May 2003

Barnard College

Art Succumbs to 'Visual Culture'

A few years ago the National Association of Scholars published Losing the Big Picture, a report on the fragmentation and dilution of the English major at twenty-five leading American liberal arts colleges since the 1960s. Barnard College was among the schools in which the English curriculum had been most adulterated by postmodernist theory and content, as evidenced by a marked increase in the proportion of courses dealing with writers of dubious value or importance (often selected because of race or gender) and a growing focus on trendy issues of "cultural critique." To judge from Barnard's 2002-2003 course catalogue, however, the debasement of English education at that once premier women's college (my alma mater, whose decline I have witnessed with regret) pales in comparison with the corruption of Art History studies there.

According to the departmental statement, "art history, which is devoted to the study of the visual arts, . . . is concerned not only with the nature of works of art--their form, style, and content--but also with the social, political, and cultural circumstances that shape them." The statement pays lip service to "developing in students a lifelong understanding and appreciation of works of art" through introductory-level courses. The advanced courses, however, reveal a preoccupation with social and political issues and a concomitant tendency to expand the subject matter to include non-art forms. While the description for a seminar in "Art and Mass/Popular/Everyday Culture: 1850 to the Present" seems to imply a distinction between art and "non-art forms of culture," such a distinction is largely ignored or blurred throughout the departmental program.

Film and photography, for example, are treated on a par with painting, despite fundamental differences between them (for reasons why photography should not be classified as art, see "Photography: An Invented 'Art.'") Worse, no distinction is drawn between documentaries, on one hand, and art or feature films, on the other. Departmental courses listed as counting toward the major include "History of Photography" and "Ethnographic Film and Photography." The latter "investigates cultural representation . . . in works like Nanook of the North"--a classic documentary film. A course on "Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture" is said to place "major emphasis on painting and photography, but also attention to urbanization, early cinema, world's fairs, fashion, and technology." In "Tourism and the North American Landscape," students examine "the relationship between 19th-century landscapes (paintings, photographs and illustrations) and tourism in North America" and explore "the semiotics of tourism." And what is one to make of "The Shape of New York: Transportation Systems and Urban Development"? What do modes of transport and urban development have to do with art?

Finally, there is a heavy emphasis on the usual gender-related and other politically correct issues. A course on the "Art and Culture of the Northern Renaissance" is devoted, in part, to "an analysis of pictorial meaning in terms of class and gender"; students enrolled in "Women and Art" learn how "to analyze visual images of women in their historical, racial, and class contexts, and to understand the status of women as producers, patrons, and audiences of art and architecture"; and "Feminism and Postmodernism in the Visual Arts" predictably features the work of such contemporary artworld luminaries as Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman, whose reputations surely owe more to their p.c. quotient than to any visual artistry.

A few years ago, the lawn in front of the Barnard Library was studded with a motley assortment of chairs, either crudely fashioned or clumsily transformed with accretions of plaster. An equally crude sign labeled the display Is This Seat Taken? It was a senior thesis exhibition by a student majoring in Art History, with a concentration in the Visual Arts. The Visual Arts concentration at Barnard requires five studio courses, and this work apparently qualified as sculpture. Regarding the point of the piece, the student explained to me that she intended to imply something (just what is anybody's guess) about the "fine line between art and function." Since furniture and chairs are a part of everyday life, she said, she did not think it fair that they are "relegated to craft." "Why shouldn't they get the same amount of attention as works of art?" she asked, as if the possibility of a hierarchy of human values had never occurred to her, or had never been suggested by her professors.

None of this should be surprising, perhaps, when one considers that Barnard's president, Judith Shapiro, is an anthropologist who welcomes the fact that--as she noted in the Summer 2000 issue of the Barnard Alumnae Magazine--"culture now refers not only to Paradise Lost and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, but also to nose rings and televised wrestling."

I much prefer the definition of culture offered by Jacques Barzun (in his essay "Culture High and Dry"): "the traditional things of the mind and spirit, the interests and abilities acquired by taking thought." This is the view of culture that prevailed in the years I spent as a Barnard undergraduate in the 1950s, and this, I would argue, is the sense of culture most germane to an institution of higher learning.

- Michelle Marder Kamhi