In Defense of Art History

When I was young and easy under the apple boughs, there was a fad for “rap Shakespeare” and the like.  The idea being: the Bard’s brand of English is so inaccessible to modern audiences, it needs to be “updated,” so that students can at least get acquainted with the plots and characters.  At the time I dismissed it as mindless dumbing-down (in reality, it was probably an early form of “teaching to the test” — you can truthfully say, for certain funding-related values of truth, that your students have “read” Hamlet if they can recognize Polonius and Ophelia, yo).

These days, I’m almost ready to sign off on rap Shakespeare.  The point of education is still to give students an acquaintance with the best that has been thought and said, but because this is 180 degrees from the point of the Ed Biz, our modern youth lives in an endless, contextless now.  They’re told to be the change they want to see in the world, but since yesterday’s gospel is today’s thoughtcrime, it’s best to go through the SJW motions while doing your best to not do, say, or think anything at all.  They don’t, in their heart of hearts, believe that change is possible.  Everything is the same and nothing can ever be different, no, not ever, world without end amen.  We have always been at war with Eastasia.

That’s the value of the much-maligned discipline of art history.  Confront a student with this:


or this


or this


and you’ve shown them a world that might as well be Mars.  What could those paintings possibly mean?

I’m not talking deep philosophy here.  Start with the basics.  What’s actually in the picture?  Describe it to me.  Start with the last one: “Well, there’s this half-naked guy, and he’s in… bed?  And there’s, like, a skull on a table.  And he’s writing something in a book.  There’s a candle, and is that a knife?”

Ok, good.  Go on….  Need a hint?  The painting is called St. Jerome Writing, and it’s by Caravaggio, painted around 1605.  Doesn’t help?  Well, who’s St. Jerome?  What did he write?  Hie thee to Wikipedia….

See what I mean?  This isn’t deep analysis, with technical notes on the composition.  This is the equivalent of rap Shakespeare.  It’s such a striking image that it can’t help but pull you up short.  What could he possibly be doing, there with a book and a skull at zero-dark-thirty?  What kind of man would keep a skull by his bed?  Did they really DO that back then?  If not, it’s a… whaddyacallit… symbol?

Just by establishing the basics — the few actual things that are actually in the picture — you open doors to an entirely new world.  There was once a world, kids, where everything in this picture made perfect sense.  Things were different once, and they can be again.  In that world lived a man called Caravaggio, and he was one of the great artistic masters of the late Renaissance.  What’s the Renaissance?  Glad you asked…

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7 thoughts on “In Defense of Art History

  1. P_Ang

    1. Bewbs
    2. Medieval playing cards
    3. Sew-Crates from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

    Now, my college Shakespeare professor was one of the last old-school professors. There was no dumbing-down. That’s why I still remember the first few stanzas of Richard the Third. You have to have both read AND understood the literature in the barest hopes of scraping by. You had to memorize it to guarantee a passing grade.

    1. Severian Post author


      I was fortunate enough to go to a low-end, 3rd-tier state school back in the days…. “back in the days” meaning “during the great changeover, when all the so-called Good Schools started going all in on Po-Mo and Social Justice.” Had I made it to Harvard, I could’ve gone my entire career without getting less than an A…. but at Minor League State, I got my ass kicked up and down the un-ivied halls. That’s why I still remember things like the 7 electors of the Holy Roman Emperor. You damn well better have facts in hand if you come to Prof. So-and-So’s class…

  2. Al from da Nort

    I really like your approach: Since Art shows what Patrons-who-paid-for-it thought was important at the time that it was made, Art History is a good backdoor into History-History. Start with questions about the art, get the answers from the history

    I just wish it had been taught that way, even back in the day. In retrospect, it seems that even 60 years ago Art History was taught as yet another strand in the rope of ‘progress’.

    Except, of course, when it all starting turning into excrement as early as 100 years ago. So, to apply the paradigm, “What do the faceless bureaucrat patrons of today spending other peoples’ money think about the history of today_? The sad and obvious answer is degradation, and nihilism, it would seem.

    1. Severian Post author

      I am not, I should add, an art historian. I only know what a reasonably educated layman (with impeccably philistine taste) knows. I do use visuals this way, though. Really, any art will do — give Wagner a good listen. If you can figure out why late 19th century Germans were so wild for this guy, you’ll understand something important about 19th century Germany.

      I find that jokes work best, if you can find them (and if you can tell they actually ARE jokes). A favorite of mine from the USSR goes:

      An archaeological expedition in the sands of Egypt digs up a mummy. He’s obviously important, but nobody can figure out who he might be. So all the advanced nations’ best archaeologists are called in.

      The Japanese team uses micro-technology to scan the mummy — no good. The Americans use crazy space-age technology too, but get no further than the Japanese. The British, the French, the Germans, they all try and fail, until at last, in desperation, the archaeological community turns to the Soviets.

      The Soviet team goes back in the room with the mummy. 20 minutes later, they come out and announce: “It’s Ramses XVIII.”

      “How do you know?” the other archaeologists ask, astonished.

      “He confessed, the bastard!”

      Tells you a LOT about the USSR, right there.

  3. Jay Carter

    As long as “rap” has been mentioned here today . . . I’m going to throw this into the mix:
    I find it very puzzling, that many times, when I read about the tragic death of a young black man, the article will frequently describe the deceased as “an aspiring rapper”.

    And this is sad.

    It’s sad, because while so many of these young black men spend their time chasing the elusive dream of becoming a “rapper”, so many real promising opportunities are passing them by.
    At warp speed. 

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