Why Offer a Graduate Program in Art History?


MEMORANDUM August 25, 1986
TO: Allan Gordon, Chair
FROM: Kurt von Meier
SUBJECT: Graduate Program in Art History

This memo is in response to your request for ideas that might contribute to a rationale for teaching art history at the graduate level at CSUS. I welcome this opportunity to respond on this issue, but at the same time the very occasion suggests a certain concern that must be addressed in its place: namely, as perceived by many members of the Art Department as well as by other members of the campus community, that of intense pressure in the form of "academic politics" being directed against the art history program and ad hominum.

It is salutory in general to remember where we are and what it is we are proposing to do. We find ourselves in the "Art" department, yes--but the arts are many and varied: the Seven Liberal Arts have been in the Western university tradition at least since the Middle Ages; and and the Nine Muses we have inherited from antiquity. But the modern idea of serious, scholarly study of the fine arts appeared in the context of the German institutions of higher learning only during the last century. The history of their emergence as an academic discipline within the university context has been sketched by the late Professor Erwin Panofsky in his essay "Three Decades of Art History in the United States: Impressions of a Transplanted European," which is published as an Epilogue in Meaning in the Visual Arts (Anchor Books, 1955). These brief but thoughtful pages could be read with profit by anyone presently assessing our own art history curriculum.

"At the beginning," Professor Panofsky reminds us (p. 324-5), "the new discipline had to fight its way out of an entanglement with practical art instruction, art appreciation, and that amorphous monster 'general education.' The early issues of The Art Bulletin, founded in 1913 and now recognized as the leading art-historical periodical of the world, were chiefly devoted to such topics as 'What Instruction in Art Should the College A.B. Course Offer to the Future Layman?'; 'The Value of Art in A College Course'; 'What People Enjoy in Pictures'; or 'Preparation of the Child for a College Course in Art.' Art history, as we know it, sneaked in by the back door...."

It seems like we are but a few steps removed from those problems, now having to argue at CSUS "The Value of Art History in a College Graduate Course." There is no doubt that whatever problems may exist in the art history area have been severely exacerbated, if not to some extent caused, by a lack of Administration support in terms of the "Material Question": that we have not yet been allowed to replace the art history positions which became vacant with the retirement of Professor Bohr, and with the appointment of an art historian as departmental Chair. The practical effects of this policy have undermined the art history program at all levels, as both faculty and students have been threatened with uncertainties, limited offerings--and strained resources. The excuse used for not immediately seeking an appropriate art history appointment--that there were still too many professors in the Art Department as a whole--shows that, in Sacramento anyway, art history has not yet successfully fought its way out of entanglement with practical art instruction. In my opinion this is a prime cause for institutional embarassment and shame.

In recent news media reports, Californians are represented as taking pride in being the most populous and wealthiest state in our nation. Marc Reisner cites our "twenty seven million people (more than the population of Canada), an economy richer than all but five nations' in the world...California's awesome $485 billion GNP. It is a `gross state product,' obviously, but everyone seems to refer to it as the `California GNP,' as if the state were a nation unto itself--which it really is...." [From Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water, (Viking, 1986), quoted in This World, August 17, 1986]. And here we are in the STATE University--not just some college, and not just any branch of the State University, but in the CAPITAL CITY of the State of California. Moreover, we are in the department that attempts to teach principally the children and other citizens of the state what we can (within our sometimes considerable limitations) about the history of the fine arts--not just this or that, but about the finest and grandest, the highest and most beautiful, the most sublime of all the achievements of humanity throughout the immensely rich and varied course of civilization on this planet. Not just history, but art history: that is, not merely what documents relate to us, what someone said or theorized, or what was said to have happened. For in the history of the fine arts we deal with primary evidence that is material: artistic visions and imaginings, the stuff of spirit, dreams and fantasies-- yet ones that have been set down, objectified, made concrete and real. No art historian cares very much for "that great painting I could have done."

It is disconcerting that the Administration at CSUS has been so slow to recognize the great potential value of a strong art history program. Professor Panofsky's Introduction to Meaning in the Visual Arts, "The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline," could be helpful; but it was originally written in 1940, and the times have changed, so that now the humanities are under siege. For example, as Bill Devall and George Sessions present "Criticisms of the Educational System Under the Dominant World View" in Deep Ecology (Peregrine Smith Books, 1985, p. 181 f.): "Many educational critics have pointed to the consequences of educating children within the framework of the dominant world view [of anthropocentric exploitation, the dogmas of technology and `progress'].

"Contemporary educational overspecialization has led to a decline in the liberal arts requirements and programs in which Western humanistic values and ideals have traditionally resided. ...This has led to an educational value relativism and subjectivism in which one value is no better than any other--the pursuit of truth and wisdom is educationally of no more value than, for example, taking a real estate degree." Plato's analysis of the mob rule of the undisciplined, undiscriminating democratic masses has come to pass in the educational establishment. One of the most perceptive and influential novels of the 1970s, Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was a search for duality in our lives in a society which was rapidly losing any sense of quality. Having succumbed to the value relativism and the business mentality of the 'give-the-customers-whatever-they-want-so-long-as-it-makes-a-profit' of the society-at-large, the educational establishment is no longer in a position to make sound judgments concerning a quality education. As one critic points out, 'Once considered an essential enterprise for the improvement of American society, higher education has become the handmaiden of successful career planning.'"

Although it does not go to the root of the problem, as Devall and Sessions acknowledge, "The suggestion by liberal educational reformers to re-institute the liberal arts core might help mitigate the worst of the vulgarization and commercialization of contemporary education." If the search for "quality" and "excellence" expresses legitimate needs of our society to which our institutions of higher education should be responsive, then surely the discipline of art history must have an important and central position. Developing a deep familiarity and sensitive understanding of the fine arts takes time. As in other fields of humanistic endeavor, real contributions can usually be made by students only after years of preliminary study in which a vast quantity of conceptual data must be absorbed--but in addition, the serious student must train "the eye" to make precise and subtle but nevertheless objective distinctions upon which meaningful analyses and interpretations of the visual arts must ultimately be based. It is probably unrealistic to expect genuine creative scholarship short of the graduate level. And yet, without this level of work within the program there are real dangers of exploiting and vulgarizing the discipline in the guise of some banal, sugar-coated "art appreciation" fast-food packaging for pretentious young culture consumers.

The recent widely publicized study of education conducted under the auspices of the Carnegie Foundation, advanced a strong case for studying the humanities and liberal arts. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, leaders of the American business community have reiterated the need for non-overly-specialized training and education as being the most valuable for top executive positions. This is of course why the command of an army is vested in a general, while a private is at the other, bottom end of authority and the chain of command.

These days one also hears a calling for education to address ethics, followed by a dispute over how and by whom it could be taught. But ethics in a rigorous and precise manner is just what graduate study in the humanities teaches in the process of guiding qualified students to produce objective evidence of honest, independent research that observes the scholarly conventions. In art history there are some imposing models of integrity, dignity and ethical heroism, in which a devotion to inner truth is the essence of artistic authenticity. The case of Paul Cezanne is eloquent in illustrating this point, even in the terse vignettes supplied by Alexander Liberman (The Artist In His Studio, Viking Studio Book, 1968, p. 11 ff.). "Cezanne sacrificed all personal contacts to achieve his vision. ...There is not a single comfortable or luxurious object in his house. All is centered around work. Like Picasso, the richest contemporary painter, Cezanne lived in ascetic, mystical surroundings, with painting as his sole luxury. ... Gasquet recalls that one of Cezanne's greatest paintings, the`Old Woman with a Rosary,' which he did one year before his death, was found lying next to the stove, steam dripping down on it. Cezanne, seeking the summit of art, was often in despair with his own achievement. He slashed, threw, stamped on canvases, folded them to prop up a sideboard, tossed them out of windows. Vollard remembers once seeing a canvas hanging on a tree near his studio. This disregard for his creation, a mixture of pride and intense humility, was one of the conflicts of Cezanne's life. ...

"The artists of the cities are also frequently spoiled by money and success. It may be that the continuity of Cezanne's vision lay in his isolation, his lack of appreciation by the public of his time. He pursued art, regardless of recognized success. He may have occasionally craved the satisfaction of approval, but his proud nature revolted against his bourgeois-dominated age. ...He could afford the luxury of living like a hermit, afford to resist violently all interruptions, all attempts of dealers to put the hand on him. ...When Cezanne said, 'I will have to repaint this whole portrait if I put in one accidental stroke,' he was a musician afraid of one false note."

Cezanne's life and entire surviving work provide a high material demonstration of ethics and a mystically pure devotion to authenticity of the spirit. In the accounts of the achievements of humanity, it is not all that rare to find similar, sometimes tortured high-mindedness among the great creative spirits: witness Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Gauguin, William Blake. It is entirely appropriate to expect the undergraduate student to approach such work with respect, maturity and understanding--just so, we must also maintain that an even more profound and penetrating comprehension of these manifestations of the human spirit is possible at the graduate level. In a contemporary university there can, at any rate, be no serious doubts as to the worthiness of the principal subject matter.

But in order to conduct art historical research of an original sort in which significant contributions to the field are to be expected, extensive and sometimes highly specialized resources are frequently required. Just to provide a serious basis for original study of Leonardo da Vinci, for example, UCLA chose to establish a specialized facility that depended upon extraordinary private bequests as well as extensive institutional support and funding. In many cases, suitable facilities for a comparable approach to any of the old masters--including the requisite written and photographic reference material--may be well beyond the means of an institution such as CSUS. This may be a hard truth--but it is also why first-rate students will certainly choose to attend one of only a handful of Amereican universities for an advanced degree in the field of art history. Because even with the wonders of xerox and microfilm, modem and computer, there quite simply is no substitute for perusing in the stacks of Princeton's Marquand Library, or having a piece to inspect at close range in Harvard's Fogg Art Museum.

How, then, may a meaningful art history program be established? Obviously, not by directing the principal energies of creative scholarship toward the old master artists, however important it may be to study their work in the general context of the discipline. Even if the will and the means to follow UCLA'S example were available here at CSUS, it is not, in my opinion, the sort of approach to which we should devote our energies. Fortunately, there are several fresh and challenging alternatives.

Among subjects of great potential historical significance that remain as yet relatively undeveloped by conventional art history faculties are the various popular arts. This is the case not only with the contemporary popular arts but also in historical perspective. For example, Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, in The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 1983), shows that the traditional discipline of art history has, with its intense focus on the so-called fine arts of painting, architecture and sculpture, seriously overlooked the historical significance of printing around 1450, thereby misreading or missing altogether some more profound levels of understanding the Renaissance itself. Again, the contemporary press features stories about various efforts to establish a museum of rock and roll music--a popular medium, but one of unquestioned social, cultural, economic and historical interest. There would seem to be an important role for the universities to play in the formation of various archives: not only of rock and roll records, but also of maligned and misunderstood comic books, video tapes from commercials to MTV, poster art (those of the 1960s San Francisco music scene are now highly prized collector's items), and other forms of popular or commercial art such as billboards and album covers. My own limited experience in conducting research in the field of the popular arts convinces me that there could be enthusiastic support forthcoming from the worlds of commerce and industry--quite possibly to the extent of underwriting research and providing funding for related projects.

Even within the more traditional domain of the fine arts, there are areas of significant historical and contemporary activity that might be eminently well-suited for the special interest of advanced scholarship at an institution such as our own. The art of the peoples living on the borders of the Pacific Ocean, the culture of the Pacific Rim as it is being called, offers a grand new focus for scholarship. Students of CSUS in the near future would do well to learn something about the art and culture of China, Japan and Indonesia, of the South Pacific and of Australia and New Zealand. Japan's impact is already apparent, but consider also the high level of recent Australian film production--to say no more about their competitive skills in sailing 12-meter yachts. There is some encouraging interest in the culture of Indonesia at UC Santa Cruz and in certain departments at other universities. But as a densely populated Country with natural resources and with one of the oldest and richest surviving coherent cultures anywhere on the planet, Indonesia is a nation obviously destined to play a major role in our long-term future.

These few suggestions should be sufficient to indicate that art history studies at the graduate level have succinct possibilities over and beyond trying to synthesize a latter day pseudo-Ivy League department. There are, naturally, the essential values of humanistic studies, justly honored by the older more established departments, that are calling out for more clear recognition and more resolute embodiment at CSUS: specifically the realization that true scholarship demands time--the leisure that institutions have traditionally provided by balancing teaching responsibilities with research opportunities and support. Fundamentally, it is the individual qualities of mind and heart possessed by the human beings who make up the faculty that determine their value as "humanist" scholars and teachers. That means a realistic assessment of the art history program at the graduate level should recognize not only the considerable handicap and duress under which the present faculty continues to operate, but that the most important questions concern the people who comprise the active faculty, and not the numbers nor the words that presume to define such a program in terms of course descriptions.