Teaching AP® Students to Think Like Art Historians 

Jean Robertson is Chancellor’s Professor Emerita at Indiana University’s Herron School of Art and Design, IUPUI. She specializes in art history and theory after 1980. She is a co-author of Thames & Hudson’s art history survey text, The History of Art: A Global View (2021). Another recent  book is Oxford University Press’s Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980 (Fifth Edition, 2022), co-authored with Craig McDaniel. 

Jean Robertson
Image Credit: Craig McDaniel

The twenty-first century is a dynamic time to be an art historian. Many art historians are reflecting deeply about the assumptions and beliefs that underlie what’s studied and taught and how narratives about art history are structured. In my case, I was privileged to be part of an eleven-author team writing a new art history survey textbook. From the outset we shared a core value of being inclusive and varied about the different cultures, places in the world, and artistic media the book discusses. This commitment to a global perspective guided the difficult choices we had to make about what to include and what to leave out of a book designed for a one- or two-semester course. 

Our author team believed we owe students, who today are a very diverse group in terms of ethnicity, race, geographical and cultural heritage, class, gender, and more, the ability to critically examine canon and theory in art history (CED AP® Skill 8).

One way we foster critical reflection about the content, methods, and current debates in art history is through what we call Art Historical Thinking features that are inserted occasionally throughout the book. For example, one Art Historical Thinking box titled “Clothing and Formal Analysis” asks students to think about how meaning can shift depending on the context where an object is viewed (Skill 2 and 7). The feature illustrates a royal robe from Africa woven before 1659 and discusses differences in how we might analyze the robe if we saw it displayed flat on a wall versus worn by the ruler who originally wore it and moving about. In a different chapter, a box titled “Reinterpreting European Modern Art” discusses how art historians in different periods understand and assess art differently depending on their theories and methods as well as the values of their time (Skill 7). An example in this box is the shifting responses to French artist Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), whose paintings of Tahiti are regularly analyzed today in terms of feminist and post-colonial theories compared to earlier analyses that focused almost entirely on formal qualities such as style and technique. In another chapter, a feature titled “Native American or American Art?” outlines current debates surrounding whether Native American art should be mingled or kept separate from other American art in books and museum exhibition spaces (Skill 7 and 8). 

Students in an introductory art history survey, including the AP® course, may imagine art historians are teaching some kind of absolute body of knowledge about art of the past, whereas, as teachers know, content and epistemology are constantly open to challenge and change, and never more so than in today’s globalized world. Below are activities I use in my art history course to help students practice thinking like an art historian while prepping for the AP® test. 

An exercise I’ve used successfully is one I call Undermining the Canon, building on ideas from many colleagues. I start by introducing the concept of a canon and discussing its impact on art historical scholarship as well as curatorial choices in the museum world. Then I ask students to work individually or with partners or in groups to define and propose some alteration to the content of a canon (Skill 3). “The canon” for this exercise is drawn from a specific data set, such as the course textbook, or an art museum collection that is readily accessible online, or the set of 250 required works of art for the AP® Art History course curriculum. The assignment can be narrow, asking students to examine a specific chapter or one museum gallery or one course content area. Or it can be much broader, such as reviewing an entire table of contents, or all the collection categories in a museum. Students are asked to identify something significant they think is missing from the defined canon and develop an argument for why it should be added (Skill 8). Depending on the breadth of the exercise, the proposed addition could be a single work of art or artist, specific culture, region of the world, or some kind of subject matter or a medium. Simultaneously students must identify something of similar scope—a work of art, an artist, a culture, or a course topic—to remove from the existing content in order to make room. They then develop an argument why the removed material is less important to learn than the proposed addition.  

Students present and defend their choices in class. I stress that they need to defend choices with a detailed argument that goes beyond vague claims of liking something better. They’re entitled to have preferences among types of art, but they won’t convince me or anyone else in the class to endorse their substitution without a strong argument. I keep a running tally of reasons students give to defend their choices, for further discussion at the end, including deconstructing the canon used for the exercise. Depending on time constraints, we also debate whether or not it makes sense or is even desirable to have a canon at all. 

A related exercise is one I call Criteria for Judging Art. Like the wildly divergent opinions on what art we personally like, I assure students that art historians in the past and present have come to different conclusions about what art is valuable to remember and study. This exercise is intended to demonstrate that such judgments are not based merely on some kind of gut reaction but reflect underlying values and beliefs. The exercise asks students to select a work of art they admire and name the top two criteria for their choice. I give them a list of over a dozen criteria to choose from (such as “formal beauty,” “emotional power,” “resemblance to reality,” “subject matter,” “social message,” “originality,” “technical skill,” “labor involved in creating,” and so on), stating that they can add other criteria if they wish. Students present their work of art in class and explain specific aspects that match the two criteria they name.  

Although I wouldn’t expect students to learn sophisticated theory in an introductory course, I find that the criteria they name form broad categories that give the flavor of major aesthetic theories, such as formalism, instrumentalism, and expressionism. I put the students who share similar underlying criteria into a group, asking them to come up with compelling arguments why their aesthetic philosophy is valuable. The class then discusses whether it’s okay to apply different aesthetic criteria to different kinds of art, or whether there can be some kind of universal standards (Skill 1, 2, 7, and 8). 

Learning to think like art historians helps students attain skills in understanding and comparing different perspectives, and equips them to become more engaged and successful in the interconnected world where we live and work. Students start to understand and even gain empathy for differences of opinion when they recognize that art history is neither a fixed bucket of information nor an unassailable set of methods. New discoveries and new scholarship are always adding to the sum of our knowledge, and new ideas challenge how we think about the art we see. There is always more than meets the eye.  

AP® is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product. 

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