Art Elkins, James. Stories of Art. Routledge Term Paper

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¶ … Art

Elkins, James. Stories of Art. Routledge, 2002.

Imagine a book that was entitled 'World Literature a-Z' or 'Science -- Everything You Need to Know.' Very likely, you would be suspicious of such texts as superficial, and would not regard them as serious, academic overviews that treated their subject matter in any real depth. Yet according to James Elkin's Stories of Art, art survey courses often adopt a similarly inclusive project into their own ambitious scope. They are accepted by undergraduate students as having absolute academic authority as to what constitutes art and the history, or story of art. But Elkins argues that: "The single story of art is too flawed to function as the repository for the current sense of art history... Already the major art historians keep a mile away from survey texts: such books are written...by minor art historians who are more involved in teaching than in shaping the discipline (Elkins 130).

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Elkins stresses throughout his text that students and readers of art books in general invariably "expect sense and structure in their art history, and so far at least the overwhelming majority of attempts to write different kinds of art history have failed" (Elkins 55). Any type of story and structure created for the history of art, however deeply craved by the reader will not be able to have the all-encompassing scope desired by most students and readers and still be accurate. Just as art is subjective, and located in the voice and perspective of the teller, so are the critic's ideas about art. This has long been accepted as true with art aesthetics, but the idea of what is art history itself is no more fixed in stone.

TOPIC: Term Paper on Art Elkins, James. Stories of Art. Routledge, Assignment

Thus Elkins' text is called Stories of Art, not the Story of Art. Elkins argues that there are many stories of different artists, genres, peoples, and nations. Art history, particularly in terms of its undergraduate education, is falling behind other humanities disciplines that are attempting a more multicultural and multifaceted approach. The story of Western art continues to dominate the introductory parts of the discipline in the form of survey classes and the books designed to serve those survey courses. Every book and class is slightly biased and inadequate, at best, depending upon the author and the teacher. This means that potential art majors or simply people with an interest in art gain a misguided perspective of the field. They receive their introduction to art from the point-of-view of a lesser scholar whose ideas are simplified and very likely conflict with how the most cutting-edge theorists of art are articulating their views.

The reason there is not as much Indian or Islamic art included in the curriculum is that the "history of art," indeed all history, "privileges what is near at hand," thus stories of Russian art privilege Russia, American textbooks stress national and European art, etc. (Elkins 91). Another problem Elkins has with the way that art is taught in colleges and universities today is that it is taught in a linear, rather than a conceptual fashion. Just as every national history, as conceived of members of the nation, is intensely personal, so is every person's conception of art itself. He encourages his own students and the reader to be intensely self-critical of what he or she considers art from a personal perspective. He instructs the reader, to imagine standing on a beach and looking out at an ocean. The sea is like looking into the past of what is considered art (Elkins 55). The sand nearby represents the art the reader is personally familiar with and the shallow waters contain the art of the recent past and cultural milieu of the reader. The deeper ocean waters contain art from different cultures and time periods. "What would your version of such a landscape look like? Which artists or periods would be nearby, and which would be sunk in the abyss" (Elkins 5)? This is the individual's own personal, highly specific topography of art, and everyone has such an inner map, academic, critic, student, and human being. Art is a topography and the history of art it is not a list or a timeline.

Every person would construct their beach topography of art in a very different fashion. For some young Americans, the familiar images of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists like Monet and Van Gough would be most familiar, for others, the Pop Art of Andy Warhol, and still others might see all of art as a great and sinking abyss except for some media photographs standing in for the 'sand.' But even an art historian would see his or her period as more familiar than other periods, and someone of a particular nation would be less familiar than the depths of another nation's works of great art.

For the majority of American college students, even aspiring students of art, the abyss, regardless of their familiarity with their own culture, is that of non-Western culture, unless they come from a non-Western cultural heritage. Even if they appreciate the beauty of non-Western art, it is difficult to gain a full sense of the art's significance within its own context, unless one is intimately familiar with the history, people, and ideological attitudes that stimulated the production of such art. This does not mean that such art is necessarily incomprehensible to someone from an alternative culture, but that more work is necessary on the part of the student to gain a full-bodied appreciation for that art's significance and importance. It is not enough to include it as merely one chapter in many chapters of a survey history of art.

Of course, the West has apparently produced numerous, very distinctive periods with very different standards of what is art, and what is beautiful. But these periods exist in the mind of the beholder, and we see them because we have been taught to see such divisions. Elkins does not deny that different time periods have produced very different works of art, in terms of their appearance, materials, and subject. Someone from the neo-Classical era would not understand an artistic product from the postmodern era of contemporary America, even if they came from the same nation. The later work would not seem like art, it would seem like a travesty. But periods of artistic division, even within a culture, are not as certain and defined as textbooks might allow.

Although every art period within a specific art tradition is different, Elkins suggests that it is even harder to study the art of a different nation and culture. For example, imagine an American trying to appreciate an African bowl constructed for practical use. The bowl is not purely a work of art or an artifact, but instead an implement that also has an aesthetic quality that signifies something important to the maker or to the tribe. If the American only saw the bowl displayed like art in a museum, it would be very easy to misinterpret and isolate the bowl from its original purpose and context, even more easy than something from more familiar, but far-off Western cultural history. Moreover, an African academic would not even see the bowl as 'African' but of a particular region and period. The Westerner would see the African quality of the work before the historical period that produced it, versus an African specialist. An African scholar might characterize periods according to both regions as well as eras, for example: "Saharan Rock Art, Egyptian, Nok, Djenne, Ife and Benin, Colonial, Post-Colonial," etcetera (Elkins 23).

Western art critics periodize Western art in a very specific fashion, for example, suggesting that Postimpressionism yields to Cubism. But even within the Western tradition, academics with a particular specialization one era vs. another are more apt to give, for example, later… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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