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Save art history: why La Trobe needs to support cultural life in Australia

Cutting the art history department at La Trobe university is short-sighted. AAP Image/Julian Smith

La Trobe university’s art history department is set to be abolished, with a consultation period over the changes to the university’s humanities program to end this month.

While one art history department might not seem like much, the repercussions will be felt throughout academia and the art world. If it is cut, it will leave only one fully fledged art history department left in Victoria, limiting the choice for students and affecting the future of Australian galleries and museums.

The Art Association of Australia and New Zealand (AAANZ) and the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) have both written in protest about the national implications of this destruction. And many of those who support the department have signed an online petition protesting the cuts.

But when the department is thriving with good student retention rates and staff with high research output – the question is, why close it down at all?

A visual world

“Society changes. The world is a more crowded and in parts a more dangerous place. Post-Cold War realities, new technology and globalisation have altered the way we do almost everything.”

So said Tim Murray, La Trobe’s dean of humanities and social sciences, in last week’s Age justifying the cuts made to the humanities school. It is a pity that Murray, as quoted above, so clearly demonstrates his own failure to grasp either the nature of the changes that our society is undergoing – or that a part of the solution lies in one of the very academic disciplines he is attempting to eliminate.

Over the last century, the greatest single change that has taken place in how humanity receives and gives information has been the surging power of the visual image. The revival of scholarship that came with the Renaissance was the power of the printed word and consequent mass literacy. With the 20th century so came cinema, and later the rise of digital technologies.

Visual information now crosses boundaries of language and culture. Younger generations are able to gleefully critique visual artefacts. Indeed, the average adolescent is now as aware of the many layers of meaning contained within a YouTube video as any medieval parishioner following the Christian narrative via stained glass window and statuary.

Art history teaches the vital visual skills needed for students to understand a society that now communicates so much through image.

An Australian contribution

Studying visual images also gives a sense of structure to the past. Art history is a far easier entry into the world of the early Renaissance, for example, than Chaucer’s English.

A detail of Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra, painted between 1746 and 1747. Wikimedia commons/Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra takes the viewer to the opulence of 18th Venice. While art history scholarship about the work links the painting both to the Court of Catherine the Great and the financial crisis faced by the Soviet Union when they sold it in 1932. Art history enables us to understand both subject matter and composition, bringing the past into our present.

Last year the exhibition The Mad Square, curated by an Australian art historian, illuminated the culture of inter-war Germany, giving thousands of visitors a context with which to understand German angst and the rise of Hitler that were the equivalent of volumes of written text.

In Australia, it is art history that enables us to understand the myths of nationalism in Tom Roberts’ The Shearing of the Rams, as well as promoting the recognition of Aboriginal cultures with both analysis of Papunya artists and resurgent urban Aboriginal communities.

It is, in short, both a central discipline in any study of the humanities, and a close partner with many other disciplines including history, literature, classics, archaeology and the social sciences.

Time of change

Fifty years ago the teaching of art history in this country was effectively the preserve of the rich – received by those few students who could spend their long vacations in the great museums of Europe – while mere mortals struggled with mediocre colour slides and limited local collections. Australian art history, too, was then a field awaiting significant scholarly research.

The distinctly Australian painting ‘Shearing the Rams’ by Tom Roberts. Wikimedia commons/Tom Roberts

But art history departments in Australian universities have been central in changing that. Now, thanks to J-Store and Google’s art projects the riches of Europe and America are there for all. Australian art museums are freely opening aspects of their collections online and the digital research project, Design and Art of Australia Online is rapidly expanding our knowledge of the nature of Australia’s visual past.

Murray has suggested that “Young people …don’t expect things to be done as they were a generation ago.” And he’s right, but art historians are hardly suspicious of the digital age – we relish its many opportunities. But just as these technologies are opening up new opportunities to art historians and students alike, La Trobe is trying to close itself off from this world.

From graduates to leaders

The scholarly arts community well knows the valuable contribution that generations of La Trobe staff and students have made to the cultural life of this country. Tony Ellwood, a La Trobe graduate, is about to take up the position of Director of the National Gallery of Victoria. Mark McDonald, another La Trobe graduate, now works at the British Museum while Laurie Benson is curator of international art at the National Gallery of Victoria. Patrick McCaughey, a former NGV director, also once taught at La Trobe.

The department’s academic staff, whose jobs are now under threat, includes Dr Caroline Jordan, one of the finest scholars of 19th century Australian art and Dr Lisa Beaven whose recent study of the 17th century collector, Cardinal Camillo Massimo, received a glowing review in the Burlington Magazine.

The wider arts community is well aware of these unfolding events – the Melbourne Art Network has published a letter by former NGV director, Patrick McCaughey. While students have been vocal on Arts Hub.

The closing of art history will hardly ensure the “future vibrancy” of La Trobe (the university’s supposed motivation). Instead, the lights will be dimmed.

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