Last term, I TAed a course on Japanese History through Art & Literature, and while the course as it was taught that term focused much more heavily on the literature, it really got me thinking, how do we teach “history through art”? Or, to put it another way, how do we incorporate art into the teaching of history, without it becoming “art history”? I struggled to come up with a good answer. Sure, you could show images in your PowerPoint in lecture, but, so what? I was going to do that anyway. It’s about the angle, the approach, the way you use the images to help convey the historical themes.
This term, I am TAing a World History course. I found the textbook extremely frustrating almost from the very moment I began reading it, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. And then, today, as I was reading a bit discussing the Incas, and contrasting them with the Mayas and other groups of Mesoamerica, it hit me. It hit me that the visuals in this textbook are terrible. Not in resolution/printing quality. And not in quantity, either. In fact, the page layouts look about as busy as a typical webpage, with all sorts of extra infoboxes on the sides. Rather, it’s the selection of which images are included, and the way that they are used.
Visuals – specifically images of art, artifacts, and architecture – can serve as powerfully useful touchstones for a student’s, or a reader’s, understanding of a period or a culture, serving as mnemonic devices or flashcards, encompassing a whole range of concepts within a single, relatively easy to remember image.
Left: Lady Xok’s Vision of a Great Snake. Limestone, c. 720s. Maya. Chiapas, Mexico.
Right: Gold back flap from the tomb of the Lord of Sipan, Moche culture, Peru.
Reading purely in text about how the Incas had more advanced metalworking technology than the Mayas seems abstract, seems hard to grasp, for me at least. It makes one think of a whole bunch of intricate, complex, economic and “history of technology” sort of factors that, for an undergrad I’m sure, and even for myself, can make one quickly feel lost or overwhelmed. It’s difficult to recognize the significance of this comment about metalworking, the implications, and it’s hard to remember. But then I thought of the golden backflaps, and myriad other golden artifacts that our art history textbook provided as representative examples of Incan objects, and immediately it all clicked into place. These standard examples of Inca art given in a survey art history textbook are, many of them, gold, while the standard examples of Mayan art are all stone-carvings. Picture these in your mind, remember the image of what these objects look like and which culture or period they belong you, and you’ve got in those images a touchstone for remembering the identity or character of each culture, and a jumping-off point for remembering and thinking about further details about that period or culture, and about comparisons/contrasts with other periods or cultures.
You don’t need to talk about artistic style, composition, the individual artist, or anything else exceedingly “art historical” to use images in this way. Just include examples of images, objects, from each culture, to serve as a visual example of the character of that culture, and you’ve created an anchor, a touchstone, for helping the students remember which culture, which period, is which, and what characterizes it. The World History textbook we are using this term could have benefited greatly from this, because instead of these sorts of touchstones, we find, for example, a 17th century line illustration of a particular Andean farming technique which, really, adds nothing to the reader’s (the student’s) understanding. Honestly, do you think this image is going to stand out in a student’s mind, and help them remember anything about the key characteristics of the Inca civilization?
Maybe I’m a visual learner. Maybe I’m biased because of my art history background. But I think that visuals can be used to much greater effect in “mainstream” History than they are (or seem to be). The field of Art History has been much too marginalized, when in fact it has a lot to offer, and many Historians seem far too intimidated by the idea of art history, not realizing how easily it can be employed. Admittedly, granted, as someone without much training or experience myself in deconstructing and analyzing literature, theatre, or music, I can appreciate that art, too, requires a certain set of techniques or approaches, but, we’re not talking about in-depth analysis here, just superficial visual, stylistic, material associations. Flashcard-style recognition.
St. Peter’s Basilica versus the Great Mosque at Kairouan in Tunisia (left) as symbolic of the differences in character, in flavor, between Roman Catholicism and Arab Islam, for example. Something for the student to latch onto, as a representative example, to spark the memory for all the various concepts and facts that he has memorized about Roman Catholicism, or Islam, or the politics of the Popes, or about the Islamic Conquests – whatever. For another example, a picture of a Minuteman, with his formal-looking coat, breeches, tricorner hat, and horse, as compared to one of Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt in a 20th-century men’s suit and tie, in a 1940s-style automobile, as compared to one of JFK riding in an early 1960s automobile, to provide an instant indication of the time period, the level of technology, and again, though I know it’s a vague sort of term to use, the “flavor and character” of the period.
I think the role played by visuals in this respect profoundly powerful and useful. Art brings something alive. It gives it texture and color, makes it tangible in a way that pure facts do not. If you can’t imagine what a person or place looks like, how can you feel you know it, understand it?
Postscript: As I worked to prepare this post, read more of the textbook, and continued to think about these issues, I realized it is quite possible that in their dearth of representation of cultural character, the authors were deliberately trying to combat Eurocentrism and Orientalist approaches. That would certainly make sense given the political/historiographical trends prominent in the field right now. An advocate of non-Eurocentric attitudes myself, I certainly cannot disagree with this as an admirable political aim.
By representing all societies as simply cases of different ways in which human beings organize themselves into societies, and different ways they engage in agriculture and trade, the authors level the playing field, and do, actually, a pretty incredible job of presenting a historical narrative that truly does not privilege Europe; this textbook neither devotes a disproportionate amount of space (pages) to Europe, nor does it speak of Europe as being better, more advanced, at least not in the chapters I have read so far (extending up to the 13th century or so). But, what it gains in a more global perspective, it loses in becoming oh so much drier. My apologies to those historians genuinely interested in modes of agricultural development, but for me what makes history colorful, fun, exciting, and interesting is the visual and material culture – the cultural flavor and character of the myriad of cultures that exist (and have existed) in this wonderfully diverse world of ours.