‘What are you going to do with that?’: Teaching Medieval Art History in the Twenty-First Century /Eliza Garrison


‘What are you going to do with that?’: Teaching Medieval Art History in the Twenty-First Century

Eliza Garrison, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT

In the face of an educational culture that encourages the use of cultural buzzwords to make Humanities courses seem more ‘relevant,’ what is the place of analytical thinking and learning about a past that can seem on the surface so different and disconnected from our own? As someone who has been interested in images, in the past, in texts, and in language from a very early age, I find it difficult (even if healthy) to pose such a question. Nonetheless, I wonder about the kinds of questions that economists or political scientists would ask themselves if the educational status quo shifted dramatically and suddenly so that they were put in the position of justifying the ‘relevance’ of those fields.

At the outset I should say that I have the good fortune to teach at a highly selective private liberal arts college in rural New England, and thus my reflections come from a position of rarified privilege: the institutional endowment is strong; my students (all undergraduates) are bright and engaged; and, relative to many of my peers, my teaching load is manageable (2-3 every other year; 2-1-3 every other year). At present I teach the general introductory survey to Western Art History and a Methodology seminar, both core requirements for the Art History major. I also teach an introductory survey of medieval art history (Early Medieval and Romanesque, Gothic, Northern Renaissance) each semester. Because of my duties teaching the core courses, I do not have the luxury of teaching upper level seminars, a fact that I find increasingly frustrating. But that is another story for a wine hour at Kalamazoo. Although I am the only medievalist in my department, I am lucky enough to have wonderful medievalist colleagues in other departments on campus. We have even received administrative approval to organize a medieval studies conference on our campus in the fall of 2014. So, even though I am in an ideal situation, I share a number of pedagogical concerns with my colleagues at other types of institutions.

Let me return to the question I posed above: why should our students bother studying artworks and buildings created in a past that seems so different from our present?

Learning about artworks created long ago and learning about the people who made and used them can be difficult for anyone. As a medievalist, I derive a great deal of pleasure from the intellectual challenges posed by this chronological distance. Once I feel like I have come to a new understanding of a specific artwork or building or style or art-historical concept, I feel like I have simultaneously reached a new way of understanding historical and art historical phenomena more generally. My students get the most intellectual benefit from the class when they are able to come to similarly new understandings themselves. Of course, much of this process happens in their research and writing, but it can also happen in a class in which we consider an artwork in the College Museum, or in a darkened classroom when we look closely at a digital reproduction of an artwork on a screen.

However, coming to such important new realizations about artworks often involves a bit of intellectual struggle; it requires a willingness to look beyond a surface that may seem straightforward but is ultimately filled with nuance. That is, studying the past and dealing with intellectual problems can enrich our lives in ways that are distinctly not financial or quantitative. Yet the ability to think analytically and learn to ask questions of ourselves and of the world around us is essential and unalienable. As a friend of mine who teaches Creative Writing at another college in Vermont said to me recently (and I paraphrase): one of the most important things about College is that students are forced to read texts and look at things that are often simply difficult, but going through the process of reading and analyzing complicated material brings its own rewards. And now I will haul out the hoariest of hoary liberal arts clichés: learning is a lifelong process.

But what is so special about Medieval Art as an impetus for nuanced intellectual analysis? Well, for one, medieval artworks (and, I would argue, premodern artworks more generally) are richly complicated in ways that are distinctly different from works of contemporary art. For example, I asked one of my students, ‘Amy’ (a budding medievalist), about what the study of medieval art means to her as a twenty-first-century person and a so-called ‘Millennial.’  I should say that ‘Amy’ worked at the Computer Helpdesk and ran the College’s official student blog and so is particularly digitally-connected. To paraphrase her totally unprompted response: she began learning about medieval art at the same time that she was taking on the challenge of learning two new languages.  For her, learning about medieval art was similar to language learning: she needed to get a handle on the iconography (the vocabulary and the grammar) before she could begin to examine and analyze the other concepts and issues that a work brings to bear. Medieval images have many layers that she feels compelled to explore, and knowing how to analyze them, she said, is particularly important in today’s world, for we are bombarded with images at every moment of our lives. Whether it is limned on parchment, hammered into gold, or sculpted in stone, knowing how to analyze any image, object, or building constitutes a level of literacy that many people don’t have. I propose that it is a crucial part of functioning in the world we live in.

Medieval artworks seem decidedly ‘other’ to many of my students, at least at first; much of this unfamiliarity has a great deal to do with the cultural place of the Catholic Church in the contemporary United States. Although some of my students grew up with some passing exposure to Catholicism (or Christianity more generally), most of the students who enter my classroom have little familiarity with any religious texts or imagery. Many students worry that not ‘knowing’ the Bible will mean that they can’t take a class with me, since coming to a working understanding of the material will be too difficult. Once students realize that unpacking medieval iconography does not require them to buy into the beliefs of the religious tradition at hand, they then can come to appreciate its richness and complexity. They can then derive intellectual rewards from thinking about, for example, the tensions between a medieval object’s aesthetic qualities and the various spiritual and political ideologies that gave meaning to its forms. Once students have reached that point, they can also then take the works we look at in class on their own terms, and stop focusing on the fact that medieval artworks don’t look all that much like more familiar Impressionist paintings or Andy Warhol prints.

In the epigraph to the novel The Go Between, L.P. Hartley wrote: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,’ a phrase that has since, of course, taken on a life of its own. And yet it can help us think about what it means to write off certain academic disciplines and subfields as quaint or irrelevant. If, as a culture, we only support and value those disciplines and subfields that we somehow believe to have direct connection to our own present, then we bring ourselves to the massive cultural, intellectual, and political short-circuiting of our current experience. If we promote certain academic fields at the expense of others that are deemed luxurious at best and useless at worst, we feed cultural narcissism and ignorance. The examination of Medieval artworks attunes us to analytical gray areas, and keys us in to religious and political cultures that seem distant from our own, but continue to inform our present.


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