Art 110A Lecture at UCLA - 1966

The original class notes as typewritten by Jean A. Garren.

The original class notes as typewritten by Jean A. Garren.

Art 110A  |  CLASS NOTE'S   |  Dr. von Meier Lecture 18  |  December, 1966  |  UCLA
(A word-for-word transcription by Jean A. Garren)

Most of you will probably already have had fair warning before you even came into this course that I reject the conventional art his­torian's approach to chronological sequence. I do that for what I think are some very good reasons. There are some very practical reasons--not necessarily ideological reasons--why I question this. The matter of chronological sequence seems to me to be a commitment to a mechanistic approach, and that doesn't appeal to me for other reasons, although there are in it certain values, I think, which it must be admitted. It's very easy to admit that things really do follow other things in time, and that this sense of relationship is important, and that you can't deny it--nor have I ever denied it. I would say that this mechanistic sequence presents a very false picture of the way things happen for the historian; and the dangers here at this stage-- of an undergraduate art history class--are far more serious than the benefits that incidentally accrue to such a mechanical approach of a chronological sequence.

I concede also that such an approach might be of greater utility in a different period of art than it is in the art of the last two centuries when, in fact, things quite obviously don't happen the same way that (we think) they did or might have done before. Of course, that may simply be our ignorance about the way things really did happen in, say, the Renaissance, and it's hard to base any positive case on ignorance.

Actually, one of the big arguments we might explore for a moment is: just what do we lose when we reject the mechanistic approach of chronological sequence? It's first of all very easy to teach. You see, it's no problem at all for me to pick out the slides, (I know the slides pretty well), to select about thirty slides, put them in a box, and tell you what you're seeing any­way. There may even be some value in that too: because by pointing out what you're observing I can in some cases actually lead you into a consciousness of this, and there is the evidence before us. I'm not putting down entirely descriptive slide lecturing; I say that my ob­jection to it is that it is not really a very efficient way to proceed, however necessary it may become in some cases. Its very easy to teach, and that's nice, and it gives you a superficial notion that you really understand the subject matter. Well, it really gives you a tool for handling the subject matter, and for putting it in some kind of order. It would be very misleading, I think, and a dis-service to you to make you very confident; that you understand the subject matter. I doubt it, very sincerely I do.

I think that your hang-up is with the incidental data--the "subject matter," the name-date business; and that this is only incidental and that it makes it much more difficult if you have a hang-up on this level, to get to other more meaningful levels. I'm concerned with the real content of the course, rather than with the incidental data that comprises the usual "meat" of the chronological sequence type of lecture.

It seems to me that it may be superficially or incidentally easier for you--so you approach final time and you feel very secure that you've got everything in order and that you've got everything compartmentalized and put into movements and categories and key terms; even though you do this somewhat cynically, you feel very confident about it. But, you see, I think this is very hard to use later on because what it depends upon is that the student can extract from this sea of data some meaningful principles, some problems, some processes, some ideas. 

On the other hand it makes a lot of sense, to me, to do what can be done best in teaching. Lecture courses are very efficient (you know, four hundred people here), and you can talk about ideas and processes. Maybe they all don't get through, but some of them--if one of them does--that's something of value that you have to go on, that's method being taught, because you then have a tool to work with. And I don't think you have to go very far before you find out what that kind of value is--I'm giving you weapons all the time. I'm raising questions or modes of approach, and these are, in the very short run, even much more valuable than incidental so-called "facts" (just what in a "fact" is another problem, too).

What do you lose then? The very real values you don't have to lose--and you don't have to lose this notion that things sometimes happen otherwise. (Actually, David Hume, a long time ago, questioned the relationship between causality and mere sequence in time--there is no necessary relationship between prior existence and causality--just because something happened before it in history doesn't mean that it caused what happened afterwards, although it may have.) So a commitment to a mechanistic system would seem to overlook some of the philosophical implications here. What really happens in terms of the fine arts--because they're never clear-cut--or the arts in general, or the humanities in general, is an interaction, or a case of reciprocal influences.

It's very simplistic to say that "x" caused "y" because "x" came before "y"; and that I think you imply that all the time when you set up a list of slides..."Now we'll talk about Cubism....Now we'll talk about Futurism...Now we'll talk about Expressionism...Blah...Blah...Blah..." There are a lot of other ways of dividing it out too, and they're equally ar­bitrary (and they have the same dangers), such as art divided on the basis of Nationality. Now these are simply large-scale game structures, and you can understand them and you can use them as systems, and all art historians do have times when they use chronology, and well they should. SimiIarly with this national division. There are real problems however, if you begin to misunderstand this, and to mis-use it, and to think that art is really divided up into French art, German art, Italian art; because it's not; you know.

For instance, the slide file here in the department is broken up according to such a national pattern. This makes it easy to use, once you understand its rules. But what happens when we're talking about Italian art of the fifteenth-century? There was no Italy in the fifteenth century. There were city-states, but was there an Italy before Garibaldi? We can understand this, and we make allowances for it, so we use the rules. It's a grave danger to think that you've understood something about the content when you simply understand the mechanism by which you've adapted an arbitrary system. So when you understand something about chronology don't think for a minute that you understand something about the art. You don't. You simply understand the mechanism of approaching the art. What we're dealing with are problems of methodology. To deal with them, of course, means that there are very difficult, there are basic questions, and basic issues never really are simple to grapple with In my mind, of course, they're still the only ones that are interesting.

One of the limitations of a chronological approach is that now data is produced all the time. The twentieth century is one of the richest periods the world has ever known in the arts, It seems to me if committed to the mechanistic sequence, you would stop with this course in December of 1966. Then what happens in January of 1967, because the world goes on? Suppose I am dedicated to supplying you with incidental data--names and dates and facts and the "major monuments"--these might provide a great deal of social utility for you: "In the rooms the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo." Then you'll know all the right names...well, that's good; I think that probably, if it's important to you, I care also about it, but not very much. What do you do when coming to terms with next year's art though, because that's really what they're going to be talking about in the drawing rooms? And I don't think I've given you much equipment to handle this type of experience; and that really ls the most important art for you. I think that the art of the last ten years is or will be, more immediate and important for you than probably the art of the previous century. But, I'll leave this an open question.

I'm an art historian, I'm interested in it all, and in patterns and how it develops and its relationships and processes, etc. But I don't for a minute think that all of you are interested in these things. I hope some of you are. But really, as human beings, I've done you s great dis-service in wasting your time by doing something that can be done better out of a book--you need several books really-‑for a chronological survey can be done that way. You check "facts" in a book that way. That's the intelligent way you use books, surely. So, I don't think those survey lectures would have been of much use. And for those of you who want to go on in art history, I don't think that they would be of that much use either, because you have a lot of data but you don't know how to use this data, you don't understand processes.

Or, I've left to chance, and to your good luck, the degree to which you have managed to extract principles in order to be able to work. Now, why not take the bull by the horns? This is a radical approach to art history, I know. I'm not apologizing for it. I'm explaining it for what it is. It's one approach that seems to make a great deal of sense, namely that you teach method, you teach process, you raise questions, you handle these things first. Then you let the student fill-in the data. Actually, its much more difficult to teach a course like this. But its much easier, even in the relatively short term, for you to use  it, for you have things that you can use, that you've been presented with directly. Otherwise, a lot of people just get stuck up there with the data and don't make any sense at all. I'm just not content with this at all. I find it a very inefficient way. I think, that if you want to go on to graduate work, at that stage possibly you begin to master the material--I think it is important to master the material if you're a professional; but I understand that very few of you ever will be art historians. Even for those who are art historians, I rather suspect that I've given you tools, in terms of processes and the real issues and problems involved, far more valuable than the incidental data because it's a very easy thing to fill in data, once you have a basis and a structure for it. So, in other words, I think that this alternate approach works. Therefore I use it. Obviously, I wouldn't be using this approach if I weren't convinced myself that it works. I admit the necessity--not only the possibility, but the necessity--for alternate approaches. I think this is a very fruitful thing and a very important thing in a university,

The problems of a commitment to a mechanistic approach, of course, are raised also by McLuhan. This method has its roots in an eighteenth century concept: the fragmented, sequential, lineal, mechanical ap­proach following the Industrial Revolution. And really, what is going to have to happen, so far as I can see in terns of the syllabus of most university courses, is a focus in the other direction, towards concerns with problems of structure and configuration, with pattern and pro­cess; the kind of thing that's happening in the new School of Archi­tecture and Urban Planning, for example. And the kind of thing that's been happening, necessarily, in the sciences for several years. (Cf. McLuhan's concept of mosaic or field approach in The Gutenberg Galaxy in the last lecture). You develop associations, then, and it's in these developments and associations that you're primarily concerned. These you actively investigate, you don't simply leave them to chance discovery. This approach involves fundamental issues; it involves keeping open the live questions. This is very dangerous; it unsettles a lot of people; you keep the door open, you inevitably let the draft gets very uneasy. You also inevitably let the light In, and that's another point.

In a sense this is the involvement of a scholar in his medium, and maybe it is really what I'm presenting to you on one level, a concern with problems of research, with fundamental involvement with the subject-- and this I prefer personally to a sort of school-master approach which is concerned with learning and busy work and tests and this sort of nonsense.

The guest lectures really bring up another problem.. Because it's not Just me, it's not just the material you've been reading about--I hope--and thinking about, but also the other guest lecturers who are experts in their respective fields. I think that they, in every case, have done something better than I could do it, and I like the idea of stepping aside to give somebody else a chance to share my "captive audience" with them, and I personally feel that they've been tremendously effective by and large. There are many cases in which I would have said different things (about the same subject matter) than these people did. But if you're going to play this game fairly, and you give the microphone to someone, you damn well let him talk, and then you raise questions. At a university with mature people who are not re­quired to go here, then you can talk about these things. And that's what a university is all about.

There have been here, as I see it, at least five innovations in education; they're not all entirely new, but anyway they're new for me. incorporating them in the process of this course:

1.   One of these would be the guest speakers--guest lecturers-‑and it so happened that here was somebody willing to speak to the class. I think Magar added a lot that I couldn't say about his sculpture. And the way it developed, at least once a week we did have somebody come in, and I think that's beautiful, and it suggested to me a whole new direction in which university education would be fundamentally concerned with what a university is, in bringing in non-professionals or non-campus members, or non-students (which relates to another contemporary issue). This is one of the places where this should happen; where you can freely inquire into ideas, especially "dangerous ideas," bring them out into the open, and then you can damn well attack them when they are out there, or question them, or learn something maybe.

2.   Two, would be the voluntary undergraduate seminar that was concerned on Duchamp. This I think succeeded on many immediate levels. I think there are also a lot of directions in which it could be developed. This kind of idea has a lot of possibilities in the future; I'm very happy with it, and, at this point, I'd like to thank those people who contributed to it.

3.   Three would be the projects. This idea I used also in Art 139 last year. I'm quite convinced now, just having gone through them very briefly, and not all of them by any means, that it makes far more sense to provide an occasion, in terms of an undergraduate course, for a student to become involved in a project like this, rather than the mechanical process of sitting through a test in a room. I think the possibilities of this are extraordinarily wide, and don't simply involve slides or records. But especially in a course on art, the projects have had the additional virtue, to my mind, of somehow forcing you to become involved with the immediacy of an aesthetic experience. This, to me, works in the opposite direction from you accepting my opinions as a voice of authority—something that I'm constantly concerned about simply because it is diametrically opposed to my notion of how a teacher should function.

4.    Fourth would involve the nature of the subject matter itself. I understand that a lot of you are not rock and roll fans. And I understand that also the more intelligent of you who are not rock and roll fans realize that all the time I'm talking about rock and roll, I'm talking about it because I'm interested in it and involved in it and hence manifesting something--here's a human being who's involved in a subject matter--isn't it nice or interesting or whatever, and maybesomeday you'll be interested in something in the world. In this sense perhaps I've been teaching too. But the fact is that it makes just as much sense as the new math does, if any of you know anything about the new math or principles and methodology in science, especially modern physics. For example, where you question the decimal basis--which was never questioned when I learned math--and you say,"0.k. We're going to take base 8 and set up a number system on base 8 --and there are fifth grade kids who are doing this now--then, because you're talking about a different superficial subject matter, you understand something about process and method, something about the real content of this subject, rather. then getting hung-up on incidentals. I think much the same thing applies to the study of rock and roll. I've had occasion to point out at various stages that we're not just talking about the music; we're talking about the way we approach this kind of problem. Just be­cause it was concerned with something that was not visual arts (although over and over and again there are direct correspondences in Kandinsky and Mondrian, and all the way down the line), still you do find the same problems of approach. In other words, I'm teaching art history at this point. I'm teaching how you handle your material and how you work. And this I think is very, very important for undergraduate education to handle explicitly. The reading assignments also I think back this up; when you read John Cage you understand that there are  actually some important things about art as well as about music.

5.   Basically this refers then to a fifth and a major innovation as I see it. This is in terms of structure and approach and the whole method of this course, because all the rest of those innovations relate to this one. On still another level I would say the attitude towards a fixed approach should be questioned in the interest of vitality. Well, this is a radical approach. I'm sorry if it has upset you or misled you, but I think that its very deeply needed by the discipline. I won't say that I have the answer; I'm not at all convinced I do have the answer; I am convinced that it's a better way than other ways I've tried. And I think many art historians recognize this too. Here I detect a lot of hypocrisy among professionals who claim to be interested in teaching, but really aren't, and who, in fact, punish any new approaches to teaching. I think that's a very serious matter of immediate concern at all universities everywhere. I think that you find art historians who realize conventional approaches to the discipline simply don't work very well, as when you get graduate students who have all the incidental "facts" but still aren't worth very much unless they've managed, also, to have been involved with thinking about them and handling them.

What I'm really concerned with here is art--the essence of art itself is never very far from us--and I don't think it should be. I think that other approaches tend to forget that. And leaving these fundamental issues open; such as what art may be; examining and approaching the world in a new way is really the key to the understanding of the subject matter as it's been presented. So you've got "art" as a basic issue, to which we did not only pay lip service in the first lecture, but which we retained and came to grips with all the way through the course. And then there's the study of art, or the problem of methodology...what are we doing when we're considering this open question of art and how we approach it. This inevitably has implications about what you are doing here at this university, namely, what is ed­ucation--hence a lot of the books concerned with these problems--and I think that by compartmentalizing them and by pretending they belong only in the School of Education, we simply betray a profound ignorance of the process we're all vitally engaged in here, with the humanities especially.

But also, why education? When does this course have value to you? It you take no other courses in the history of art, I suspect this course may still have some value for you, and that's what I'm in­terested in. It's not the professionals so much, even though I think he's better off, but a person who doesn't take any more art history courses, because that's where we are involved with education. And what happens after you leave the university? You get your degree, or you drop out--then I think that approaches like this (and I'm not the only one around who's teaching this way, there are some others)--a course that presents you with just one of these tools; that may stand you in much better stead than all the data. It may make you a better human being in some way, I don't know; maybe the big pay-off really is for the non-art historian. The use of factual data and how to handle it; the factual data itself becomes almost irrelevant in this sense. The real function of the teacher seems to be raised here in stimulating and involving and presenting a basis for approach, an involvement with process and configuration, with fundamentally what education is really about. You see, I think in these terms: I get letters back; usually the people who like the course come talk to me about it--the people who write letters are the people who don't like it and who are upset and they complain. That always happens, it happens with other depart­ments too. I really worry a lot of times about when does this feed­back really count? The letters are nice; I'm very happy about it. But I think that this is involved with judgement, too, and in this sense it is directly related to the final examination. In other words, existentially, I reject the function of sitting in judgement upon my fellow man. That happens to be a personal philosophical stance which I'm not prepared to go into here; I think that you should know about it. Therefore my concern about institutional situations in which I'm required to perform just these acts, which accounts for a little air of rebellion in me about it, but think Its only honest to make you aware of that.

There are things that can be done by examinations, and I think they make sense, and it's a concession, but it's not a cop-out to the system to recognize just what an examination can do, fundamentally. I think they provide an opportunity for you as individual students, to demonstrate the degree to which you have become involved in the real content of this course. Not the degree to which got have "mastered' the incidental, so-called subject matter, although it's fair to assume that you will have some command over certain areas or certain examples of that subject matter. Accuracy sure. Know your stuff, know your facts, sure. But in a reasonable construct, I think. What you demonstrate is that you are involved in some of the real content, some of the processes, some of the questions the issues, and not the incidental "answers." And what the total process means, or what meaning it may have had for you at a given time.

I think that to fail one of my examinations you have to be deliberately, belligerently stupid. There usually are a couple...If that's what an examination means that seems to me to be fair; if you haven't become interested at all, in anything; if none of it has any relevance to you, then what an examination means then, it means you've failed. Well, it doesn't, of course, it means I have failed, but you get the grade. Who's to say who really fails? For suppose I accept the proposition, as I do, that the real pay-off is not necessarily with the superior student who can take care of himself intellectually, who goes on to graduate study and who gets a job teaching in Joplin Missouri, or at Harvard; rather it's this kind of thing: ten years from now, because one of these problems has been left open, because I haven't told you what art is and written it out on that damned blackboard--because that stands for a whole approach, really--and I haven't given you the Answer there, which you've dutifully copied down and then checked with the class notes and put back down in an exam book. And it's important when an event happens: you have a child--and there's that child, and that child does something that's very beautiful, and he picks up a rock, and he looks at the rock and you sense that something is happening here that happens quite often, really, in the world--and it is very important; I think if you're convinced that you damn well know whet art is and what it isn't, and what it can't be, the chances are infinitely greater of you contributing materially to the spiritual death of that child. And if nothing else, if you've approached this question this fundamental issue of method, of not having to make these decisions but of being involved with them, that this is what counts; I think the chances of your preserving the opportunity for that child to grow up to be a beautiful human being are infinitely greater. And I think that out of all this class if that happens ONCE, ONE TIME, it's been worth it for me in every way.

Well, that brings us back to a very practical and immediate issue: has this person failed the course? Did it take ten years to dawn on him? The important issues usually do take a little bit of time. They don't happen according to the quarter system. But my grades are sub­mitted; how can I fail somebody, put that "F" down there? It's possible to fail perhaps only in one way, and that has only very limited meaning. It's possible to get an "A" in many ways. I think that's the way it has to be. You can pose this hypothetical question because there are so many ways you can demonstrate that this course has had some meaning to you: I've had answers that I've corrected in which this involvement with the real content of what I'm talking about has been so clearly and unmistakenly demonstrated, and every "fact" in that answer is wrong--the dates are wrong, the name is misspelled, the wrong century maybe--but that we understand is not what we're testing. We're not testing busywork, we're testing evidence of some degree of involvement as human beings in art history, which is a humanistic discipline. And education, it seems to me, at least in the humanities, must necessarily concern itself with individual human beings: hence you're going to get four hundred different answers to any question. There is no objective test, and anyone who tells you there's an ob­jective test simply lies to you and you're a fool if you believe him. So you provide enough basis so you have the possibilities for these "demonstrations." O.k. So I put an "A" on that paper, because I don't care if it's "wrong," if that paper demonstrates this involvement--it's right--and it's right on a very different and much more meaningful level. And if I put an "A" on it, and if you ever get one of these final examinations that comes back and say, somebody in the Administration sees it--you're applying for a scholarship--(actually this has never happened to me; I don't know whether it ever does; I don't know if they ever look at them, I suspect they don't), well,
      "Von Meier we've got a problem here. You've, uh, we notice you gave an "A" to that student in that class..."  
      "Yes, yes, beautiful student." (Fill in the data later...I hope, maybe, because I'm interested in being "correct" and "right"...) 
       "Well, this answer is, uh, Wrong."
       "No, it's not wrong; the answer is right."  
       "Well, Mr. von Meier, perhaps you don't understand what we're paying you to teach..." say,
       "Gentlemen, perhaps you don't understand what you're paying me to teach."
And I'll take my stand there.

Kurt von Meier, Ph.D.
December 6, 1966