Historical accounts are subjective. In other words, because history is written from the perspective of the historian (or the collective of historians whose writings must be peer reviewed before they end up in the history books), it is impossible not to suggest that their personal bias’ or the larger ideological framework of their field (and the wealthy patrons who fund their work) is at play in what they choose to include and omit from their historical accounts.
Carr (1961) stated that historians selectively interpret a historical account with a selective and personal bias. Hamblen (1985) suggests that the historian’s own ego and belief system is connected to their written account. Therefore, a history written by the powerful or influential is less an accurate representation of culture, and more of a glorification of the hierarchical system. Furthermore, historians have long been known to offer differing accounts on specific events. Some may claim it happened one way, while others may disagree entirely, or offer an opposing account. The way we view history is consistently changing based upon, which value system(s) our society holds to be more valuable above all others.
It makes sense that the version of history we have had in our curriculum is skewed from the perspective of those who have maintained power (in government, education, economics, etc). Have you ever heard someone say “the winners write history”? If the history of Western Civilization was written from the perspective of the lower and working classes, –the skilled (but underpaid) laborers– and marginalized communities, we would likely have an alternative narrative, which would contrast the current historical doctrine that has become a part of our collective consciousness.
For example, Amburgy (1990) presents an alternate side of history focused on the education of the masses. She cites examples of progressive movement educators like Jane Adams (1860-1935) and Ellen Gates Starr (1859-1940) who understood that an education, especially one bolstered by the arts, would lead to a more skilled and autonomous workforce. These ideas during the age of industrialization (1870s-1900) were seen as counterproductive to the elite who wanted to speed up production by replacing skilled laborers with machines.The prevailing sense of importance for the study of business and technology led to the prevalence of an education that is more quantitative based, while the liberal and fine arts are less celebrated. It is no surprise that with mass-production came the degradation of “value” and taste. In other words, intrinsic value became skewed, and our collective culture embraced the cheaply made assembly line object over the handmade artisan’s object.
Art has always been at the forefront in blending the natural and the synthetic elements. The Arts and Crafts movement during the late 19th and early 20th century’s came as a response to the degradation of the decorative arts in the wake of machine manufactured design. Artisans were successful in awakening the public’s appreciation for handcrafted objects, and the movement made progress in ascertaining the decorative arts as a high form of art, synonymous with fine art (the two fields had been previously kept apart). Although the movement, in reality, couldn’t compete with the trends of Capitalism, it remains an important influence for those who seek to become producers and not consumers. In an ideal world, we would all have skills that would enable us to create the products we desire versus purchasing mass marketed brand name goods.
The rise of Capitalism and Nationalism presented a challenge and fodder for visual artists to address significant social and political issues. This is especially important in an age where there is so much indifference or disdain towards the suffering of others. Everyone should be familiar with Picasso’s Guernica (1937) and Goya’s El Tres de Mayo (1808), which visualize the horrors of war and oppression; themes, which sadly have continued to inspire works of art in this day and age. There’s also a wealth of information to be gleaned from the more contemporary works such as Leon Golub’s paintings of dictators and torture scenes; the anarchic political paintings of Peter Saul; Kerry James Marshall, Robert Colescott, and Mickalene Thomas’ aesthetic responses to the Western canon through the lens of African-American history and identity; Benny Andrews’, and May Stevens’ portrayals of Civil Rights leaders; and the artistic celebration of women’s vital contributions to history and culture through the work of the Guerrilla Girls, Judy Chicago and Nancy Spero (See: Guerrilla Girls’ wide array of public posters, billboards, and videos; Chicago’s The Dinner Party; and Spero’s Notes in Time). Additionally, the work of Dorothea Lange, whose poignant photographs of poor and marginalized citizens from the Great Depression through WWII, raised social consciousness about the dispossessed and unemployed farmers and laborers, as well as the Japanese-Americans who were forced into internment camps. Alongside Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980-2005), these images provide a stark reality of the “American Dream” being deferred.
The list goes on and a whole curriculum could be written and implemented using art to illuminate and reveal different variations of historical narratives. Historical works of art should encourage students to interrogate their own personal and collective histories and not settle for one single viewpoint simply because it has been passed down as ‘academic’ status-quo.
Works of art that comment upon social issues should bolster any history lesson. Having students analyze works of art by using Feldmen’s four step process of describing, analyzing, interpreting, and judging, will ensure that they understand that art can be used as a powerful tool to communicate different social, cultural, political, and economic viewpoints. It is also important that students understand that any work of art can be used as propaganda, and have them see (and discuss) examples of works of art that has been used by governments to strengthen its position of power and influence upon its citizens.
In summation, we can learn a lot about history through art. Both discipline’s subjectivity makes for a profound and open-ended discourse. The fact that humans have been expressing and recording their personal and collective observations visually since prehistoric times is a testament to the importance that art has on our perception in ‘making sense’ of the world. Art and History should be taught together, because each discipline bolster’s the other’s significance.
Current perspectives of history and culture undoubtedly champions the elite who have accumulated wealth and power. It is up to a new generation of progressive, forward thinking people to craft more democratic policies so that we can present an evolving look at the past and present that is more indicative of the collective and individual experience. Art can inspire our future ‘leaders’ to do just that.