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What’s with the Old Stuff , they ask

Anuradha Nambiar, researcher and art history teacher sees the disparity between theory and practice involved in the teaching art history as a subsidiary subject for certain disciplines in Universities. She says that often the students ask why they are bombarded with this ‘old’ information. The author says that the syllabus should be revised to suit the changing demands of the courses taught in Universities.

In a bid to retain some sense of continuity with art history and aesthetics, I recently began taking ‘art appreciation’ lectures at a few design institutes. Within the first month itself, I began to feel ancient!! When I was a student, my teachers had insisted we submit handwritten assignments, complete with a bibliography. In contrast, my students go to the first few website that appears on their Google search and cut-paste at random large chunks of text from them all with no compunction regarding referencing or any interest whatsoever in interlinking or contextualizing data. Is this generation’s apparent inability to create coherent essays a symptom of an evaluation system gone the multiple-answer way, of their blink-and-miss attention spans or more alarmingly, their attitude towards art history?

Headed towards diplomas and degrees in design, architecture or the fine arts – all “practice- based” fields – they see art history, aesthetics and suchlike theory subjects as a pain, a class they have to attend but cant see the relevance of. In some design institutes, art history isn’t a graded paper at all; merely a conceptual input that requires no real participation of the student. In others, it counts for a paltry percentage of the student’s annual aggregate. When the institute or university itself seems to deem the subject so insignificant, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the students don’t consider the subject a priority.  

On one long bus ride to class, I found myself sitting next to one of my students…polite introductions completed, she very hesitantly began asking me what it was I do for a living….why did I decide to take up art history as a career… And after a half an hour conversation on the exciting world of cultural theory, she asks me why it was important for them (budding architects) to learn about “old stuff”. I half wondered if this was a ‘lets rattle the teacher’ attempt but soon realized the question came from genuine perplexity.

I have always been fascinated by traditional architecture, crafts, textiles and art. Studying art history provided an opportunity to understand where these objects come from, what they are about, how material availability and function inform the making of these objects as well as their final form and usage…and mashed into this learning process was a growing appreciation of how every era and every region has certain distinctive qualities…an aesthetic. I suppose I had always naively assumed that anyone working in material culture would share this interest.
In trying to justify the necessity to be aware of the past visual worlds we have access to, I found myself thinking of what I call the pastry tower houses I recently saw in Kerala. Old nalukettu homes, with their central courtyards and low tiles roofs were being demolished and sold off piecemeal to make way for concrete and cement buildings with flat roofs and wall to wall granite. The fact that this appears to be the aesthetic of preference of many of the upwardly mobile is to my mind extremely disturbing. But even leaving this perhaps prejudiced view aside, there is the issue of how such structures can possibly be suitable for a climate with torrential rainfall, high humidity and no winter. The tin sheet roofs perched atop many of these ‘Western style’ mansions like cheap party hats are a poignant indicator of the schism between the idea of the house and it’s lived experience. In comparison, you have the traditional architecture…with slanting roofs and low overhangs to ensure rainwater drained off and the sun didn’t roast everybody in the room, organic materials that “breathe”, and windows and open gables that make the most of whatever gust of wind happens to pass by. With the prices of wood becoming increasingly prohibitive, some measure of change is logical but do we not need to find answers that allow for comfortable living? It may be agued that we of the contemporary can create our own solutions. To my mind, art history merely gives you a starting point and the tools to do so. After all we don’t set out to discover the laws of relativity or Euclidian geometry all by ourselves. We are taught them so that we can go build on them, even occasionally, to disprove them.

If knowledge of the material culture of the past is a means for the creation of the contemporary, it is also ammunition to ensure that students are historically and politically vocal and able to integrate theory and practice, utilizing research to complement the design process.

A lofty ambition, but one I am afraid our current syllabuses and course structures don’t do much to address. During their very first exposure to the world of art history, the students – even the novice fuchhus – are bombarded with a period by period account of the evolution of art. In the case of European history the syllabus seems to dwell on the ancients and then hop, skip and jump to modernism.  In the Indian context there is the ancient-medieval-modern progression. While chronology, stylistic phases, iconography and narrative are doubtless important arenas, such a methodology seems to ensure, for the most part, glazed expressions and a disconnect with the subject.

Would the interests of the student not be better met if theory was woven into practice?  There is much to be said about bumbling along until the batti suddenly comes on …

Learning about Cezanne while trying to copy one of the master’s works and realizing for oneself the underlying structure of the composition and the complexity of the layers of colors….
Seeing negative and positive spaces by doing Matisse like cut outs and Morandi-esque still life’s with scraps of paper….

Interpreting the role of the gavaksha in temple architecture by building terracotta models…
Understanding the concept of Ardhanareshwar through a Bharatnatyam performance…

….And for extending these flashes of realization into something new and personal.


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