Canadian Art History, Circa 2012
Report completed by Mark Clintberg
Session moderator Martha Langford launched the discussion on education by observing that as the digital economy grows the roles and responsibilities of educators are shifting. The question at stake in this panel, Langford stressed, was how to pass on knowledge to the next generation. To this end she proposed a definition of education that included classroom settings, archives, and other venues that aim to share knowledge.
Major themes explored in this session included: radical and student-empowering pedagogical strategies; theories of “the commons” deployed in outreach and education initiatives; the role of print books and e-books in disseminating knowledge; a return to the use of physical objects and artifacts in the classroom alongside the skills of close looking and analysis; and a search for a working definition of “Canadian Art”—including ways of de-stabilizing such a nationally established canon.
A key question of the day was: should educators present canonical historical narratives and then destabilize them for students, or allow students to take initiatives themselves to upset the arrangement of such narratives? Several replies to this query were introduced throughout the session.
The panel presenters—Erin Silver, and duo Mark Cheetham and Erin Morton—offered very different models for education’s roles in distributing and activating knowledge, and in encouraging independent thought. These presentations also responded to the (implicit) question of nationally defined art history in very different ways.
Cheetham and Morton spoke about their joint project The Canadian Art Commons for History of Art Education and Training (CACHET) that is bringing together five partners: the Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art, The University of Toronto’s Canadian Studies Program, Art Canada Institute/Institut de l’art du Canada (ACI/IAC), The Banff Centre, and The University of New Brunswick. This initiative is a network that involves two proposed pilot projects: 1) making the permanent collections of key institutions available for open-access online research; 2) offering a series of online workshops on specific topics “having to do with Canadian art history in all its different forms,” as Cheetham put it. He revealed that the initiative’s training component would offer instruction in the editing of online forums and scanning and uploading of images, among other practical applications.
When Langford asked why Cheetham had dedicated his efforts to this project, he spoke of a need for “more access for the general public and the specialist public” to images and information about art history, and most importantly, to provide access to “the commons,” which he defined as an open, non-commercialized site for discourse.
Loren Lerner asked Cheetham and Morton why the Art Gallery of Ontario and Beaverbrook Art Gallery are collaborating with CACHET to digitize their collections rather than working with the federally run Canadian Historical Information Network (CHIN). Morton replied by saying that “ideologically, part of what CACHET is trying to do is build a digital commons model where the [art] institutions [such as museums] actually have control” of the content and direction of their images rather than allowing third parties to manage their image archives.
One important challenge acknowledged by the participants concerned a serviceable, practical model of “the commons.” In terms of education, what modes of exchange, what relationships between participants does such a commons involve? Does online access signify democratization of information, and therefore a broader form of education that reaches marginalized groups, for instance? Cheetham and Morton clearly do not take such outcomes for granted and are interested in pursuing concrete manifestations of the commons with their partners.
After making it clear—in a friendly and collegial way—that she intended to “explode” what Cheetham and Morton had just presented, educator Erin Silver presented an ambitious framework for training students of art history. Her pedagogical philosophy calls on Paulo Freire and Ira Shor, who pursue scenarios where the teacher is equally “a classroom researcher, a politician, and an artist.”1 Silver’s class “Significant ‘Others’: Queer Partnerships in Art and Art-Making,” which she taught in Concordia University’s Department of Art History in the fall of 2012, follows a collaborative and dialogic method where each student is paired with a queer artist mentor for the term. Mentors included approximately forty volunteers from Quebec, Ontario, New York, and California. A “cross-continental cross-temporal” time-capsule project, also a component of this course, was initiated in collaboration with students enrolled in the course “Grrrl Style Now! Craft and Feminist Methods” at the California College for the Arts, San Francisco, led by Anthea Black.
A guiding question in developing her class was “how might collaborative models maintain political power outside the classroom?” Overall, Silver emphasized the importance of taking advantage of digital media, online networks and technologies that students are familiar with, but that are generally underutilized in the classroom.2 For example, to respond to the paucity of archival material on queer communities, the course will be digitally archived and available as a website.
Just how interactive and collaborative does pedagogy need to be, though?3 Students in Silver’s class have taken on a high level of responsibility in determining the course’s structure—which Silver said was not surprising considering that this same generation of students mobilized student protests in Quebec less than a year ago.4
Silver and her students have co-developed a class blog, a tumblr account, as well as an exhibition and publication related to the course material. Her goal has been to mobilize research methods and knowledge in the classroom so that participants can go on to share and modify this information in their own cultural circles.
Silver, who is in her second year of teaching, made clear her objective as an art historian: “to avoid producing new systems of exclusion that omit various subcultural and marginal voices from the conversation.” This means not hemming in “Canadian Art History” as a category. Instead, she welcomes radicality and instability in the classroom. This proposition met with nods of assent from many gathered around the table.
Is education a matter of presenting information to students, or is it rather a matter of sharing learning opportunities with students, where student and instructor gather around the subject to share their fascination and curiosity?5 This compelling question, introduced by Silver, triggered much of this session’s discussion.
Education for Broad Audiences
Sara Angel presented on Art Canada Institute/Institut de l’art du Canada (ACI/IAC), a privately funded publishing initiative of which Cheetham is currently the Commissioning Editor.6 The ACI/IAC intends to publish fifty monographic and thematic online texts about art in the first five years of operation. Articles will each be 10,000 to 15,000 words. An editorial board of fifty members makes selections and recommendations for the authors and subjects of these books, stamping them with a standard of quality absent from blog entries, for instance. Cheetham reported that they have already completed manuscripts for the first five monographs that focus on Emily Carr, Jack Chambers, Kathleen Munn, William Notman, and Harold Town.
Angel explained that ACI/IAC offers an important contribution to the existing scholarship on Canadian art. She acknowledged that many people in the room “have contributed enormously to scholarship on Canadian art history in books, in articles, and so forth. But somehow the book […] isn’t always the most practical vehicle for disseminating education about Canadian art history.” While ACI/IAC may occasionally publish in print, its primary focus will be on e-books.
Since her background is in trade book and magazine publishing, Angel expressed a great interest in providing material on art as education “for the broadest possible audience.” With that aspiration in mind, ACI works with a team of trade publication editors to make these peer-reviewed texts as “readable as possible.”
Langford asked how the public would access this knowledge; would it be published serially, like the novels of Charles Dickens, she inquired? Angel replied emphatically, “yes,” and that ACI/IAC’s goal is to create an intersection between the academic world and all Canadians. ACI/IAC hopes that eager readers will be anticipating future publications on Canadian art as if awaiting episodes in a serialized novel.
Object Studies and the Contemporary Turn in Art History Education
Many respondents agreed with Johanne Sloan’s and John O’Brian’s comments that the majority of incoming undergraduate students in art history are strongly attracted to contemporary art, and would prefer to focus on today’s artistic production instead of historical material. Kristina Huneault referred to the dominant student interest in the contemporary as “monocular,” and said that the “burden is on us” to relate the present to the past. O’Brian similarly said that he feels what is needed in response is a pedagogy that brings the historical and the contemporary into dialogue. Silver replied by introducing the problem of teaching about historical subcultural practices: how to present credible information when there “is no documented history to refer back to?” O’Brian added that Aboriginal practices, for instance, are profoundly historical—which Heather Igloliorte augmented by saying Aboriginal practices are profoundly embedded in a continuum between past and present.
Methods for manifesting the historical in the present through teaching were further discussed by Sherry Farrell Racette. She championed the importance of bringing physical objects into teaching scenarios, rather than strictly relying on digital images. She explained that students who encounter seventeenth-century objects in person by physically handling them, for instance, develop a much deeper interest in them. Huneault concurred and emphasized the importance of “close looking”—detailed visual analysis—and bringing objects into the classroom, or more feasibly, the classroom to the objects. Michèle Thériault later tempered these enthusiasms by also noting an “incredible return to connoisseurship and the object” through training for students at auction houses, such as Christie’s.
Concerns for the prospects of graduate students began to emerge in this session. Earlier in the day John O’Brian had worried about shrinking Canadian opportunities for the distribution of graduate student research; this discussion was picked up in relation to teaching. O’Brian explained that many graduate students working in Canadian universities cannot find publishing opportunities in Canadian scholarly journals, and so their research ends up in journals in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. There are, he said, “too few places to see this work” done by graduate students in Canada.
O’Brian’s concerns raise two supplementary questions: first, is this a limitation or failing on behalf of Canadian journals; second, is it necessarily a negative outcome for Canadian research to be routed through international journals? As O’Brian pointed out himself, this situation brings Canadian material to a global audience, which is undoubtedly a positive outcome.
What is Canadian Art History?
The remainder of the panel was devoted to the vital question: “What do we mean by Canadian art history?” Does this term refer to the geopolitical space where art is produced, to art that is made by Canadians, or to the research that is done by Canadian art historians? How can we ensure our discipline remains open to new voices, and to reinterpretation?
Karen Stanworth (York University) introduced her own online resource and network project, Critically Canadian, which she has been developing for five years. The idea of the project is to provide an index of resources and contributors to Canadian art history in order to foster collaborations and mentorships. She expressed frustration with the redundancies presented by several online forums and research resources, and the technological limitations of the Web. She concluded her contribution, echoing earlier concerns, by opening up the question “what do we think Canadian art history and visual culture are?”
Alice Ming Wai Jim advocated presenting the Canadian art historical canon to students but also “shaking it up.” She spoke about the necessity of supporting emerging areas of research on previously neglected topics in Canadian art history—areas that are sometimes provocatively called non-Western. As an example she introduced the Ethnocultural Art Histories Research Working Group (EAHR), an organization she helped found, but which is now entirely run by students, some eighty active members in the Montreal area (from Concordia and beyond). This “exhibition pedagogy” project has involved curating exhibitions and in some cases conducting so-called audits on local museum collections, reporting on the ethno-cultural makeup of those artists whose work is displayed as a way to uncover “difficult knowledge” about categories of racial exclusion in today’s exhibition institutions.7 Jim stressed the importance of offering learning situations that incite students to conduct autonomous work, echoing Silver’s valuation of student-generated course content.
Langford stated that her goal is to present “credible information in the classroom […] while undermining it, breaking it up, and fooling with it at the same time.” Dominic Hardy similarly explained his own teaching method as one focused on presenting the historical “in a very unstable interpretive environment.“ He spoke to the group about courses where students conduct “fantasy curating” by developing exhibition concepts that include both contemporary and historical artworks. Apparently Silver’s agenda for radical pedagogy geared to empower students had fallen on receptive ears.