading Twenty Key Ideas in Process Thinking or, if you are really ambitious, by reading his book Process and Reality. We offer an online course introducing you to his thought: What is Process Thought?
Suffice it to say that, for Whitehead, the whole universe is an evolving web of inter-becoming, that we are formed out of our relationships with others. There is a lure toward harmony and intensity at work in the very nature of things, and this lure is present within each human being as a beckoning toward wisdom and compassion, creativity and healthy connection. It is the Love of which I spoke above. It can also be called the spirit of God.
When we enter into respectful, life-giving conversations with one another, enjoying the give and take of seeking truth together, we are responding to the lure of God within us. It is like improvisational jazz. We are playing music together, except in our case the music is truth seeking.
It is this preference for open-ended, generous conversation that leads Whiteheadians like me to so appreciate the work of Harris and Zucker. Yes, art may reveal some timeless truths: violence is horrible, love is good, beauty is divine, truth is worth seeking although we ought never pretend we own it or possess it. "The merest hint as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly," says Whitehead.
But truth is also found in the process of a good conversation, amid which we are active participants. It is the truth of seeking truth together. Beth Harris was once asked to give a short five word talk that sums up her approach to life and art in Smarthistory. She said: "Conversation: The Soul of Education."
That seems right to me. And when it comes to art there is so much to converse about. Smarthistory now includes 512 videos and 247 essays, with many more to come. Harris and Zucker are doing more for the study of art history, at a popular and non-elitist level, than any two people on the planet.
A Global Conversation on Art
Of course there are some gaps in what they now offer. They want to add and improve offerings in African, Asian, and Islamic art . They want to keep adding scholarly articles to supplement their video conversations. They want to develop a global conversation on art and art history.
I hope they succeed. We live in a time when global conversations are becoming more and more possible, thanks to online or digital technologies. With MOOCs -- massive open online courses -- taught at leading institutions such as Harvard, Stanford, and MIT, learning communities are expanding into living rooms, coffee shops, and cyber-communities of many kinds. Education is gradually being transformed in ways that are unparalleled in history.
Educators are being transformed, too. Older models of "a sage on the stage" are being abandoned in the interests of more engaged kinds of learning, and educators like me are finding themselves wondering if, perchance, global conversations might unfold on topics of utmost importance to us and, so we believe, the world.
This very website -- JJB - is an attempt to start a global conversation on a subject near and dear to many Whiteheadian hearts: Ecological Civilization. The idea comes from China and is now being explored by process thinkers East and West. Admittedly, the success of this website is immensely modest compared to that of Smarthistory. Mr. Khan if you are reading please email me. Here's the address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Ecology of Mind
But maybe art is a good start. After all Ecological Civilizations are not just about sustainable design: green buildings, green manufacturing, green technologies. They are about sustainable culture: that is, cultures which offer sustenance, spiritual and material, to human life. Ecological Civilizations consist of communities that are creative, compassionate, equitable, culturally diverse, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying, with no one left behind.
How to build them? It helps to have a little science and technology, engineering and mathematics. But it helps to have some art and music, religion and philosophy, literature and language study, too. The humanities are just as valuable as the sciences, and sometimes more important.
Admittedly, some people don't think this way. For them there is a great hierarchy of relevant knowing. The natural sciences are at the top, the social sciences are in the middle, and the humanities at the bottom. But we process thinkers agree with Howard Gardner at Harvard. We believe that there are many valuable forms of intelligence: (1) mathematical-logical, (2) verbal-linguistic, (3) visual-spatial, (4) rhythmic-musical, (5) bodily-kinesthetic, (6) introspective, (7) naturalistic and (8) empathic.
For us a truly ecological civilization will speak of an ecology of mind -- an ecology of multiple intelligences -- and it will place a high premium on empathy as a form of knowing. Empathy lies in imagining the world from the subjective perspective of others and sharing in the subjective states of others. This is one reason why Smarthistory at the Khan Academy can be historically important to hopes for Ecological Civilization. It helps us understand how other people have felt and perceived the worlds around them and within them.
Democratizing the Study of Art
There is something else going on in Smarthistory. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker are providing a rich learning experience at low cost, using digital resources, for the purpose of democratizing the study of art history. If you go to their website, here is what they say about why they made Smarthistory:
"We created Smarthistory in 2005 to provide a richer learning experience than was possible with existing resources. Traditional textbooks are prohibitively expensive for many and do not take advantage of the digital technologies that are reshaping education. For example, textbooks often use only a single image to represent a work of art, they speak with an authoritative but impersonal voice, and they rarely incorporate the many valuable resources that universities, libraries and
museums make available. We built Smarthistory to emphasize the experience of
looking at art by using unscripted conversations recorded in front of the work
of art whenever possible, by incorporating numerous images and video, and by
curating links to high-quality resources on the web."
Education in a Digital Age
The idea of education on the web can be challenging to traditional teachers who are intimidated by digital technologies, accustomed to chalk boards, and perhaps dominated by the lecture model. They may also fear, perhaps rightly, that the coming of digital technologies does not bode well for jobs in teaching. They fear that online technologies and the emergence of democratized forms of learning will replace traditional classroom teachers.
There may indeed be fewer and fewer jobs, expecially tenure track jobs, in colleges and universities, and some liberal arts colleges will indeed fail. But the challenge of digital technologies also brings with it a promise that new, more self-paced and yet participatory forms of learning can emerge which are less expensive, more accessible, and more participatory.
It's a matter of context. The new context of our lives, like it or not, is a globalized world in which people desperately need to learn to live together, learn from each other, share ideas and images, and, along the way, become kinder, gentler, more creative, more respectful of diversity, and more sensitive to the inter-becoming of life.
Philosophy and Prayer
It might also help if we learn to walk in the ways of Love. In Whitehead's philosophy the mystery at the heart of the universe -- divine Love -- does not approve of all things but it does indeed accept all things: the dancing fairies, the crucified saviors, the ecstatic loves, the demonic fears, the lilies of the field, the songs of sorrow, the songs of hope. They are all enfolded into a wider space, a wider heart, that lures us toward the well-being of life in community with others.
Only if we have have hearts open to the multiplicity, grateful for the colors and sensitive to the contexts, can we, too, become healers in a broken world. Only then can we join the greater prayer. That's why studying art history is so important. It's an ongoing conversation, to be sure. But it is also more. Every work of art is an act of hope, an act of saying: "Here, please look, it's important." Indeed every work of art is a kind of prayer.
Studying art history is a way of joining this prayer. The subject addressed is truth itself: the truth of the way things are, the way things were, the way things can be, the way things could have been, the way things were not, the way things should have been, the way things can become. These are the truths illuminated in art. Thus art is philosophy as well as prayer.
But it can only be understood as philosophy and prayer if the mind permits it and the context encourages it. An art-friendly culture must support an ecology of mind which appreciates multiple forms of intelligence, which finds room for science and religion, which delights in diverse ways of being human, which accepts ambiguity and novelty, which finds joy in fertility and acceptance in death, which celebrates seeing what is right in front of the eyes and feeling what cannot be seen, too.
Science and technology, engineering and mathematics: they are ways of seeing, And art is a way of seeing, too. There's no need for doctrinaire proclamations of right belief. There's no need for finality of statement. But there is a need to keep learning, keep stretching your mind, forever falling into something new. It's enough to make you keep looking for a moment and a lifetime. A young monk once asked a Zen Master: What is enlightenment? The Master said: Keep looking.