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A Survey in Progress

Michael Cothren’s career has paralleled a revolution in the discipline of art history. Now, the scholar who scrapped the survey course at Swarthmore has become co-author of a best-selling survey textbook.

By Jeffrey Lott


Michael Cothren with the projected image of his latest project—a top-selling art history survey textbook. He wrote in 1995 that it is “irresponsible to introduce students to a contentious discipline through a compact narrative survey.” Both Cothren—and the survey course—have changed since then.

It used to be that, like a hot shower or a glass of orange juice, an art history survey course was best taken first thing in the morning. Anyone who ever took one knows this. As one of the few academic disciplines taught in the dark, with slide after slide flashing on the screen while whirring projectors pumped hot air into an already stuffy room, art history after lunch was often soporific. But in the morning, there was a cup of joe in your hand and a fighting chance to stay alert as you engraved image after image into your memory, scratching notes on paper you could barely see, connecting great works period-by-period, artist-by-artist into a sort of Aristotelian cosmology of painting, sculpture, and architecture that reached back through the Romans, Greeks, Sumerians, and Egyptians, all the way to the Paleolithic. (Who can forget the “Venus” of Willendorf?) And that was just the first semester.

Until the late 1980s, if you took an art history survey course at Swarthmore or most other colleges, this was the drill. Your textbook was probably Helen Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Concise History (first published in 1926) or H.W. Janson’s History of Art (1961)—books still used today in updated editions. Both texts presented an inexorable progression of Near Eastern and European art that rose from the primitive to the near-perfect—the latter represented by the art and architecture of Ancient Greece, the Italian Renaissance, and 19th-century French art. Gardner’s book now contains coverage of Far Eastern, Indian, and African art, but the “truth” of art history, largely handed down from 19th-century German scholars, was, and remains, the Western canon. And the approach—from Giorgio Vasari’s 16th-century Lives of the Artists to Erwin Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology (1939)—was variously biographical, critical, comparative, stylistic, and iconographic.

But then, in the 1980s, came what is known as “the crisis in art history,” a professional upheaval for traditionally trained art historians that ushered in new ways of studying and thinking about art. “I call it the theory wars,” says Scheuer Family Professor of Humanities Michael Cothren.

Cothren’s experience with the theory wars and their pedagogical consequences at the College has been far more than an intellectual journey. His career has paralleled a revolution in art history—one that, like other historical revolutions, has followed a pendular pattern from agitation and criticism of the established regime to what amounted to a cultural revolution to, in the first decade of this century, a negotiated peace that espouses a much more democratic and experiential view of art.

There’s a certain irony to the bare facts of Cothren’s career:

• He joins Swarthmore’s Art Department in 1978 as a medievalist—“not one of the privileged periods in the history of art,” he says, already an outsider in his profession.

• He helps scrap the survey course at Swarthmore, kicking Gardner off his reading list. His 1995 Art Journal article describes the traditional survey as “a superficial interpretive product,” asserting that it is “irresponsible to introduce students to a contentious discipline through a compact narrative survey.”

• Less than a decade later, Patricia Reilly—a younger member of the department hired in 2001 to replace the retiring T. Kaori Kitao—politely suggests to Cothren that the battle is over and proposes that it might be good for him to teach the recently revived one-semester survey course while she goes on leave. (He did, and it was, he says.)

• In 2009, Cothren becomes co-author, with Marilyn Stokstad, of Art: A Brief History, a top-selling survey of the history of art now used by thousands of college students across the country—including those enrolled in Patricia Reilly’s survey course at Swarthmore this semester.

Has Michael Cothren come full circle? Not exactly. When he joined the department, he says he was already questioning “the normative weighting that privileged the art … of some civilizations over others. Ancient Greece, for instance, was afforded five one-hour-and-twenty-minute lectures, whereas ancient Rome … was compressed into two.” Twice as much time was devoted to the Renaissance—just two centuries—than to the Middle Ages, which spanned an entire millennium. “Exacerbating the perceived problems with uneven distribution of Western material,” he wrote in Art Journal, “was the specter of Eurocentrism, which became particularly apparent after the addition of an Asianist to the department in 1981.”

“Friendly struggles over coverage were frequent,” he reports with coy understatement.

The art-history crisis had been kicked into gear in the late 1970s by emerging social and intellectual forces, including feminism, multiculturalism, deconstruction, and semiotics. Matters were further complicated by the postmodernist proclamation that the unified history of art had ended with the fragmentation of styles and movements of the 1960s.

The magnetic energy of post-World War II Abstract Expressionism, exemplified by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning, tipped the axis of Western art from Paris to New York in the 1950s. But this last real “movement” gave way to a highly individualistic generation of pop and conceptual artists of the 1960s whose work did not reference established art history. The very definition of art was being called into question.

Andy Warhol, who some think may come to be seen as the greatest artist of the 20th century, was asking the most disturbing questions. In 1964, aesthetic philosopher Arthur Danto wrote that “nothing need mark the difference, outwardly, between Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and the Brillo boxes in the supermarket…. It meant that as far as appearances were concerned, anything could be a work of art, and it meant that if you were going to find out what art was, you had to turn from sense experience to thought.” Books such as Hans Belting’s The End of the History of Art (1987) and Donald Preziosi’s Rethinking Art History (1991)
challenged the profession to change. At colleges across the country, the survey course came into the crosshairs of their criticism.

“There was a reactionary movement against the survey as an introductory model for art history,” Cothren explains. “It was under attack from three different fronts. First, from those who opposed the creation of a canon—believing that anytime you teach a survey, you enshrine a canon. Second, from an accusation that the survey, which itself is a cultural product, was being presented as an objective truth. Finally, there was a political problem with the teaching of exclusively Western art and a call to include everything, to make the survey global. So we made ours global, and before long the whole thing just collapsed under its own weight.”

Swarthmore’s art historians responded deliberately to this shifting intellectual landscape. During the 1984–1985 academic year, a series of faculty discussions across the College had led to a new program for the first two years of liberal arts education, including the creation of Primary Distribution Courses with an emphasis on the mode of inquiry in each discipline. The idea was less to teach a body of knowledge in, say, introductory biology, than to impart how biologists think about and approach the problems of their field.

Empowered by this broader curricular change (and “not without some kicking and screaming,” wrote Cothren in Art Journal), in fall 1988, the Art Department dropped the survey course and put in its place Critical Study in the Visual Arts.

The faculty pact must have read a little like the Treaty of Versailles: The one-semester course was to have three basic components: visual analysis as a method of describing, analyzing, and interpreting the formal structure of pictures; exploration of some well-established interpretive strategies used by traditional art historians; and a series of case studies of individual works that explored their relationship to their creators and audiences. Each course should include material from all four core areas of the department’s curriculum—ancient and medieval, Renaissance and Baroque, modern, and Asian and Islamic. Each of the four faculty members in the department taught an independent section of the course, and within agreed-upon guidelines—plus a few more caveats too complicated to explain here—each instructor chose his or her own examples for study.

Although some instructors chose to use a standard survey text to supplement the visuals in their lectures, Cothren wrote in Art Journal that he found a customized box of loose art prints—“not bound to a predetermined chronological order and free from association with a problematic interpretive text”—pedagogically preferable.

At 8:30 on a late January morning this year, after a hot shower and a glass of orange juice, I settle into a tablet chair in Associate Professor Patricia Reilly’s classroom. The blue glow of a winter morning bathes Beardsley 301 through arched windows (Palladian windows, I vaguely remember). This is the “new” survey course, Western Art. I’d done the reading—a chapter by the late art historian Joshua Taylor of the University of Chicago, who analyzed how two 15th-century Italian painters, Pietro Perugino and Carlo Crivelli, conveyed “expressive content” in their very different depictions of the Crucifixion. His method was to ask not “what is it?” or “what is it about?” but rather to describe “that unique combination of subject matter and specific visual form that characterizes the particular work of art.”

Reilly’s focus on formal analysis is a clue to how much the survey course—and the study of art history—has changed. Rather than follow a chronology from Willendorf to Warhol, she begins the semester by showing students how to analyze, interpret, and describe what they are seeing. The emphasis is on developing and exercising those skills in both group discussions and papers.

“Much history of art is concerned with the re-clarification of subject matter that has become obscure with time. But such an understanding remains only one ingredient; it is not sufficient in itself to characterize the particular quality of a work of art. If it were, a verbal description could be the exact equivalent of a painting,” Taylor writes. “Clearly there are other forces in action, affecting our experience and contributing to the specific meaning of the work.”

The most considerable of those forces is probably the specific period and cultural milieu from which a work of art comes. It’s inadequate to understand a painting through our contemporary cultural lens; it must be seen in its original context, and sometimes that takes a lot of study.

Both Reilly and Cothren refer to the work of the influential British art historian Michael Baxandall, whose books Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (1972) and Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures (1985) explore the complex relationship between works of art and the “period eye” of their times.

In the 15th century, for instance, the subject matter of nearly all Italian painting was religious. The painter’s “public”—largely an educated mercantile elite that enjoyed, discussed, and commissioned art—already knew the religious stories and had created their own mind’s-eye visions of them. “The public mind was not a blank tablet on which the painter’s representations of a story or person could impress themselves,” writes Baxandall, “it was an active institution of interior visualization with which every painter had to get along.”

He then uses formal analysis of these works to show how the painters responded to their public’s “period eye” through the formal qualities of their images—such as color, gesture, light, and shadow—and even through the use of volume and space. Most merchants of the Quattrocento were well educated in geometry and in something called “barrel gauging,” the ability to estimate the volume of a container, a vital commercial skill in an era of nonstandardized barrels. They saw painting through the same perceptual lens, and painters both knew of and played to that skill.

In his later book, Baxandall argues that every maker of art—or bridge builder, for that matter—has a “charge.” The artist must address a set of problems, and the artistic product is the solution. (Or, perhaps, one solution.) And to fully understand these artistic solutions, he writes, we have to “reconstruct the specific problem and the specific circumstances” under which it was created. Baxandall, Reilly says emphatically, “started a revolution in art history by asking us to consider the period viewer’s cognitive style, assumed knowledge, perceptual skills, and education, both formal and religious. These are all part of what contribute to the ‘period eye.’”

Associate Professor Patricia Reilly

Associate Professor Patricia Reilly taught a one-semester Western art survey course at the College this spring. A few years ago, Reilly politely suggested to Cothren that the “theory wars” of the 1980s and 1990s were over, encouraging him to teach the recently revived one-semester survey course while she was on leave. (He did, and they were, he says.)

By the third week of the semester, Reilly isn’t quite this far with her beginners. She walks them through the vocabulary of formal analysis, urging them to separate what they see from the subject of the paintings they are seeing.

“Images are arguments,” she tells them. “You are all familiar with textual arguments, but not so much with visual arguments. In analyzing pictorial arguments, you need to be attentive to the assumptions you bring to an image. And when you write, your word choices, your adjectives, tell me a lot about your conclusions.”

The next week, Reilly’s students will be writing about a painting of their own choice from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. To prepare them, Reilly shows them another pair of paintings. On the screen is Jacques Louis David’s neo-classical masterpiece Oath of the Horatii, a painting that only a handful of the students are familiar with. Putting the words “color,” “light,” “shadow,” and “gesture” on the blackboard, she ignores the classical story behind the painting—saving it for last—and concentrates on the way the artist chose to convey its expressive content.

Next appears Third of May, 1808, Francisco Goya’s famous depiction of a Napoleonic firing squad. Here, Reilly turns the problem around: “This time I’ll tell you a little about the painting, then you tell me the effect or meaning and how it was achieved through formal means. Trust yourselves. You know what you see. You can learn the context later, so use your eyeballs.” The students are starting to get it: color, light, shadow, gesture. They pick their way across the canvas, using these terms to describe how Goya conveys his highly charged message. Later, when they get to Picasso’s Guernica, they should remember this lesson.

Reilly tells me that her approach is “to teach students how to work from the inside out. The work itself points you to where you need to go in order to understand the terms under which it was made—whether they are religious, political, economic, influenced by gender, culture, etc. Formal analysis is an incredibly valuable tool for ascertaining the concerns and meanings of an image and thus, for how to talk or write about it.”

Of Cothren, she says, “I think he was very skeptical about adopting the survey again. We had both taught Critical Studies sections, and he saw that we could talk about things that mattered to us—about the historiographic and methodological approach. He realized that the same qualities he’d been using in Critical Studies could be applied to the survey, that when you give students the tools, they can go in front of any image and know where to go with it.”

Michael Cothren had never intended to co-author an art history survey text book. “I’m a scholar,” he says. “I do specialized research.” He’d met Marilyn Stokstad—the Judith Harris Murphy Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of Kansas—at professional conferences (she’s also a medievalist) and also knew her as a past president of the College Art Association. “She’s a presence, a figure in our field,” he says, “but I didn’t know her all that well.”

Stokstad, who turned 80 last year, had taken her longer, more comprehensive survey book Art History—first published in 1995—through three editions by 2007 and was looking for a co-author and successor.

“When they called me and asked if I would be interested,” Cothren says, “I thought, ‘No. I don’t think so.’ And then they said, ‘Would you be willing to audition?’ And they offered to pay me to revise and rewrite a chapter—so I thought, ‘What’s to lose?’” Before this invitation came, he had neither read nor taught with Stokstad’s survey book.

At 634 pages, Art: A Brief History is hardly brief, but it is a condensation of the longer “big” edition for those who would go deeper. When he read it cover-to-cover, Cothren thought, “Wow, this is really better than what I’d been using. I had no idea.” In recent years, Cothren had been using Gardner’s Art Through the Ages but says he was “frequently teaching against the text because Gardner has this deterministic, developmental notion of art—every day in every way, art got better and better through time. For medievalists, this is just evil; it doesn’t take one moment in time and characterize it for what it is. It sees the work of art as one step in a progression toward some goal.”

What impressed Cothren in the way Stokstad approached her survey text were four criteria that lay behind the project: The book would be thoroughly global; it would include, as far as possible, works in American collections, so that students could experience them firsthand; it would contain no image that shows violence to women (“which eliminates quite a few of the great works of the Western canon,” Cothren remarks); and women would be included in more than a token way as subjects and producers of art.

“As a by-product,” Cothren says, “it was clear to me that she wrote in a more approachable, engaging, welcoming style in relation to the students who constitute the primary audience for the book—encouraging them unabashedly to enjoy and appreciate the works they were studying.”

He pauses. “‘Art appreciation’ has long been a term of derision in our discipline. What I’ve been trying to do in my work on this book is to connect these two worlds, because when I was first introduced to art history, they were much more separate than they have to be. We used to think that there was one way to teach beginners and another way for the grown-ups to talk about art. What I’ve learned in my own teaching over three decades is that students, from the very beginning, can actually have a connection to the work, both personally and historically. The art-historical enterprise is never complete. It’s a work in progress.”

2 Responses to “A Survey in Progress”

  1. This article touches upon many issues that cannot adequately be addressed in a letter to the editor or comment. However, as the social and historical biases of the "History of Art" are being called into question, new ones seem to be sneaking in through the back door. The most glaring of these is that Andy Warhol could be considered the greatest artist of the 20th century. Without questioning the brilliance of his work, according to what criteria does he deserve this distinction? Warhol's work, and that of many "radical" figures in 20th-century art on both sides of the Atlantic, would be unthinkable without the influence of Marcel Duchamp, who lived a good deal of his life in NYC. It so happens that the Philadelphia Art Museum has the largest collection of Duchamp's works in the world. Please check it out and correct this oversight.

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