Scrutinizing History Through Art

Historical narratives are subjective. Utilizing dates and accounts from primary sources (censuses, treaties, wars, etc.), the historian pieces together a record of the past. The history we know today is written from the perspective of the historian (or the collective of historians whose writings must be peer reviewed before they end up in the history books). Therefore, it is difficult to deny that their personal biases or the larger ideological framework of their field is at play in what they choose to include and omit from a historical portrayal.

Historian, Edward Hallett Carr, stated that historians interpret historical accounts with a selective and personal bias (Carr, 1961). Art educator and researcher, Karen A. Hamblen (1985), suggests that the historian’s own ego and belief system is connected to their written account. Therefore, a history written by the powerful or influential is less an accurate representation of the collective culture and more of a glorification of the hierarchical system. We all perceive and internalize reality in different ways. What we see is actually filtered through a combination of our unique experiences and the culture we are a part of. A soldier’s account of war will be different than their foe’s or a civilian’s. Public opinion is formulated through an amalgamation of influential sources such as the media, political leaders and the academy (higher education). The way we view history is consistently in flux based upon, which value system(s) and sources of information our society holds to be most evident and true.

The version of history we have in our curriculum is skewed from the perspective of those who have maintained political, cultural, and economic power. Have you ever heard the saying “the winners write history”? If the history of Western Civilization was written from the perspective of the poor, the working class, and the marginalized communities, we would have an alternative narrative for a great deal of popular history. Such a record would assuredly contrast the historical doctrine that has become a part of our collective consciousness.

Amburgy (1990) presents a view of history that is focused on the education of the masses. She cites examples of progressive educators like Jane Addams (1860-1935) and Ellen Gates Starr (1859-1940) who understood that education, especially bolstered by the arts, would lead to a more skilled, spirited and autonomous workforce. These ideas during the age of industrialization (1870s-1900) were seen as counterproductive to the governing elite who wanted to speed up production by replacing skilled laborers with machines. Artists and arts education have endured various attacks from bureaucrats and oligarchs to this day.

The Arts and Crafts movement during the late 19th and early 20th century’s came as a response to the degradation of the decorative arts in the wake of machine manufactured design. Artisans were successful in awakening the public’s appreciation for handcrafted objects, and the movement made progress in ascertaining the decorative arts as a high form of art, synonymous with fine art. Although the movement could not compete financially with the trends of capitalism, it remains an important influence for those who seek to become more ethical producers and consumers. Today’s D.I.Y. practices have commonality to yesteryear’s artists and artisans.

The rise of capitalism and nationalism presented both existential challenge and potent ammunition for visual artists to address significant social and political issues. This is especially important in an age where there is so much indifference or disdain towards the suffering of others. Everyone should be familiar with Picasso’s Guernica (1937) and Goya’s El Tres de Mayo (1808), which visualize the horrors of war and oppression; themes, which sadly have continued to inspire works of art in this day and age. There’s also a wealth of information to be gleaned from the more contemporary works such as Leon Golub’s paintings of dictators and torture scenes; the anarchic political paintings of Peter Saul; Kerry James Marshall, Robert Colescott, and Mickalene Thomas’ aesthetic responses to the Western canon through the lens of African-American history and identity; Benny Andrews’, and May Stevens’ portrayals of Civil Rights leaders; and the artistic celebration of women’s vital contributions to history and culture through the work of the Guerrilla Girls, Judy Chicago and Nancy Spero (See: Guerrilla Girls’ wide array of public posters, billboards, and videos; Chicago’s The Dinner Party; and Spero’s Notes in Time). Additionally, the work of Dorothea Lange, whose poignant photographs of poor and marginalized citizens from the Great Depression through WWII, raised social consciousness about the dispossessed and unemployed farmers and laborers, as well as the Japanese-Americans who were forced into internment camps. Alongside Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980-2005), these images provide a stark reality of the “American Dream” being deferred.

A whole curriculum could be written and implemented using art to illuminate and reveal different variations of historical narratives. Historical works of art should encourage students to interrogate their own personal and collective histories and not settle for one single viewpoint simply because it has been passed down as the academic or mainstream status-quo.

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Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979) at the Brooklyn Museum is a symbolic narrative of women’s profound impact on Western Civilization. Photographed by Arthistorygrrl

Works of art that comment upon social issues should bolster any history lesson. Analyzing works of art by using Feldmen’s four step process of describing, analyzing, interpreting, and judging, helps students understand that art can be used as an effective tool for communicating social, cultural, political, and economic viewpoints. It is also important that students understand that any work of art can be used as propaganda, and have them see (and discuss) examples of works of art that has been used by governments to strengthen its position of power and influence upon its citizens.

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Dorothea Lange’s iconic 1936 photograph, Migrant Mother, would be a great image to scrutinize using Feldman’s method of art criticism. Before learning about the Great Depression, an educator could show students this image and ask them to describe, analyze, interpret, and judge this photograph. They should re-introduce the image while the students are learning about migrant workers and families during the Great Depression and prompt students to discuss the social and emotional effect that the work might have in relation to the social ills of that time, and whether this image and its subject matter holds true in the contemporary era.

In summation, we can learn a lot about history through art. Both discipline’s subjectivity makes for a profound and open-ended discourse. The fact that humans have been expressing and recording  their personal and collective observations visually since prehistoric times is a testament to the importance that art has on our perception in ‘making sense’ of the world. Art and History should be taught together, because each discipline bolster’s the other’s significance.

Current perspectives of history and culture undoubtedly champions the elite who have accumulated wealth and power. It is up to a new generation of progressive, forward thinking people to craft more democratic policies so that we can present an evolving look at the past and present that is more indicative of the collective and individual experience. Art can inspire our future ‘leaders’ to do just that.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Amburgy, Patricia M. “Culture for the Masses: Art Education and Progressive Reforms, 1880-1917.” In Framing the Past: Essays on Art Education. Eds. Donald Soucy and Ann Stankiewicz. Alexandria: National Art Education Association, 1990. 

Carr, Edward Hallett. What is History? Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1961.

Hamblen, Karen A. “An Art Education Chronology: A Process of Selection and Interpretation.” Studies in Art Education, v26 n2, 1985.

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