You Majored in WHAT?

Posted on: March 15, 2012

“What is my child going to do with a degree in that?” is a question Art History professor Jay Curley has had to answer a time or two in his four years at Wake Forest University. “People think of Art History as this very traditional, fuddy-duddy type of class,” he explained, “but it’s actually one of the most relevant disciplines because it forces us to think critically about the thousands of images we are bombarded with every day.”

He traces the origins of today’s image-driven culture back through time in his course “The History of Photography.” While examining art photography, as well as the development of mug shots, medical photography, portraits, and picture-oriented newspapers, the students investigate how the invention of photography changed the way we conceptualize history.

Additionally, in Curley’s course “Modern Art,” the focus is primarily on European and American works from 1890-1945, which, between the effects of Industrialism, the Russian Revolution, and two World Wars, was a tumultuous political time that forced reckonings in art.

With this in mind Curley guides students away from critiquing an artist’s level of skill or a painting’s aesthetic beauty, and instead guides them towards questions like “‘What does this mean in 1918 when nine million men have died in the trenches?’ Of course people are going to make art that’s simple and irrational when they’re trying to capture those feelings of fatalism and disgust.”

Because art is highly conditioned by the political moment, it has the unique ability to communicate something profound about a particular point in time. As Curley described it, “works of art do not exist in a vacuum outside of history, but rather function as agents within it.”

In addition to learning the historical context, students must also develop “critical looking skills” to fully appreciate a work of art. These classes frequent the Reynolda House Art Museum, where Curley enjoys teaching about paintings while physically standing before them.

“Looking at objects in the flesh is a completely different experience,” said Curley. “When you look at a picture in a book it’s this little, but when you look at a major abstract painting they can be 12 feet across and 6 feet high, and the experience of having that object in your space is very compelling.” Students take in more than the massive scale of a painting, he explained, “a lot of these paintings are about the way the paint lies on the canvas, and that nuance of surface can’t be seen on a digital projection.”

Above all, Curley wants to slow down a student’s vision and force them to think about what they’re looking at and how it conveys meaning. Students find these exercises in “sustained looking” to be extremely rewarding, though many are left to ponder, “If I can actively look at a painting for half an hour, why can’t I look at an image on the internet for more than ten seconds?”

Art History speaks powerfully to contemporary times.


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