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

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: Isabel Alexander

So, what does art history mean to me? It means the return of my intellectual life. It means identity, it means stretching my wings, it means being more than a mother, it means being myself again.

I began my art history journey as a nerdy eight-year-old when someone gave me a copy of the National Gallery Children’s Guide and continued it at school where I was one of five students who took art history AS level with a delightfully eccentric teacher. I begged to be allowed to continue to A level but had to settle for English Literature until I arrived as an undergraduate at the University of York in October 2005 clutching my copy of Gombrich. At university, I felt I had finally found something I excelled at. I adored the interdisciplinary nature of art history and developed a particular fascination with nineteenth-century photography. I was one of the top students in my cohort, graduating with a 1st, a high dissertation mark, and a funded MA place lined up. There was even distant talk of PhD funding and my academic future seemed assured, if I chose to accept it. Unfortunately, with the kind of lack of foresight that only 21 year olds possess, I decided that a better use of my early 20s would be to give up my funding and move in with my then-partner at the other end of the country.

Unsurprisingly, I regretted that decision on an annual basis for the next seven years. Friends finished their MAs, started their PhDs, finished their PhDs, published, taught, and inhabited a world that I had voluntarily cut myself out of. By 2015, I had a good job in publishing, was married and had a baby. While on maternity leave, student loans for postgraduate students became available for the first time and my husband, who has been my greatest cheerleader throughout, insisted that I go back and do the MA I felt I’d missed out on. The only course that even came close to working with my schedule was the OU Art History MA, so I decided to apply.

I’ll be completely honest here – I had never, until that point, considered the OU. But now here I was, a mature student, a ‘stay at home mum’ (how I loathe that phrase), a non-traditional MA student. Gone was the cocky undergraduate who’d always been top of the class. I was absolutely terrified as I wrote my first TMA – what if I’d forgotten how to write academically after nearly a decade of writing website copy? What if I’d just been lucky with my undergraduate tutors and was actually not cut out for academia? What if having a baby had drained my brain of its critical faculties? Fortunately, I had the wonderful Dr Veronica Davies as my tutor and she supported me every step of the way. She listened patiently to my sob stories of toddler meltdowns, chickenpox, house moves and other obstacles, gave me extensions for TMAs (which I then frantically attempted to complete with a small child in tow) and generally jollied me along.

When I sat up all night feeding my baby and reading module materials on my phone in the dark, it gave me an incredible feeling of purpose and mental alertness that had been missing from my life for far too long. When I got my first distinction back I cried and felt like I’d come home, as absurd as that sounds. When I went to my first Courtauld symposium in nearly a decade and asked the panel questions and nobody laughed me out of the room, my confidence started to come back. When I had my first conference paper accepted, the feeling grew stronger. When I stood up to give that paper and received nothing but positive feedback afterwards, I felt like a ‘real’ academic for the first time in my life.

I cannot recommend the course [the MA] enough – in fact, I’m now glad I didn’t take that funding all those years ago because I would have missed out on the unique and transformative experience of OU study.

I’m currently writing my MA dissertation and have two more conference proposals in the pipeline. In the autumn, I’ll be starting my PhD applications, again with the support of the incredible OU MA team. I cannot recommend the course enough – in fact, I’m now glad I didn’t take that funding all those years ago because I would have missed out on the unique and transformative experience of OU study.

So, what does art history mean to me? It means the return of my intellectual life. It means identity, it means stretching my wings, it means being more than a mother, it means being myself again.

-Isabel Alexander, OU MA student

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