In the image era, why is art history being squeezed?

For more than a half century, art historians have had a pretty good press. From Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilization (1969), based on the three-year BBC series of the same name, which introduced a generation to the story of (mainly Western) art, to Hayden Herrera’s Frida, a biography of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo that was turned into a film in 2002, to Sir Simon Schama’s Rembrandt’s Eyes (1999) and Power of Art (2006), art historians have been best-sellers.

The 2014 film, The Monuments Men told the story of the art historians and curators belonging to the Allied armies’ Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit; their steely nerves, personated by George Clooney and Matt Damon, tracking down and saving at least 600,000 pieces of art stolen by the Nazis, does much to undercut the quip by Otto von Bismarck, the conservative German politician who engineered the creation of the German Empire in 1871, that the families of those who study art history are but one generation removed from moral degeneracy.

Art historians are at the forefront of both debates about the authenticity of works like Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi and about repatriating works of art such as the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles and the Benin Bronzes.

The latter comprise 2,400 finely crafted bronze and brass sculptures, portrait heads, jewellery and smaller pieces, some dating back to the 13th century (thus before contact with Europeans) were looted from the Kingdom of Benin (present day South Nigeria) by a British punitive expedition in 1897. They are now divided among 23 museums in 10 countries; the British Museum holds 700 pieces while Berlin’s Ethnological Museum holds about 580.

Two months ago, the University of Cambridge became the first institution to return one of the Benin Bronzes: the Okukor, a finely wrought cockerel.

Sonita Alleyne, master of Jesus College, Cambridge, said at the ceremony at which it was given back to representatives of Nigeria that, in addition to the work being an object of beauty, “it is an object of meaning, both spiritual and religious”.

The previous June, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced that it, too, would be repatriating the two bronzes in its collection.

And, in 2019, when Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol toppled and decapitated the head of the statue of Edward Colston, who grew rich by slave trading, and, in the United States, when cities and towns began removing monuments to Confederate generals like Robert E Lee, art historians were the go-to experts by television and radio news shows seeking to understand the history and public memorialising of art.

In Canada, they’ve been pressed into service to discuss the toppling or defacing of statues of Queen Victoria, Sir John A Macdonald and Egerton Ryerson, all for their roles in the establishment of the Residential School system.

For almost a century, thousands of indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families, all in the name of “taking the Indian out of the child”, and, in which, the country is learning, more than 1,000 – and as many as 10,000 – died from malnutrition or abuse and were buried in unmarked graves.

Such professional visibility – and the fact that museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Getty in Los Angeles, the Dallas Museum of Art and thousands of smaller regional and local ones could not exist without art historians – has not prevented in the past few years a number of American universities, including the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, from considering closing their art history programmes.

According to the College Art Association of America, since 2018, four art history departments or programmes have been terminated.

While none of the schools – John Carroll University (JC) in Cleveland, Ohio; the College of St Rose in Albany, New York; Keene State College (KSC) in New Hampshire and William Paterson University (WPU) in New Jersey – has agreed to be interviewed, University World News has been able to piece together at least part of the story and how it fits into the more troubling pressure academic art historians feel and what faculty feel as an attack on the humanities that is partially mirrored in Britain but not in Germany.

In each university, the cuts to art history were part of wider cutbacks that hit the humanities especially hard.

According to Hank Reichman, professor emeritus of history, California State University (East Bay, California) and former chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, between 2003 and 2013, state support for public research universities declined by 28% on a per-student basis.

“One consequence of these trends has been the growing emphasis on training for careers over educating for citizenship and life as central to higher education’s mission, which has had a profound impact on the humanities, in particular.”

In June 2021, KSC cited a decline in enrolment caused by the COVID epidemic for causing a US$14 million deficit. To plug this budgetary gap, the college announced the suspension of several programmes, including modern and contemporary art history, and the laying off of 18 professors; another seven took early retirement buyouts.

JC’s art history department, which shut its doors earlier this year, was one of four departments, including, masters in humanities, that, in September 2020, the university announced would be cut.

The Jesuit-run university, which claimed “budgetary hardship”, refused the advice of the committee composed of deans and (appointed) faculty members to maintain an art history minor and attach the two tenured art historians to other departments.

Instead, in a move that both faculty and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) said violated the rules laid down in the Faculty Handbook, the university’s two art historians received letters terminating their positions, effective 31 August 2021.

In his 11 February 2021 State of the University address, WPU’s president, Richard J Helldobler, announced that, to close a US$19 million deficit, he “anticipate[d] needing to say goodbye to approximately 90 to 100 faculty”.

The deficit was the result of, he said, a 1.3% drop in enrolment caused by the COVID crisis.
(Helldobler also said that, because of the expectation of further drops in enrolment caused by the shrinking pool of students in and around New Jersey, it meant that the deficit could not be carried over in hopes of growing the university out of it in the future.)

While acknowledging COVID’s impact on the university’s bottom line, Dr Sue Tardi, AAUP chapter president and sociology professor, says that WPU’s budget problems predate the pandemic. She points a finger at the university’s decisions to build a US$25 million garage, “which we did not need” and to attempt to compete with Montclair State University, a larger and wealthier school eight miles (13km) away, by adding programmes.

In accordance with New Jersey public universities and colleges state-wide contract, WPU sent layoff notices in November 2021 to all the faculty, which established a 180-day period during which the university could proceed with restructuring.

After a series of tough negotiations, the faculty accepted the suspension of sabbatical leave and agreed to other givebacks, which, together with the transition to retirement plan and voluntary separation programme that the union had previously established, “got the number down from 100 faculty who were going to lose their jobs to 18 to 20”, Tardi says.

Two of the professors who took early retirement were the senior professors in WPU’s art history programme.

According to Dr Maggie Williams, the most junior member of the programme, after discussions with the dean, “took the early retirement package thinking that if they did that, would protect me and the next-senior professor”.

Instead, pointing to the art history programme’s low enrolment, and acting under the clause in the contract that says programmes can be cancelled if an institution is in fiscal crisis, WPU eliminated the art history programme, “which then allowed the termination of the tenured faculty within that programme”.

Williams rejects the university’s claim that art history had low enrolment. “We were very much aware that we did not have a large number of majors in art history. But the art department has one of the highest enrolments and retention levels on the campus. The bulk of my and my colleagues’ teaching was to service the studio art and general education of students,” she says.

WPU’s administration keeps talking about enrolment, Williams further told University World News, but, when doing so, they considered only those students who majored in and graduated from the programme – and not the total number of students enrolled in classes.

It also appears to have mattered that WPU’s art history programme was not an in-house initiative. Rather, it was created because the national accreditation agency told the university to develop it. “We already had the faculty, so the programme would not cost the university any more money.”

But, for the administrators who were using a corporate model that classified programmes by how much they earned (the key metric being the number of tuition-paying students enrolled in the major), the data appeared to show that the programme did not bring in additional money.

Professor Rachel Dressler, who teaches at the State University of New York in Albany, New York, echoed Williams’ point about administrations focusing only on graduates and ignoring the tuition dollars large introductory art history classes represent. In a sardonic tone that matched her words, she told me: “Compared to the sciences and their expensive equipment and facilities, we’re a cheap date. All we need is a digital projector, a computer and PowerPoint.”

‘Convenient cover’

While Williams believes that WPU used the COVID crisis as a convenient “cover” to enact a restructuring plan that predated the pandemic, she does not think that the art history programme was closed for ideological reasons.

Rather, she praises WPU’s administration for pushing professors to decolonise the curriculum of a university which is “majority minority”: 38% of the university’s students are white, 32% Latino, 17% black and 7% Asian. Most of these students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and are the first in their families to attend university.

As do professors Dressler and Karen Leader (Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton), and Professor Alixe Bovey, dean and deputy director of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, England, and Professor Johannes Grave, director of the Seminar für Kunstgeschichte und Filmwissenschaft at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany, Williams conceives of her discipline quite differently than it was when I went to college in the mid-1970s.

Then, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972) guided discussions of the relationship of the image, such as the female nude, and power – of both the artist and the intended (male) viewer –and Arnold Hauser’s Social History of Art (1951) provided a neo-Marxist frame for understanding the finished work.

Yet, it was Erwin Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology (1934) that undergirded most of the art history courses I took at Bard College in upper New York State and at McGill University in Montreal.

“Brilliant as he was,” says Dressler, “Panofsky tied up all the loose ends. He had it all figured out. Now, the emphasis is on seeing that images form messages and there can be two or three in the same work of art.”

To ensure that her minority students see themselves as having a connection to the story of art and to provide a basis for them to start thinking through what institutional learning looks like, Williams began her Understanding Art course by showing Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s rap music (2018) video, The Carters.

Filmed in the Louvre, the video is very much about the relationship between wealthy institutions and colonial collections of art as well as African Americans.

“At one point,” says Williams, “the video even refers to Colin Kaepernick [the African American National Football League quarterback who, after ‘taking a knee’ to protest police violence against African Americans, was never allowed to play again].”

Speaking of the humanities in general and art history in particular, Leader, who proudly identifies herself as being on the left of the political spectrum, says that the COVID crisis and the decline in enrolment it has caused has been used to close programmes that institutions have wanted to close for a long time and that the layoffs were stark reminders for other programmes.

“Not to overstate it, they really hate us. They think that we brainwash children to be communists,” she told me.

“They”, it soon became clear, are right wing and corporate think tanks, and politicians such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz who push the “capitalist belief that if you go to college, you should be learning job skills, like STEM, something that the minute you grab your diploma you will walk into a US$50K a year job,” she says, before adding: “It’s never been true. It’s never been the role of higher education.”

Ironically, she notes, this isn’t what employers are telling us. Study after study has shown that employers want employees with core competencies such as written and verbal communication skills and intercultural fluency.

Leader, Williams and Dressler all used the term “critical thinking” as one of the skills taught by art history. The term also figures prominently in DeSantis’ speeches explaining why he banned Critical Race Theory from Florida’s primary and secondary schools, and why he recently signed a bill requiring Florida’s public colleges and universities (including Leader’s) to undertake an annual survey to determine if students are being indoctrinated into what the governor called, “stale ideologies”.

Though he did not name an ideology, his unwavering support of former president Donald Trump, his signing into law bills that critics say restrict voting rights of minorities, his regular conflation of socialism with Cuban-style Marxism and his referring to the claim that the United States is systemically racist as “a bunch of horse manure”, indicate the limits of how far DeSantis believes “critical thinking” should go.

The sort of social analysis Leader believes would discomfort DeSantis, Rubio and Cruz is what most art historians now focus on. “Yes, I teach my students (both those in the studio arts programme and in art appreciation and introduction to art history) to recognise craft and talent. But I also teach them how to recognise misogyny and the reinforcement of gender stereotypes and race stereotypes.”

For Leader, art history helps individuals grapple with difficult concepts. The 15th-century woodcut, The Dance of Death or Edvard Munch’s Self-Portrait after the Spanish Flu show the prevalence of death in a pandemic and the toll a pandemic takes on an individual. Further, she argues that even a work as far from today’s headlines as Michelangelo’s Pietà connects with the present.

“If you understand the sensitive humanity in the Pietà, you can recognise the terrible scenes we are seeing of refugees not making it to shore and dead children in the water,” she says.

Early in our discussion, Dressler staked out art history’s ground in words quite similar to those used by Williams, Leader as well as Bovey and Grave. “Art history is the one discipline that studies visual communication and that it is extremely important today because of the transitioning from a text-based culture to an image-based culture (think of emojis),” she says.

The philosophical investigation of ein Bild (the image) which, until recently, has been a major concern of German art historians and which Grave characterises as examining “what images are, what pictures are, how they work” is in both the United States and Britain more concerned with content and, thus, with the history of the period the image was created in and our viewing it today.

“Art history helps students discern what’s behind the image, the strategies that are being used to create images that attempt to convince the viewer of one thing or another,” Dressler told University World News. “This isn’t a bad thing; it’s art’s purpose. Sometimes it’s overt, as in advertising, sometimes it’s covert.”

When I asked her for some examples of how she would teach this concept, Dressler first brought up the infamous Time Magazine cover of 27 June 1994 that showed the former (American) football star, OJ Simpson, who was then on trial for the murders of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.

On the cover, “he was darkened and his racial features were emphasised. However, you may feel about his guilt or innocence, that was deliberately using his race and emphasising his race as a way of depicting him as a bad guy,” she says.

Dressler’s second example would, if anything, discomfit traditional art historians and conservative American politicians even more, for it came from her specialty, medieval art, which used to be taught as a study in tracing sources, classifying technique and reading the icons: St Peter, for example, holds keys: the keys to heaven.

The statue (c 1240) of the early Christian martyr St Maurice in the cathedral in Magdeburg, Germany is important, Dressler says, not because of his asynchronous dress – he’s dressed as a 13th-century knight – but because of what it says about the construction of ‘whiteness’. The anonymous artist gave the figure of St Maurice, who, according to legend, was born in Thebes, Egypt, the facial features and colouring of an African.

Dressler uses this statue to unpack the racial attitudes in the Middle Ages. “It shows that the concept of ‘whiteness’ arose in the medieval period,” she told University World News, “not in the 19th century, not in the 18th century as has often been said.”

By focusing on how the anonymous artist portrayed St Maurice’s blackness, Dressler says, students see the growth of the idea of ‘whiteness’ is related to the greater contact with people of colour, mainly through the Crusades.

Like Leader, Dressler also dismisses the idea that “STEM is where all the action is”. However, when I asked what art history could bring to these fields, she quickly brought up Professor James Elkins’ work.

According to Dressler, Elkins, the EC Chadbourne, chair of art history, theory and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has shown that, far from being true to life, the illustrations in medical textbooks are not, obviously, two-dimensional renderings of three-dimensional objects, they are also abstractions.

“We and medical students take them as literal images of the body and what it is but, like maps, they are abstractions.”

A knowledge of art history and, especially, how perspective was discovered and works, she told University World News, would be useful for medical students.

A tale of rich and poor departments

During our Zoom call, I asked Bovey about the health of art history departments in Britain. She said that, as is the case at schools like New York University, Harvard and Princeton, universities with huge endowments, the Oxbridge departments were doing fine. The same is true, Bovey says, of the Open University (London), and University College London, both of which have been hiring.

To make the accounts of the Courtauld Institute of Art – the small specialist institution, which cares for an important collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and offers BA, MA and PhD degrees that Bovey directs – work, Bovey said with a smile, is an exercise in “defying gravity”.

Bovey is less sanguine about the prospects for art history departments and programmes in regional universities now that COVID-necessitated government aid programmes are set to wind down.

A further threat to art history programmes in regional universities is the way the higher education market has changed since August 2020 – when the government lifted caps on enrolment at universities in England.

We’re seeing a textbook example of free market economics, she says. Larger institutions have “chumped up large numbers of students,” leaving fewer students to attend other universities.

In an effort to keep the pipeline full, combat the perceived or actual elitism of art history (associated as it is with graduates of posh schools like Eton) the Courtauld runs a summer programme for 90 state school students, most from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are interested in art history.

“We are trying to support the whole ecosystem. Obviously, we want some to come to us. But there are some wonderful art history departments in the country. What we don’t want is the pond scenario, where the carp eats all the fish and then starves. We need to have other departments to be healthy and vibrant,” says Bovey.

The curriculum they follow differs from what the institute, which was founded in 1932, had traditionally been known for. “When I came to the Courtauld, it was all people who worked on European and maybe a tiny bit of American art. But the American artists were people like Louise Bourgeois or Salvador Dali, basically Europeans naturalised in America like Willem de Kooning,” she recalls.

After pointing out that 40% of Londoners do not identify themselves as being white, Bovey told me: “People are not going to come and study art history if they cannot recognise their own visual heritages in our curriculum.” Accordingly, she and her colleagues have worked at broadening and globalising the curriculum.

Like Grave, save for the controversy that blew up in 2016 about the cancelling of the A-Levels for art history in the state schools (which ended when the education publishing conglomerate, Pearson, agreed to run the A-Levels), Bovey doesn’t think that the general public spends much time thinking about art historians.

Yet, she notes ironically, the recent emotional debate about whether statues should be torn down or left standing is, fundamentally, an art historical debate. It’s about who is celebrated, who is not and what form memorialisation takes in public spaces.

“Art historians have a role to play in the debate because the quality of the debate has been extremely low,” she told University World News. “We should be playing a role in bringing nuance and historical understanding to the debate that is often very emotional and very selective in the reading of the historical record.”

Cuts fears in Germany

According to Grave, while, at the moment, art history departments in Germany are healthy, he is concerned about what happens when the state governments begin cutting their budgets in order to deal with the deficits created by the emergency spending during the COVID pandemic. He doesn’t think that such cuts will lead to closure of art departments because of the fact that German professors are officers of the state and cannot, as a rule, be fired.

Still, the fate of the Art History Institute at the Universität Osnabrück, which will close in the spring of 2024, indicates that German universities are not immune to the neo-liberal, business mindset that has led to the closures of the art programmes in American universities.

Part of the reason for the closure is low enrolment. Further, Professor Helen Koriath, who teaches modern and contemporary art in the Art History Institute, told University World News: “Since art history is not a school subject and cannot attract as high third-party funding as other subjects, especially natural science subjects, the subject of art history is viewed as inefficient, and from our point of view as ‘worthless’,” by the university’s administration.

The retirement of three professors at Osnabrück means that these positions will be vacant, which will allow for the closure of the Institute for Art History.

According to Koriath, the closure of the Institute for Art History will leave a lacuna in the university’s art programme.

“What is particularly dramatic and worrying from my point of view is that the subject of art, which can be studied at the University of Osnabrück, now has to get by without the art history expertise, which is indispensable for the courses,” she says.

For the present, German art history flies under the radar of public consciousness generally and, thus, is not part of Germany’s version of the ‘culture wars’ roiling the United States, Canada and Britain.

“Some people are concerned about literary and social studies because they are engaged in a political and social way with identity politics, gender codes in language,” notes Grave. “But it is not the case that art history plays a significant role.”

While noticeable, the shift in the past few years from philosophical questions about ein bild is not, Grave says, at the point Yale University reached last year when it announced that, despite its popularity, ‘Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present’ was being eliminated.

According to the Yale News (24 January 2020), the course was being cancelled because it idealised a “white, straight, European and male cadre of artists” and was going to be replaced by several more globally focused courses.

Nevertheless, some German art history departments are more oriented toward African, Asian or European and North American art, respectively, while others focus on art and artifacts. Still others focus on social, political and economic aspects of art.

Ironically, as much as these last three ways of examining art would touch off another round in the culture wars in the United States or Britain, in Germany not only are they the most likely areas of concern that would lead art history to come to the public’s consciousness but, also, the findings of art historians in these areas are likely to be understood and valued by the public, Grave told University World News.

“If you would talk to people on the street,” Grave says, “there would be questions about why we finance art history. But, on the other side, there is a growing consciousness of the cultural sector from an economic point of view and that includes art museums.”

Additionally, he noted: “We art historians could even say we deal with things that seem to be worth US$450 million,” he says, referring to the price Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince (and de facto ruler of) Saudi Arabia paid for Salvator Mundi.

German art historians are also, Grave told me, involved with questions of provenance of works taken from Africa or Asia during the colonial period. They also play a major role in the restitution of art looted from Jews and state collections by the Nazis.

Unique focus on the image

The art historian’s focus on the image sets the discipline apart from the other humanities. It also, Bovey, Dressler, Leader, Williams and Grave argue, universalises it. “Image-making is as elemental as storytelling. Everything people are interested in, there is a visual record of it. To study art history is to study every part of the human endeavour: religion, politics, science, medicine, grief, hope or dreams for a good crop.”

Further, these scholars agree that art history’s focus on the image is more important than it has ever been, given the ubiquity of images in advertising, in the media and, especially, in social media.

“We are in the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” says Bovey. “Visual literacy is one of the core skills people are going to need and art history is the key discipline in developing this literacy.”

As an example of how images are replacing written text, she says, “I largely communicate with my older daughter via emojis, like the ancient Egyptians. They would have been surprised and delighted that we have returned to a kind of hieroglyphic mode of communication.”