I've tried not to yammer on incessantly about what's involved in pursuing two master's degrees, as I don't imagine this topic is of much interest to people who aren't in the process of doing it, and they of course already know what special kind of hell this can be. I also use the (highly faulty) logic that if I have time to write about writing, I have time to do the writing, so instead I focus on valuable, time-sensitive topics like shoes and makeup and food. Or my cat. Or how I worry about being alone my whole life, or whatever I do blather on about most (I tune in and out).
But this is a major part of my life, and currently it is the thing that occupies literally every day. It is, and I'm not exaggerating this, constantly on my mind, and nearly every other facet of my existence gets measured against my thesis. This is only a small part of why I'm so, SO ready to be done with it.
I got an invitation to a symposium where selected other students from my department would present their completed master's dissertations, and for God knows what reason, this time I really paid attention to the titles and topics. Probably because I don't like myself very much and needed to add another item to the voluminous Thesis Insecurities and Anxieties list.
I had a professor once who referred to this style of titling as Academic Hypercolonics. I'm sure you can come up with some kind of an example, but the general format goes:
Cheeky Clever Title: A Mind-bogglingly complex analysis overwrought with buzzwords and terms you have to look up, requiring multiple readings to even discern the general topic.
Bonus points if it includes verbing a noun, rethinking a paradigm, identifying cultural shifts, or deals with something that by its very nature sounds obnoxiously obscure yet effortlessly sanctimonious.
Nine times out of ten (honestly, it's way way more), I read the titles of art history and theory papers, and I have an immediate "OMG, who the F caaaares?!?!" response. I am hopelessly impatient, and I get tremendously annoyed by things that seem tedious (how did I even get into a master's program in the first place?). It seems to me that those devoting their research to the exhaustive examination of cultural minutiae are even more predisposed than your average academic to the rigorously abstruse.
I know that I've written about this before, but there was a time when I was reading theory and criticism articles for an MFA class, and they were so dense and overwrought with appropriated philosophical vocabulary (often misused) and agonizingly unclear language that I reverted to looking up every other word with a dictionary and diagramming out really, precisely, what they were saying. Big shock, most writing about art does not actually say anything. It dances around in a lot of specialized tautology and self-referential terminology to achieve, essentially, a vague characterization of an artwork's theorized cultural impact. Or, avoiding any hard aesthetic judgments or qualifications, achieves criticism which is merely descriptive at best. Art criticism is, of course, its own animal, and I understand the need for this type of cagey, noncommittal writing (kind of). But art history? Really??
The way I understand the history of art is probably different from most because I have always looked at art as a painter and a person captivated by visual stimuli. If it's beautiful, or sexy, or makes me feel something visceral, I'm probably going to like it. If it's disgusting and ugly and weird, but intriguing, I'm going to spend time looking at it and also enjoy the experience. I'm not so upfront about what I think is "good" or "bad" (or in MFA terms "successful" or not) because I recognize that is all subjective, but I still have an instinctive, immediate response. I'm either interested or not, and so my definition of "bad" art is that which just falls flat and doesn't interest me. Wholly subjective and unscientific, and I'm okay with that. If it leaves me cold, I don't like it.
I also subscribe to the belief that throughout time, most people's system of aesthetics veers closer to mine than current art theory and criticism would have you believe. I trust my senses more than conceptual conceits, and I feel like if I have to read multiple tomes of smug, intellectually problematic and self-important theory (rife with hypocrisy) to say "Okay... I think I get it...." then it's not really my style of art. (I would argue it may not even BE art, so much as a masturbatory intellectual exercise, but that's another can of worms.)
So what matters when studying art history? Looking through an historical lens, we have the benefit of already knowing a work's impact from the time of its creation to present (more or less). We cannot, of course, predict what will become important to future generations (Botticelli was largely dismissed as a middling also-ran for centuries), nor can we guarantee that the art we value most now will even exist, if the materials are not handled in a future-minded way (hello, art conservation science!). We can, however, look at the background of a work's creation (patronage and commissions, predominant sociopolitical/religious etc ideology, reference images and sources, documentation of contracts, specifications about materials, working methods and techniques, and so on) as well as the immediate cultural climate in which it was received. In this way, looking at a painting now, and reading how people felt about it when it was made, we can tap into what it was like to live then, to think and feel in the artist's time, and to know a little more about being human as a consequence.
These connections are probably what draws me most to art history. Political history can tell you what happened, but the art and literature and music tell you how it felt. Voices carry over time and give you another version of existence, in other times and places and with different beliefs. This cultural material is, in many many ways, the literal stuff that connects people over time and unites humanity. (Obviously it's tremendously important to me.)
Good historical art, to me, is different from interesting contemporary art, but I use similar criteria to evaluate it. What I want to see, when looking at the piece, is how the artist felt when making it. How they used the materials, and to what effect. What it was to be alive in that time, place, and circumstances, and how they treated their subject in relation to that. As I said, this is because I look at art as a painter, and I know how most of it is made (or I work to find out). Painting is a tool to try to understand the universe, like math or language or botany, and I want to see that inquiry and exploration mapped out in the work. The "art" of being an artist really happens mainly in their head, and the "stuff" of art, I think, exists almost as a secondary entity to keep track of what they were doing. It's like having access to a scientist's notes on an experiment.
I have a silly and emotional connection to art, an historical camaraderie and tenderness that makes me weep when I see an anonymous painter's brushstrokes on a bird in Pompeii. I think things like "He really had fun painting this," and I get all mushy and overwhelmed. I'm really okay with that, and I've come to terms with the fact that I probably don't belong in art history as a field because I am just plain not interested in the overwrought intellectual arguments (often done faultily anyway) - it seems to me if that were the approach I wanted to take, I should study pure philosophy, but not call it art history.
I look at my thesis and I worry that it's trite and stupid and that anyone who is not really interested in flowers and Italian Renaissance painting and herbal medicine and Venice could have that same "OMG who caaaaaares?!" response that I have to other people's topics. I also get paranoid that it's all made up and has no factual basis beyond my own desire to see something that's not there (oh the falterings of confidence are fantastic on this one), but I keep transporting myself back to the first time I saw these paintings, when I noticed these adorable little rows of recognizable and identifiable flowers, and I thought "Hmm, what are they doing there??"
I've thought almost as much about the process of thesis writing as I have thought about my actual thesis. I talk with other students in my program, about their projects and their research strategies, and sometimes I feel like I'm doing something completely wrong. One friend, a pure art theorist writing on a contemporary conceptual artist, started by deciding he wanted to write on this artist, looked at all the artist's work, read everything that's been written about it, and synthesized an argument from there. I'm not gonna lie, that approach holds little interest for me, and I'm really happy that I started with an original observation and back-tracked through a whole pile of different influencing factors. I matched my research method to the Renaissance approach to ideas, and even if it's been scatter-shot and wobbling along in a bizarrely non-linear way, it feels right, and true to the work. I haven't been trying to retroactively apply my own ideas about art onto something anachronistically... I think it's more a thing of trying to tease out what is already in the work, what mattered to the artist and patrons, and what was in the air.
But knowing what's in the art isn't all of it. A scientist friend sent me a brilliant paper from this lab known for its extraordinary volume and quality of publications, on writing a paper. Among many marvelous insights, it had an unforgettable passage about what a scientific paper is, which seems applicable to any type of academic research (bear with me on this):
Realize that your objective in research is to formulate and test hypotheses, to draw conclusions from these tests, and to teach these conclusions to others. Your objective is not to "collect data".
As a corollary in art history, I would offer that it's also important not to start with a system of assumptions and manipulate your research to "support" editorial claims. There is a middle path where you can look through research objectively and sensitively, to learn as much as you can, and then say, okay, I think this is what this all adds up to. Then there has to be that "so what?" moment, where you unpack what that means to anyone else and explain why that is interesting for humanity.
I might be completely wrong about all of my methods and ideas, but after years of this research, inconceivable exhaustion and frustration, I think I've got some things to say. I hope they're interesting.