Undergraduate Research in Art History and Art: Within, Across and Between Disciplines

In the first issue of The Eagle Feather (2004), Professor Samuel E. Matteson of the Department of Physics offered readers a reflection on “The Common Threads in Research Across Disciplines.” Inspired by Dr. Matteson’s words and the positive atmosphere of the 2005 Undergraduate Scholars Day sponsored by the Honors College, an event that provided undergraduate students from across UNT with a conference setting in which to present their original research, we felt challenged to take up the dialogue from the point of view of the arts; after all, we are art history professors in the School of Visual Arts. In reflecting on what research means both within our discipline and between it and others, we agreed that generally, across the UNT campus, research seems to be approached, valued, and represented according to a model associated with the sciences, which can misrecognize or overlook certain expectations and goals we associate with art history. Therefore, in addition to editing the papers for this section of The Eagle Feather, we also wanted to ascertain how Dr. Matteson’s “common threads of research” apply to the work of our student scholars.

Art history students Alicia Cornwell and Lisa Nersesova, along with chemistry major Bethany Craney, a member of the Honors College, presented their respective papers at UNT’s Undergraduate Scholars Day in April of 2005. Art history students George Neal and JoAnna Reyes presented their papers at the first annual Conference of Medieval and Renaissance Studies held at the University of Texas at Tyler during May of 2005. Rachael Garnett presented her paper in ART 4072 Senior Seminar during the fall semester of 2004. Interestingly, one of the first things we recognized in the work of this group of students was our own predilection to uncritically regard art history as an adequate representation of the arts and humanities. Also, we realized that our sub-fields, medieval and postmodernism, respectively, had trained us to think differently from one another about expectations and goals concerning research and the publication thereof.

Returning to Dr. Matteson’s “six unique components or phases of the research enterprise,” we believe that the work of our students offers an interesting comparison to the arts and the sciences. We think the students would agree that none of their papers, nor the work of today’s art historian, whether medievalist or postmodernist, is “seeking after ultimate ‘Truth.’” Despite having grown up in the era of the X-Files television show declaring “The Truth is Out There,” in actuality, in their studies, the art history students have come to understand that truth is multiple, contested, shifting, and elusive. Moreover, they have learned that reconstituting the past or, put another way, constituting history, involves comprehending approximate contextualizations, always mediated representations, and the present day’s understanding of (and consensus regarding) what that past may have been. These conditions and others have affected the work of all the students included in this section, including studies of our postmodern world of yesterday, as is the case for Alicia Cornwell and Lisa Nersesova; or conditions of materials facilitating perception, as is the case for Bethany Craney; and notably, if the larger topic is the medieval world of 1,000 years ago, as in papers by George Neal, JoAnna Reyes, and Rachael Garnett.

What is more difficult for the students to grasp is that the research enterprise in which they are engaged—what Dr. Matteson calls the “creative act of construction”—is not as easy to perform as the thoroughly objective activity for which the sciences strive. For art historians as well as for our colleagues in the sciences, it is our human imagination that provides the creative spark that leads to the critical questions, following Dr. Matteson’s model. However, going beyond scientific detachment, we art historians embrace that our eyes stimulate the insightful vision of Dr. Matteson’s second phase of research in addition to our imagination. One of the first skills we teach art history students is rigorous visual analysis, although until recently and often still uncritically, it was privileged as foundational and prior, insofar as students are taught to do it in distinction from and before proceeding to other phases in the research project. We teach students that works of art are visual and, as such, they are a primary historical document. Consequently, in a totally subjective act, students perceive works of art as both the object of study and a principal source of information. However, insofar as such study begins with human interaction, we also endeavor to teach students to acknowledge its subjective nature. We want them to become aware of and acknowledge the part that their subjectivity plays in identifying what counts as the work of art, establishing operative questions, determining research methodologies, and structuring the argument. The researchers’ subjectivity then becomes integral to logistics “designed to persuade,” which Dr. Matteson outlines as the third phase of the research process; it structures the experimental testing and colors the assessment. In addition, we want our students to recognize that the subjective dimension of what they do is embedded in history; their activity as lookers, researchers, thinkers, and writers shapes their reading and use of the relevant historiography while it also influences the legacies that their projects will generate.

With this as our own common ground, in the process of formatting and editing each other’s students’ papers, we discovered differences in our respective fields of inquiry that contribute to the formation of our ideas about student research. They were particularly noticeable in terms of citation style and the critical importance of the footnote. The students differed in their research styles. Those exploring postmodern topics developed arguments around firsthand observations, or the documentation of such, which were readily available by way of personal interviews, media coverage, or promotional materials. Our chemistry student endeavored to establish and then, for verification, repeat the conditions of her study. The students of medieval art relied on the visual analysis of deteriorated objects and piecing together fragmented written material, much of which remains available in secondary sources at best. As a result, the two papers focusing on postmodern topics may evoke the feel of authenticity and fact relative to the way we receive information today in the form of news interviews, magazine articles, and eyewitness accounts. The chemistry paper connotes the authority of science predicated on technology as a means to introduce, confirm, and/or explain structure imperceptible to the human eye. This type of material is easily incorporated into the body of the text using the simple Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA) style of citations, which adequately leads the reader to the reference page. It requires no elaborate explanation for why the material was cited or how the author interpreted it because, presumably, the reader is familiar with its type and prevailing expectations thereof. On the other hand, the three papers dedicated to exploring topics in medieval art had a far greater distance to overcome in linking their respective objects of study with the myriad sources they consulted for historical substantiation. Although this can also occur in scholarship on postmodern art, it was our medievalists who seemed to most directly confront the task of unpacking layers of historical analysis, which they realized was necessary if they were to situate their current projects in the context of what had come before. Typically, medievalists explain those relevant layers of historical analysis very effectively in discursive footnotes that can be read as commentary, in conjunction with the text. Interestingly, this technique of a parallel commentary text written alongside the original is commonly found in medieval manuscripts. Yet, as we discovered in editing this group of papers, when it comes to integrating information located in a footnote into the text, formatting becomes a scholarly enterprise of its own, as does the creative use of the APA format for medieval texts that have no known author, date, or page number, or that appear as a folio!

We also discovered that for all of the differences, there were surprising similarities among our students’ study of postmodern performance art, iridescence, and objects of the medieval world. One similarity was that the students could not fully grasp their “object.” As postmodernists, a chemist, and medievalists, they realized that the agency of their human eyes, that subjective foundation we stress in art history, failed. Also, the focus of their projects, specifically in their status as performances or objects, had receded, which made access problematic: Alicia Cornwell’s gender icons oscillated between being in and out of style; George Neal’s manuscript had been dispersed; Bethany Craney’s butterfly wings were best viewed through microscopy; JoAnna Reyes’ charger had been displaced from its original context; Lisa Nersesova’s artist had been imprisoned and remains active across the globe, beyond easy reach; and Rachael Garnett’s fresco paintings had faded. As a result, all of the students had to rely on documentation to contextualize their object of study and build an argument, and it was at that point in their respective research enterprises that they joined the ranks of Dr. Matteson’s “common threads.” They too had to shed their human subjectivity and become objective and “critical of [her or] his own data.”

Collectively, what the students and we found most exciting about the research and editing process was the opportunity for “communication,” which Dr. Matteson identifies as the final phase of the research enterprise. It is rare for undergraduates to be able to experience the satisfaction that this culminating stage brings. To understand the daunting task of inserting their voice into the litany of authorities that have come before them and speak all around them is a valuable didactic tool. We want to thank Dr. Matteson for indulging our interpretation and use of his thoughtful essay, as well as Don Schol, Associate Dean for Administrative Affairs at the School of Visual Arts, who served as Bethany Craney’s invaluable mentor. Most especially, for their leadership in the Honors College and the opportunity they gave us to highlight the work of some extremely talented, young art historians of the School of Visual Arts, we thank Gloria Cox and Susan Eve.