Karen J Leader
(Art History class at Mount Holyoke)
The photograph reproduced above drives me bonkers. Every time I see it, I have a conniption. Why, you might ask. It seems innocuous; playful and inoffensive. A cute youngish looking man mugs for the camera while a group of adoring young women watch him and smile. Judging from the surroundings they appear to be in a museum, or gallery. But rather than looking at art, he is clowning and they are giggling.
It is not just the image that sends me into paroxysms, it is the use to which it was put. In 2014, then-President of the United States Barack Obama took his turn taking a potshot at the humanities, choosing art history as his target. His comment predictably drew the ire of academic types, who did what they do best, and wrote well-crafted responses. (Full disclosure, I was among them, with my colleague Amy K. Hamlin. You can read it here.)
Scott Jaschik, the editor of Inside Higher Ed wrote a perfectly respectable example of such a riposte, complete with quotes from experts. A worthy entry into the debate, it generated quite a comment thread, and was shared on social media. The article was illustrated with that stupid image. Because it was shared, the image kept popping up, taunting me with its glib posing.
Why on earth was this utterly unserious image selected by a picture editor, or perhaps by the author himself, as a good choice to accompany an article trying to argue for the value of art history? (Full disclosure, I did not ask the author, because I didn’t want to risk yelling at him, e-mail style: what were you thinking dude?!)
The image infuriates me in part because it says nothing about crucial skills of discernment, critical thinking, or cultural and historical specificity that are the hallmarks of art historical study. In fact the works of art huddle in the background (a figure in one of them seems to stare back with the same disapproval I’m expressing here. So does one of the students, disgusted with the shenanigans and ready to look at some art already.)
This photograph does more than convey a lack of seriousness or rigor in an art history class’s confrontation with works of art. It actually reinforces a damning stereotype of the discipline: that it is elitist, only suitable for posh girls, here offered by central casting from the campus of Mount Holyoke. Reinforces, I say, because the stereotype is not only evergreen, but has enjoyed a resurgence. Google “art history posh.” I’ll wait.
The class argument, insisting that the humanities disciplines must be available to all, is crucial in debates around higher education of course. Thankfully, it has been made by some very smart people, and will be the subject of a future post.
For now, can I just suggest that picture editors, when choosing which image will best illustrate an article, ask an art historian for heaven’s sake?
Karen J. Leader is Associate Professor of Art History, and Faculty Associate in the Center for Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Florida Atlantic University. Her activities on behalf of art history and the humanities can be found here. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @proftinkerbell.