I Wonder What It Really Looks Like: The Concerns of an Art-History Student

It’s 9 a.m. on Thursday. You show up to your lecture hall with a muffin to soak up the remaining alcohol in your system from Classy Wednesday and a coffee to kick-start the remaining brain function your hangover has left you with. The lights dim so the images in your professor’s powerpoint can appear sharper, more-detailed, visible to the shy kid in the back row and visible through his sleeping neighbor’s closed eyelids. Your professor flips through seven slides of Clyfford Still’s PH-401. In each one, saturation, value, and contrast seem different. You can hardly believe you’re looking at the same image (three of them are oriented differently than the other four). It’s a small liberal arts school. Your class has sixteen people. Four of them are from cities with major museums which have works of this caliber. Two of those kids are biochem majors just fulfilling the art requirement they need to graduate and have never set foot in an art museum. In a couple of weeks, you will have an exam and be expected to write a short essay about Clyfford Still’s work. You will also be expected to write about Willem de Kooning’s Merritt Parkway, Helen Frankenthaler’s stain technique, and Jackson Pollock’s use of foreign objects such as sand glass and cigarette butts in Full Fathom Five.

*Photo of Barnett Newman and an unidentified viewer in front of Cathedra, by Barnett Newman, 1951, photo dated 1958

“Tell me,” your professor flings this foreboding interrogative your way, “have you ever seen an [insert artist name here] painting?”

“Well, I’m an art history major. So, yes.”

“What I mean,” your professor has decided to double down on this public beratement, “have you ever seen their work in real life?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Well, if you ever get the chance to, you’ll see why your statement is just candidly false.”

Color, texture, and scale are tremendously important aspects of abstract expressionist art. Abstract expressionism is a tremendously important aspect to an understanding of the traditional western narrative of art history (which is the one your degree will likely be based on). If you are not from or have not visited a small handful of cities, you have likely never seen these works or have no real frame of reference for them. It’s all well and good to know what your textbook, professor, and roommate who grew up just outside New York City say about these artworks, but there is no substitute for seeing them first hand. 

Images are proliferated on a larger scale than ever before. This is especially true of images of art-objects. There are more images of the world’s most famous artistic works than one could ever look at, none of which look like the real-life art object. With all the advancements that have been made with image-capturing technology, it seems odd that countless classrooms full of kids studying to become the next generation of art historians still can’t find a reliable image of what they are supposed to be experts on.

Though it is certainly not the end of the world — nor is it really a serious threat to research paper grades as long as you take your outdated, black and white textbook’s word for it — this pitfall of the current art historical education system is an unfortunate truth that thousands of students deal with every day.


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