This blog post had its origin in early morning anxiety over what to do with my course on Gothic art, which I am scheduled to teach in the spring. I found myself yawning and wondering, Why? Why am I teaching a course in Gothic? Why do I think students should have a chronologically organized tour of the great Gothic cathedrals, all delivered to them by means of lectures and powerpoints while they fought the urge to check their text messages or try to read them under the desk. Most of all, I found myself asking why I plodded along with the same curriculum—Early Christian, Early Medieval, Gothic—I inherited when I took the position at the University at Albany 17 years ago. After all, in my first professional teaching experience at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I designed all kinds of “crazy” courses in addition to the more traditional offerings. And even if my courses sounded more traditional, my assignments were not: I had students making reliquaries with their own hair and burying them in their backyards. I had a student make a mock mosaic self-portrait à la Justinian at San Vitale. I took my class to one of the first Virtual Reality arcades to experience the virtual body in three-dimensional space. I had fun!
What happened by the time I got to UAlbany? For one thing, I no longer had exclusively art students, who may have their frustrations for an academic, but who are also pretty much game for anything wacky and never require a justification for looking at visual material. For another thing, I was now in a tenure-track position in a research university and had to pump out the publications for tenure. Revamping an entire curriculum was simply not on, nor welcome. So I went along with what I had. But there is a more serious reason for my not seriously challenging my own ossified curriculum: I felt and feel woefully unprepared to do so. I am of a generation of art historians for whom the first whispers of critical theory came after grad school. I was trained most traditionally—periodicity, formal analysis, base and molding profiles, iconography etc. My only experience with anything else came by way of Linda Seidel, who as a Visiting Professor at Columbia introduced us to feminism (much to the dismay of the Columbia faculty) and anthropological concepts such as liminality. Otherwise, I became, like so many others, a self-made theorist, and not a very good one either. Nevertheless, in those days it was mainly Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan, and a little later Žižek, and maybe Kristeva. It seemed possible to have something of a grasp of the main ideas.
I no longer feel capable of keeping up. Theory after theory advanced, approach after approach offered up. I have had to skip over postcolonialism entirely and had just begun to see and employ the implications of visuality when, wait, visuality out, materiality in. And then there is thing theory. I find all of these different perspectives fascinating and stimulating but cannot figure out how they can help re-shape my research and my teaching. I am overwhelmed and find myself retreating back into the safety of “look—Chartres, classic Gothic Cathedral.” And yet, I cannot see spending whatever professional time I have left offering up the illusion that there is a clearly defined Romanesque and a clearly recognizable Gothic and the two shall never meet … except in Italy of course, and then there are those annoying non-French looking English buildings, and let’s just forget about eastern Europe, and why should we care anyway? Something has to give.