Why Art History Matters: Mark Fearbunce

When is Housework Art?

I was fascinated to explore these sorts of ideas whilst studying for an MA in Art History with the Open University. Indeed my final dissertation explored the problematic identities of Western and non-Western art production and consumption…Off the back of this research, I wanted to challenge my Extended Diploma in Art and Design students’ assumptions about art.

When is housework art? The makers of kolams (designs rendered in rice flour or chalk powder on the streets of Tamil Nadu, India) consider their efforts housework. As a routine daily activity, it certainly has a resemblance to housework. However, to our Western eyes, it seems more like art. It has many of the elements and values we might look for in art such as sensitivity of line or composition and structure; values that are shared by the makers too. It is what separates kolams from a Western perspective of art that reveals our entrenched restricted ideas about art. Those ideas include notions such as: art has an artist, art is special and separate from daily life, and art is made to last. I was fascinated to explore these sorts of ideas whilst studying for an MA in Art History with the Open University. Indeed my final dissertation explored the problematic identities of Western and non-Western art production and consumption. I am indebted to Renate Dohmen, whose research into kolams was an inspiration for this study.

Off the back of this research, I wanted to challenge my Extended Diploma in Art and Design students’ assumptions about art. After introducing them to the traditional dotted grid structure and abstract designs, the technique of pouring the flour, the street, path or doorway location and the ephemerality of the work, students set to their own kolam designs.

 

We used salt rather than rice flour or chalk, but otherwise students were asked to undertake the task in as ‘authentic’ way as possible. Mindful of their assumptions and previous training in art, it was interesting to see how they responded. The technique was the first deviation. Granted, the students hadn’t been practicing since childhood as the makers from Tamil Nadu would have. However, that the students felt at liberty to fashion cones out of paper to help apply the salt and use brushes to keep stray salt in line, indicated their sense of creative freedom to do things their own way. As they neared completion they became precious about their designs and wary of them being walked over, despite this being an integral part of the kolam’s function. This seemed to indicate their acquired understanding that artistic successes needed to be conserved.

Resigned to the kolams’ fate, one pair of students walked carefully and with purpose arm in arm over their completed design, as if in reverence of the work. This felt like an act of activating the work. They insisted they should be the first to do this which suggested a sense of ownership by the artists. This idea was accentuated by another pair of students who initialled their completed work. This seems to allude to the Western notion of the artist as a genius, whose unique vision rises them above other humans; a notion that many of the students would be aware and accepting of. One of the students went beyond the traditional abstract design to create a fish. This deviation was also inspired by a Japanese design. That this fish was depicted on a speedbump gave it a three dimensionality and an implication that it would be worn away by a vehicle rather than by foot. The combination of these variations illustrate an arguably Western preoccupation to drive creativity forward.

Why is it all right for a Western artist to appropriate imagery from other cultures when practitioners of other cultural traditions are denied that opportunity if they are to escape accusations of inauthenticity? In other words, why does Western art seem to have a monopoly on creative progress and divergence?

A discussion on authenticity followed. I showed the students how kolams evolved to include animal designs, the use of colour and even the use of cartoon characters from Western media. Although these additions seemed to be diluting the authenticity of the kolams, are they really inauthentic? Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon seemed an appropriate comparison. Picasso borrowed imagery from African masks. Does that make his work any less authentic as a piece of Western art? Why is it all right for a Western artist to appropriate imagery from other cultures when practitioners of other cultural traditions are denied that opportunity if they are to escape accusations of inauthenticity? In other words, why does Western art seem to have a monopoly on creative progress and divergence?

Of course artists of any nationality can and do create work which might reference traditional practices from their own global region in a new way, but often it is only in a Western, gallery centred context where this becomes innovative rather than an affront to tradition. One of the reasons for this is the mismatch of functions. Regardless of contemporary art’s all-encompassing spectrum of practices, the function is still tied to Western traditions and values. True, Picasso did speak of the magic of the masks that inspired him and sought to feed that function into his art, yet it remains that gallery focussed art has different functions from housework.

Post-kolam, I set the students a challenge: Inspired by a non-Western cultural tradition, they had to produce work that went beyond merely appropriating imagery. They had to respect the function, purpose and values of their inspiration whilst still making something relevant for a UK gallery audience. The various results included: an Ancient Egyptian inspired body bag referencing the relationship between Egyptian art and the afterlife and a contemporary Western utilitarian way of dressing the dead; rubber masks inspired by the transformative power of African masks and the physical and emotional transformations offered by cosmetic surgery; and a set of stamps referencing the dynastic similarities between North Korea and the UK and each culture’s apparent blindness to the propaganda to which they are subjected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why does Art History Matter to Mark? Watch this short film here:

-Mark Fearbunce, Course Leader , Creative Arts , Bridgwater & Taunton College, MA alumnus

For an overview of the MA in Art History, see the Art History Department’s website or take a taster course on Open Learn on Artists and Authorship: The Case of Raphael

Why Art History Matters: Martin Weller

The important thing I took away was the appreciation of different perspectives on art, architecture, heritage and society more broadly. I’m a film buff, and it has given me the conceptual tools to look at movies.

Martin Weller, an OU Academic took our MA in Art History, so we asked him some questions about his experience.

Who are you and why did you take an MA in Art History?

I’m actually a Professor of Educational Technology here at the Open University. I decided to take the MA in Art History because I’ve always had an interest in art, but felt that I wasn’t really appreciating it as much as I could. When I was at art galleries, I wanted to understand more about the context, approaches and theory underlying the work I was looking at.

What did you learn from being on the other side, as an OU student?

I think it’s very useful for all academics to experience being a student again. Particularly in a field outside of your discipline. I didn’t have any art history background, so a lot of the course was a struggle for me. Because I already have a PhD and two masters, I had a lot of the postgraduate study skills that are developed in an MA, so this about made me even with other students who had a stronger art history background, but hadn’t studied at this level before. I learnt two things. Firstly, what it is like to experience all the university systems as a student. This can be very good, for instance I really appreciated the amazing resources in the library in a way I hadn’t when I was just within my own discipline. But you also learn small bits of frustration, like trying to find a piece of information you need. The second main thing to learn (or to remember) is that being a student is quite a vulnerable position. You are often unsure about what you are writing, if you are doing the right thing, if you should even be here. It’s good to be reminded of these, particularly if, like me, your own undergraduate experience was a long time ago. I blogged about it here:

http://blog.edtechie.net/higher-ed/what-i-learnt-from-being-a-student/

http://blog.edtechie.net/history-ma/being-lost-as-staff-development/

How have you incorporated Art History into your everyday working life?

I deliberately chose a subject that wasn’t related to my work, partly because I wanted a break, but also because I wanted to experience that feeling of operating outside my own discipline. But having said that, it has informed my thinking on subjects, and I often use examples of art history in talking about how educational technology can be applied. I also used my art history knowledge as the basis for metaphors applied to educational technology for a couple of posts:

http://blog.edtechie.net/uncategorized/edtech-symbols-of-permanence/

http://blog.edtechie.net/digital-scholarship/cellinis-blood-of-digital-scholarship/

Some art history education would go a long way to helping people develop the critical skills they need to deal with the images and content we are bombarded with today.

Why does art history matter to you?

I think when I went into it I just wanted to know more about the history of art and artists. But what I came to understanding was that art history is really about the role of art in society. The important thing I took away was the appreciation of different perspectives on art, architecture, heritage and society more broadly. I’m a film buff, and it has given me the conceptual tools to look at movies, so now I can’t see the new Avengers film without performing a Marxist deconstruction 🙂

More broadly, we see society splintering into echo chambers and self reinforcing groups which don’t question the information they receive. Some art history education would go a long way to helping people develop the critical skills they need to deal with the images and content we are bombarded with today.

And I can now go to galleries and sound knowledgeable.

-Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University and MA in Art History alumnus

For an overview of the MA in Art History, see the Art History Department’s website or take a taster course on Open Learn on Artists and Authorship: The Case of Raphael

Art History matters to us…

At the OU, we teach our students to scrutinise the visual world around them, whether that’s a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, a ceramic done by an anonymous craftsmen, a local sculpture on the village green, or a building in which they live or work. Art History matters because it is everywhere; it’s the world around us!

The OU’s mission has always been to “be open to peopleplaces, methods and ideas. We promote educational opportunity and social justice … to all who wish to realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential.” Here in the Art History department, we take this mission seriously. This is particularly important in Art history– a discipline that is often seen as elitist and irrelevant for today’s world. We believe that art history is relevant and that as a discipline it will only be enriched by widening participation.

We give access to Art History in a number of ways: from our free open access materials on Open Arts Archive  (including Open Arts Journal and Open Arts Objects) and OpenLearn, and our co-production of BBC television series such as Civilisations, to our range of courses from BA to MA to the PhD.

Why does Art History matter to us?

It teaches us to look critically at the world around us…& to think about the things we do in our everyday lives from the buildings that we live in or work in, to the sculpture on the local village green or the graffiti on our street.

Art History matters because it is everywhere; it’s the world around us!

Watch this short film to learn about how the #arthistory department at the #openuniversity has always been dedicated to democratising the discipline.

Why Art History Matters: Antonio David Fiore

Portrait of the art historian as a young escapist

The shy teenager has managed to survive his ordinary life in 1990s provincial Italy, to visit, study, and work in many of the places he had so wildly dreamed of, and to find a way in the competitive fields of arts and culture without losing the simple pleasure of wonder, and still enjoying the healing and exciting effect that art has always had on him.

My first encounter with art history happened when I was about eleven years old. My sister was about to begin secondary school and, among the many new books she got, there was this Storia dell’Arte volume I. It immediately caught my attention. There were images, big images of wonderful stuff: sculptures, and ruined, majestic spaces, fascinating remnants of past civilisations. In the first pages, statues seemed clumsy and a bit stiff, although their big eyes and smiling faces made them look friendly, serene. By reading the captions, I understood that these works came mainly from Greece, Turkey, and southern Italy. Italy? How was it possible that I had never come across such interesting objects? I felt a desire for exploration mixed with some frustration: wonderful treasures were scattered around me, maybe even below my own feet, and, for a strange conspiracy, I had been kept unaware of them. They seemed close and familiar, and yet inaccessible; there was a treasure, I had the will to find it, yet there was no map to guide me there.

While advancing in my exploration of the book, I observed how statues got more and more naturalistic, until reaching a point of unbelievable similarity to the real thing; and how beautiful and sensual they were! The architecture got grander and grander: my imagination was fired by the dramatic black and white pictures of the ruins of the Caracalla Baths, the temples of the Foro, the Pantheon, and the Imperial Palace in Rome…Rome! I knew it was not far from my small, boring hometown. Like all young escapists, I snubbed my own place, being absolutely certain that real wonders could be found only at a reasonable distance. In fact, Fondi vaunted some pretty decent stuff: medieval and Renaissance churches with some paintings and sculpture of interest, an imposing castle, bits of pre-Roman and Roman city walls, but everything was difficult to access, or closed.

However, there was one place that I loved: at the time, some Roman fragments of statues and architecture that had been found in the area were gathered in a fifteenth-century cloister with a well, among orange and lemon trees. It was open to the public and completely unsupervised, not bad as a roaming field to spend some hours alone. Occasional visits to local archaeological sites such as the Jupiter Temple in Terracina or Tiberius’ Cave in Sperlonga increased my desire: I wanted to wander among the ruins; I wanted to see the sculptures that were the model of the fragmented copies lying on the floors of the cloister in Fondi. I wanted to go to Rome! I tried to temper my curiosity by reading the Rome Touring Club Guide owned by my grandfather Ezio, and studying the map of the city: the curves of the river Tiber, the main thoroughfares, the parks, and the areas highlighted as ‘being of interest’, the precise locations of the archaeological sites, the piazzas, monumental fountains, and museums. When, much later, I went to Rome with a school trip, I was able to tell my friends what the huge buildings we were seeing through the windows were, while the bus drove us around.

Meanwhile, there were journeys to Rome, but, although I could catch some glimpses of what I had seen in the books, it was always slightly frustrating, because often the people I was with did not share my curiosity. I learned that the statues that I was so eager to see were kept in museums, and museums were not among the priorities of our day trips to the capital. Thus, I started developing a craving for those big palaces, where you had to pay to get in and look at the magnificence of their interiors, and the beautiful pieces of art created by people in the past! When I came back from a three-day school trip to Pisa, Florence and Siena, my mother was so disappointed at the fact that the pictures that I took (I was given a camera for the first time), once developed, showed just buildings and statues. I have a vivid memory of the places that we visited: Piazza della Signoria and the copy of the Michelangelo’s David in Florence, Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa, and, above all, climbing, unseen, the façade of the never completed new cathedral of Siena, getting on the open-air terrace on top of it, and find the stunning view of the city and the hills around, while the snow begun falling. How beautiful it was! How happy I felt.

Florence, Piazza della Signoria, 1992 (photo by the author)

Pisa, Piazza dei Miracoli, 1992 (photo by the author)

When it was my turn to decide which secondary school I wanted to go to, I had no doubt: the Scientific Lyceum in a town nearby offered classes of history of art and drawing. Unfortunately, my teacher was not very keen in the art history teaching but, at least, when it came to drawing, he let us copy from our art history manual. I started looking at Renaissance and Baroque art for subjects, and my interest slowly shifted to more recent forms of creative expressions. By the end of secondary school, I had never studied art history, and yet I was sure of what to choose at university: Heritage Studies. I immersed myself in the study of art, and since then, I have been lucky enough never to stop. The shy teenager has managed to survive his ordinary life in 1990s provincial Italy, to visit, study, and work in many of the places he had so wildly dreamed of, and to find a way in the competitive fields of arts and culture without losing the simple pleasure of wonder, and still enjoying the healing and exciting effect that art has always had on him.

-Dr Antonio David Fiore, PhD OU alumnus

Antonio received his PhD from the OU in 2017 on ‘The Artist as an Instrument of Propaganda: Giulio Rosso and the Decorative Arts in Italy during the Fascist Ventennio.’ For info on our PhD programme, check out the Art History website. If you’re interested in antique sculpture and reception, watch our Open Arts Objects film on the Laocoön. Watch Antonio’s why art history matters film on youtube!

 

Why Art History Matters: Karen Huxtable

I live, and have for the majority of my life, lived in a small Devon village and we did not visit galleries and there were very few galleries to see without travelling and it was OU that opened this opportunity to me.

I finished my BA open OU degree in 2016 and I took mainly multi-disciplinary humanities courses and that is where I discovered Art History. I really enjoyed those modules  and I particularly remember discovering the 60s artists particularly Pop Art and Rothko and visiting the Tate gallery to view these paintings.

I live, and have for the majority of my life, lived in a small Devon village and we did not visit galleries and there were very few galleries to see without travelling and it was OU that opened this opportunity to me. I have been so pleased that my eldest son who has now just finished his law degree in Liverpool has discovered the benefits and joy of art, which is great living in a city like Liverpool that is rich with culture. I really enjoyed the art history content of the course so much that I chose my last module to be the level 2 Exploring Art and Visual Culture (A226) which was fabulous. I gained my highest grades I had ever received, in my 15 years at the OU (I started and stopped a lot).

I want to share the benefits that I have experienced through art with the diverse audiences we have in a public library. My degree has also enabled me to develop my writing skills and to be able work under pressure to deadlines but also has helped me to develop a creative mind.

I am a Mum of 3 boys and I worked as well as studying throughout my degree and in the last year full time at the library. I also have an anxiety disorder and went through huge life changes whilst carrying out my course and I love how art can stop you overthinking and concentrate on the moment. I learnt so much and I love to go to galleries and I promote art in my job as a Senior Supervisor for Development in a busy public library, which includes programming the events in the library.

I love to be able to put art experiences on in the library and last year I was able to programme a piece called the Bellhouse which was an interactive Sound Installation:

I was really excited about the reach of this installation, which included scientists, academics, and children and young people.

I want to share the benefits that I have experienced through art with the diverse audiences we have in a public library. My degree has also enabled me to develop my writing skills and to be able work under pressure to deadlines but also has helped me to develop a creative mind.

-Karen Huxtable, OU alumna, Senior Supervisor- Development at Exeter Library

You can take a free short course, drawn from A226, Exploring Art & Visual Culturewhich focuses on Dutch Painting of the Golden Age over on Open Learn 

Why Art History Matters: Ruth Collins

Art history is not just the study of famous paintings by old, dead masters, it is a multidisciplinary subject that covers social anthropology, gender studies, theology, architecture, archaeology, palaeography, design, displacement, history, representation etc.

There has been an overwhelming bias against the study of art history in public perception; art history degrees are derided with a “Mickey Mouse qualification” taint that is hard to break. Obviously as someone who has just completed their humanities degree in art history, I am in “the importance of art history camp” but I think the devaluing of the subject stems from a misunderstanding of what art historians actually do.

Art history is not just the study of famous paintings by old, dead masters, it is a multidisciplinary subject that covers social anthropology, gender studies, theology, architecture, archaeology, palaeography, design, displacement, history, representation etc. It is a seemingly endless list of different disciplines because of the very nature of art history as a subject. If I want to learn about a particular artist, the subject teaches me to learn not only about a key work but also prior pieces, influences and associations of the artist, techniques, art periods, other emerging artists of the time, past masters, commerce and trade connections, protest and turmoil, or global events such as the art movements of Surrealism and Dadism in the interwar timeline.

In my own career as a jobbing artist, art history has aided me in learning different techniques to expand my range. Prior to studying for my undergraduate degree I was content to work mainly in charcoal for portraiture, or recreating historically accurate costumes and dress. While learning about art history I have explored technical skills of past masters and discovered a love and new found passion for painting portraits in a new (to me) medium of oils. Now when I recreate an eighteenth-century dress, I have a broader knowledge of the history behind the silk and textile trade but I also have a greater knowledge base of paintings to reference for my dress designs. Because of the confidence I have gained with studying art history through the Open University, I am organising a guided museum tour for a group of children and parents from a home education co-op I am involved with. I intend to try and impart some knowledge and encourage other people to embrace art history as a broad and interesting discipline.

The study of art history allows people to embrace the history of their area, their country, and their place in the world.

My decision to study art history will not be ending with the completion of my humanities degree, I successfully argued myself a place onto a competitive Master’s degree course (conditional upon a 2:1). The Master’s I have been accepted for usually only admits students from a history or archaeology background, but I was able to demonstrate that my education in art history gave me a perfect broad, interdisciplinary knowledge base that was directly applicable to my further studies. Art history does not just teach you about art, it also teaches you how to learn about a range of topics. An example of this multifaceted education can be taken from a look at a single automaton, Tipu’s Tiger. By studying this piece, art historians are able to discuss, British and Indian portrayals in colonial India, the East India Company, other European relationships with Asia, transculturalism, silk production, trade, uprising and revolt or textile design in Paisley, Scotland.

Open Arts Object, Tipu’s Tiger

For my final essay, the examinable component of my degree, the EMA, for A344, Art and its Global Histories, I chose contemporary sculpture and installation and discussed not only two pieces of public art but also the history of the area they were displayed in and in the case of one, the history of the museum’s relationships with Eurocentric viewership. Art history allows the understanding of visual communication methods. For most of human history, we were an illiterate society; art allowed people to share an understanding and break communication barriers opening them up to religious expression or trade. Contemporary art history allows humans to understand social movements and expression through creativity, far from being an individual subject, highly specialised and unattainable to the majority, art history is a leveller. The study of art history allows people to embrace the history of their area, their country, and their place in the world.

-Ruth Collins, artist and OU alumna (BA 2018)

A344, Art and its Global Histories is a new third level module at the Open University. Its textbooks, co-published with Manchester University Press have been widely adopted across the world in the teaching of a global Art History. To learn more about Tipu’s Tiger, watch one of our Open Arts Objects films, or follow its history through the interactive,  Travelling Objects.

Why Art History Matters: Katie Ault

Art History asks important questions about how we imagine and comprehend our place in the world, how we relate to each other, how we remember the past and create the future.

My interest in Art History was first sparked many years ago when I was given Gombrich’s The Story of Art for my 11th birthday, although I was more interested in looking at the pictures than reading the text! I went on to study Art History as part of an undergraduate Fine Art course, after which I worked for a number of museums and galleries, and developed my own practice as an artist. Recently I have returned to academic study to renew and deepen my understanding of Art History and I completed The Open University’s Art History MA last September.

The OU’s Art History MA is a flexible part-time course that allowed me to study alongside other commitments. It engages a broad range of topics and historical periods with a global reach, from painting, sculpture and architecture to conceptual art, landscape design and outsider art. In the first year theory is explained and made comprehensible and accessible through case studies involving close visual analysis; the second year builds on and extends these themes and demonstrates their contemporary relevance. Although both years offer research training, there is particular emphasis on research and writing skills in the second year, leading to the final dissertation, which I found particularly useful. Live online tutorials and a Study Day provided opportunities to improve my presentation skills; online forums offered valuable opportunities for discussion with academics and fellow students.

Art History asks important questions about how we imagine and comprehend our place in the world, how we relate to each other, how we remember the past and create the future. As such, the OU’s course material was challenging at times, but it was always rewarding. Through this course I have deepened my understanding of this complex subject, become more confident tackling difficult texts and feel better equipped to critique and construct arguments. As a result I was runner-up for the Association for Art History’s Post-Graduate Dissertation Prize (2017) and am now looking forward to furthering my academic interests with The Open University as a PhD candidate, supported by CHASE (Consortium of Humanities and Arts in the South East).

-Katie Ault, artist, MA alumna, and MPhil/PhD Candidate

For an overview of the MA in Art History, see the Art History Department’s website or take a taster course on Open Learn on Artists and Authorship: The Case of Raphael

Why Art History Matters: Karen Downs-Barton

I never expected my studies to lead me into the History of Art path, or that of becoming a published poet, but it has.

I started studying with the Open University while running an app building business but changed direction totally after studying the history of art and creative writing components of the level one modules. This led me on a journey through Exploring Art and Visual Culture (A226) and Art and its Global Histories (A344) and into becoming a published poet specialising in ekphrastic and art centred poetry. The objects and histories I encountered during my studies crop up in unusual ways such as a trip to Cape Verde where reading about its role in the slave trade fed into poems accepted by Tropica Laced Magazine.

While studying, research for various assignments has taken me to a number of cities around the UK, feeding into my writing. A trip to Manchester resulted in a series of poems published by Otoliths, covering subjects as diverse as the Pieta and drug addiction, while visiting Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art resulted in poems to be published by Riggwelter in issue 11, ‘Artist and Empire’ and ‘Glasgow’s Clockwork Orange’ and various other outlets. The art historical journey goes beyond the singular pilgrimage as Renate Dohmen’s Open Arts Objects film The Pilkington Album and Leon Wainwright’s film Sonia Khurana’s Zoetrope have been shared with friends and family as part of a dialogue about art, connections, and globality.

After seeing these films, I visited the Illuminating India exhibition at the Science Museum and saw a fantastic photo album in one of the vitrines. Further investigation into its provenance with the curator and another in India has generated research into representations of gender in South Asian art, poems about which are now being collated into a chap book to be published in 2019. I never expected my studies to lead me into the History of Art path, or that of becoming a published poet, but it has. I don’t know where it will lead me next but I’m sure it will be somewhere both unexpected and exciting.

Karen Downs-Barton, OU student

A344, Art and its Global Histories is a new third level module at the Open University. Its textbooks, co-published with Manchester University Press have been widely adopted across the world in the teaching of a global Art History. Open Arts Objects provides free films and teaching support materials.