How Not to Teach Art History

Scholastic Art - September 2017 coverJust in time for a new school year, the September 2017 issue of Scholastic Art magazine features ten paintings that students should know, because they form part of “our collective cultural history.”

Surely a worthwhile undertaking for a publication aimed at middle school and high school visual art education programs—until one examines the works selected and what is written about them.

Legitimizing the Avant-Garde

Most troubling is that four of the magazine’s “10 Paintings to Know” are twentieth-century works that depart so radically from all prior standards that their art historical status is highly questionable. They are Pablo Picasso’s Dora Maar in an Armchair, Vasily Kandinsky’s Composition 8, Alma Thomas’s Splash Down Apollo 13, and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Skull). Two of the remaining ten (Georgia O’Keeffe’s Two Calla Lilies on Pink and Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas), though somewhat less radical, also date from the twentieth century. When one considers that art history encompasses millennia of picture-making, this is a staggering disproportion. Not one work from the Italian Renaissance or the Golden Age of Dutch painting or the rich tradition of landscape painting in China—much less work by our own Hudson River School or more recent examples by important American artists such as Thomas Eakins or Andrew Wyeth.

Still worse is the choice of Picasso’s savagely cubist portrait of Dora Maar for the issue’s cover—a choice that implies this painting is especially worth knowing. Why is such a visually repellent work considered worth knowing? Because—Scholastic Art tells its young readers—Picasso is among “the most influential 20th-century artists,” and cubism is “one of his most important contributions to modern art.”

What did that contribution consist of?—“divid[ing] subject matter into small, simplified forms” and “reject[ing] traditional perspective.” In the Dora Maar portrait, Picasso “reduces the subject’s face, hair, and body to a collection of geometric shapes” and “places her features in an asymmetrical arrangement, creating an off-balance version of a face” (an understatement if ever there were one!). Picasso also “embraced bright, arbitrary colors” such as “yellow for the face, red for the nose, and blue for the mouth.” On the larger questions of this bizarre painting’s impact on viewers and the dubious value of reducing the face of a beautiful woman (see photos of Dora Maar) to an arbitrary pattern of geometric shapes eerily akin to the wallpaper behind it, not a word is said. Nor does the article ask whether it is wise to regard such extreme stylistic distortions as a “contribution.”

Students are further misled by the poster enclosed with the issue. On one side is a large-scale reproduction of Picasso’s Woman with Yellow Hair, accompanied by this quote attributed to him below it: “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist” (as if art were mainly a matter of breaking rules). The reverse of the poster displays Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Horn Players (1983). If Basquiat ever learned the rules, I’ve seen no evidence of it. In any case, are these the two most significant works from the whole of art history that students should have posted before them in the classroom?

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Skull)

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Scull), 1981, acrylic and oilstick on canvas, 81 x 69 1/4 in. The Broad, Los Angeles, California.

What prompted the inclusion of Basquiat’s Untitled (Skull—which he appears to have misspelled as Scull) in “10 Paintings to Know”? Since the work dates from less than four decades ago, it cannot quite be said to have stood “the test of time” (one of Scholastic Art’s criteria for a work’s worth knowing about). Instead, his involvement with the New York City street art movement is cited, and the fact that his work was shown “in the city’s top art galleries.” Also noted is that, despite his death at the age of 27, “he is among the most commercially successful artists in history”—one of his paintings having been bought by a collector in May 2017 “for a record $110.5 million.” Nonetheless—the reader is informed—“many questions about his work [remain] unanswered.”

Not mentioned by Scholastic Art is the fact that Basquiat was a drug addict, whose premature death was due to a heroin overdose. Relevant questions about his work that remain are what on earth it means and how much of its chaotic aspect might be due to the drug’s psychedelic effects, rather than to any great creativity on his part. A further urgent question not raised by the magazine for students to consider is whether today’s art market is in fact a reliable indicator of artistic value. Finally, does the crude and confusing nature of Basquiat’s work really merit his presentation to students as a model for appreciation and emulation?1

Misconstruing Art of the Past

The one incontestable European masterpiece among the ten paintings singled out for study is Jan van Eyck’s justly renowned Arnolfini [Wedding] Portrait. But what students are told about it leaves much to be desired. This is what Scholastic Art deems important:

[The artist] includes details that provide information about the subjects. The figures wear clothing with thick fur trim, which would have been expensive to own. Many people think the woman looks pregnant. But in reality, she holds the fabric of her dress to show off the costly garment’s length. The way scholars interpret these details has changed over time. For years, people thought the dog was a symbol of loyalty. Today experts believe it is simply the family pet.

Jan van Eyck - Arnolfini Portrait

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini [Wedding] Portrait, National Gallery, London.

Not a word to indicate that this is a work commemorating the sacrament of marriage–signified by the couple’s joining of hands and the husband’s raising of his other hand. Not a word about the painting’s aura of solemnity, befitting such a sacrament. No mention of the fact that the mirror behind the couple is framed by miniature scenes of Christ’s Passion, further alluding to the painting’s sacred purpose. Nor any suggestion that the little dog so prominently placed below the couple’s joined hands could be both an image of the household pet and a token of their fidelity. Most important, there is no indication of why this work still moves viewers nearly 600 years after its creation. As I argue in Who Says That’s Art?, it is features such as “the sober facial expressions of the young couple, their gesture of joining hands, and the aura of solemn calm in the elegant bedchamber” (all conveyed through van Eyck’s consummate mastery of the art of painting) that “ultimately make it a great work of art, a compelling image that transcends the particular historic moment being represented and conveys something about the gravity of marriage in general.”2

One Bright Spot

Grace Lin, Girl with the Bird

Grace Lin (middle-school student), Girl with the Bird.

Dismayed though I was by Scholastic Art’s September 2017 cover article, I applaud the issue’s “Student of the Month” feature. Honoring Grace Lin—an eighth-grade student at the Jay M. Robinson Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina—it pictures her oil painting Girl with the Bird, which won a gold award in the 2017 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. A remarkably sensitive and accomplished self-portrait for a girl of only 12 or 13, it is an admirable foil to the avant-garde thrust of “10 Paintings to Know.”3 What inspired it? Not the likes of Picasso, Kandinsky, or Basquiat, but the landscape and art of Italy—in particular, she noted, the “sense of dignity and peace” in Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.

Brava, Grace Lin! Your work would far better serve as a model for your fellow students than that of Scholastic’s poster artists Picasso and Basquiat.


  1. The lesson plan provided by Scholastic implicitly lauds Basquiat as a street artist who “gained recognition in the art world through collaborations with established artists such as Andy Warhol. His solo work, which explores ideas of inequality, race, and politics, brought him success and wealth.” As noted above, Basquiat’s exploration of ideas is not at all clear, as even his defenders have admitted. On Warhol’s inflated reputation as an established artist, see “The Apotheosis of Andy Warhol” (Aristos, December 2012).
  2. Readers who would like to know more about the meaning of this great work should consult Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964), 201–203. The National Gallery asserts that the painting is not intended as a “record” of the couple’s wedding, but Panofsky (a highly esteemed art historian) cites compelling iconographic evidence that the work aimed to memorialize the couple’s marriage vows. See also H.W. Janson, History of Art, 3d edition, revised and expanded by Anthony F. Janson (New York: Abrams, 1986), 377–378. Addendum: See “Revisiting Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini ‘Wedding’ Portrait.”
  3. Unfortunately, it is not clear from the magazine’s account if the painting was done in connection with an art class at the student’s school or as an independent, extracurricular project.