The Future of Education

Edition 8

Accepted Abstracts

Teaching Art and Design History “Beyond the Canon”

Christopher S. Wilson, Ringling College of Art + Design (United States)


The “canon” of art and design history consists of those works that, over time, have come to represent major periods, styles, ideas and/or  techniques. As a whole, they are a summary of artistic ideas throughout history. Specifically, they are the physical embodiment of the technological, aesthetic, political and social forces of their time period: The Venus of Willendorf, The Parthenon, Augustus of
Prima Porta, Chartres Cathedral, The Mona Lisa, The Eiffel Tower, Picasso’s Women of Avignon, Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm, Chrysler’s Airflow, The Eames’ Lounge Chair, the Helvetica typeface and IKEA’s Billy Bookcase, just to name a few. On the one hand, the canon is quite useful in teaching art and design history because it provides clear and succinct examples that quickly summarize the major talking points of every time period. On the other hand, the canon is quite restrictive because it is only a selection of the output that has occurred.
While it is obviously impossible to show every artistic product that was ever produced, it is possible to “curate” a more inclusive selection of examples.
This inclusiveness refers both to the actual works of art and design presented in class and also to the people who produced them. This includes not only women, minorities, and other ethnicities, but also
those intermediaries not usually considered in standard art and design histories, such as patrons, collectors, advisors, governments, corporations, manufacturers, and even the actual users of objects.
Lastly, this inclusiveness also includes the forums and institutions through which the art and design objects are distributed. In this way, the discussion moves beyond museums, galleries, academies, and specialized journals towards alternatives spaces of art in the public realm and the popular press, television, advertising and the Internet.
This paper is an analysis of the process of teaching art and design history “beyond the canon” as practiced by the author in introductory surveys to first-year gateway courses to upper-year specialized topics courses. The aim of the analysis is to help others teaching in the same field re-examine the content of their own courses and go “beyond the canon.”
Keywords: Art Hsitory, Design Hsitory, Teaching, The Canon

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