Saturday, November 19, 2016

Objectivity in the classroom

My academic career has been passed as an art historian.  In their classroom presentations and publications, art historians study objects, while “regular” historians are generally concerned with reconstructing events.  To take two rather different examples from the former realm, the “David” of Michelangelo and “The Hay Wain” of John Constable, students can verify our slide presentations by consulting the objects “in the flesh,” which are shown in the Accademia in Florence and the National Gallery in London.  Events, of course, involve a vast range of problems, from as the Norman Conquest of England to the rise of the Communist Party in China.

Sometimes of course there are complications, as with works that have not come down to us intact, as with much classical sculpture, or even destroyed, as with paintings and other works that did not survive World War II.  Here the enterprise of restoration may introduce a subjective element.

Authorship may be disputed, as with objects that are suspected of being forgeries.

Other complications occur when contextualization is offered.  The “David,” for example, belongs to the history of the nude.  Moreover, is its significance primarily Biblical, or does it symbolize the resistance of republican Florence to threatening foreign powers?  For its part, “The Hay Wain” marks the culmination of the Western tradition of landscape painting.  By the same token, it also projects a certain sense of timeless Englishness.  Other interpretations of these pieces could be offered, so that here is where subjectivity begins to encroach on objectivity.

The iconography of some famous pieces has given rise to contention.  For example, the traditional interpretation of the Parthenon frieze is that it depicts a Panathenaic procession, celebrated each year to mark the birthday of the goddess Athena.  Within this framework some details, though, are disputed.  Nor does the contention stop there. Recently, Professor Joan Connelly of New York University has proposed that the frieze actually culminates in a scene of human sacrifice.  

In such cases the instructor is obligated, in my view, to offer students a range of possibilities, being objective in the reporting of views, but subjective in the choice of the array. Of course, one can go too far in an overzealous interpretation of fairness, as in giving time in an ancient Egypt course to theories of “Pyramid Power” and extraterrestrial visitors; these are best left out, though the instructor must be prepared to answer student questions in this regard..


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