The goal of art history, as I understand it, is to foster visual literacy and build critical thinking, while introducing students to history of art. This visual literacy includes exposure to art, lots of art, and (yes) committing seminal works to memory to serve as visual guideposts. But it also means trying to get students to start questioning the “truth” of images by nurturing an understanding that an artist makes conscious choices in the creation of his or her art. The same is true for the images that surround us in our daily lives.
I try to draw connections between the history of art (for instance, portraits of Louis XIV) and our contemporary media culture (such as presidential campaign ads) to not only make the artwork under examination relevant to students’ everyday lives, but to also help them to become more conscious consumers of images.
If students can understand that a campaign ad is a carefully constructed piece of visual rhetoric designed to deliver a particular message about a candidate, they can also begin to see political portraiture in the same way and begin asking questions of a work of art: What is it saying? How does it deliver its message? How can the image help us to understand the larger historical and cultural context?