Friday, December 30, 2011

Art Connects Us - Postcard Art History

My motto in teaching and writing about art, including this blog, is 'Art Connects Us.' Art History is a wonderful way to feel the lively embrace of the universal human experience, but if you've ever taken an art history class you probably know that the subject is not ordinarily presented as inclusive. I taught the basic Art History survey course for years so I know well the curriculum of  "See what the Greeks did, thought, made - theirs was a distinct culture completely alien to that of 5th c India, 9th c Americas, 16th c Africa, etc., etc., etc." But there is so much art, so many fascinating cultures, time periods, peoples, artists - and it's all part of the human story.

For me the best approach to art history is to find a common ground in a human idea or concern and then have the fun of exploring the endlessly interesting ways in which culture, climate, geography, available materials, beliefs, and individual imaginations conspire to create distinctive expressions of those basic human ideas and values. 
I teach a university class with this approach - it's a rich experience for my students of widely diverse backgrounds and stimulating for me as the teacher. The broad themes sweep everyone into the discussion so no one has reason to feel excluded or sidelined - we're all part of a continuing tradition of art and human expression. Human figures, animals, beliefs, power, wealth, landscapes, family portraits: the list of possibilities never ends. The human face, for example, holds a place of importance in nearly every culture and time and gives clues to deeply held ideas and values - but hold onto your seats because the differences in expression are astonishing. Every culture and time period chimes in with intriguing forms and layers of meaning.
The goddess Athena's beautiful stone face is a perfect representation of the serene, logical Classical Greeks, but just as representative of its culture is this lovely Gabon Mask, in which geometry forms a vital part of the design, and the chalkiness of the face indicates a spiritual connection. Picasso's wild 'Man in a Hat' would seem madness to the Greeks, as well as to Hans Holbein and the court of Henry VIII, to which this pencil drawing of poet Thomas Wyatt gives us insight, but Modern Art finds in it a fresh creative approach to an old subject. Cindy Sherman's use of her own face as a canvas speaks perhaps all too clearly of a contemporary familiarity with complex ideas of questioning identity. Above all, seated around the table of humanity, the commonality of 'Face,' as in these examples, provides a place to begin a powerful conversation about the meaning of being human.
To expand this work and these ideas I'm offering a series of online Art History 'classes' in the form of postcards - Postcard Art History Each of the series follows a theme in in 10 week subscriptions, with art ranging broadly across cultures, styles, time periods, and artists. Each week you receive a pdf postcard with an image on one side and a brief but solidly informative explanation on the other. Week by week you'll see how cultures and eras interweave and share ideas, values, beliefs. You'll discover differences in the art that work to emphasize commonalities in human experience, and you'll be excited to find new insights and discoveries about art and art history. Themes are fun and intriguing, from 'Supermodels: Glamour Girls of Art History,' 'Gods of All Shapes and Sizes.' 'Happy Families', and others - and I'll be adding new themes regularly.   A Postcard Art History series makes a unique, interesting gift for family and friends,  a good way to catch the interest of children, and a great treat for YOU! If you enjoy my ArtSmartTalk blog I hope you'll support Postcard Art History and recommend it to others. Find all details at

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