The Toolkit


Hey, There,

So, my plan was to do an issue that was all short Q and A format, just to make things a little more interactive. But when I solicited Qs, a couple that I liked a lot lined up really tightly with each other, so that I think their As combine into a bigger poke at a question that I’d like you to imagine Jerry Seinfeld saying while standing in front of a brick wall: “what is the DEAL with academic art history?”

The first question was from my friend Costa, an academic lit guy: I’m curious, considering how my own background is literature and literary analysis and writing like that, how do you write academically about art?

So, I might be talking out of my ass here, but to be honest, I think that for a big swath of the humanities, it’s all pretty much the same thing, just with a few specialized tools in each toolbox. You have a set of frameworks that you look at the material with; in art history, some of those frameworks are formal analysis (looking at the thing and talking about it as a work of art: Mondrian paints a lot of blue and red squares!); psychological analysis (what was Mondrian trying to work out with all those squares?); Marxist analysis (what kind of economic pressures drove Mondrian to paint all those squares?); semiotic analysis (what’s really being communicated, intentionally or not, by all these squares?); feminist analysis (OK, I can’t come up with a good feminist angle on Mondrian, which, maybe that’s the angle); and so on. There are others, but you get the picture.

And there’s the thing: most of those lenses transfer verrrry easily to other branches of the humanities. I’d argue that lit analysis can be conducted with pretty much the same toolbox, with the difference that the formal analysis there involves looking at, say, the way language is used and prose is structured rather than looking at the specifics of visual art. And I know from direct experience that you can bring that entire toolbox to bear on music (with formal analysis in that case focusing on sound, rhythm, production, and all the things that make music music). A bunch of those lenses are also valid approaches to studying history. Basically, I think most higher-level humanities education is somewhere near a 50-50 split on learning a general humanities toolkit and learning details specific to that particular domain.

We hear a lot of hype about how the humanities are flexible and really teach you to think; I think here’s the proof. Once you learn the basic concept of the humanities toolkit and then master a couple of the tools, you’re ready to go to town on pretty much any subject matter that you’re familiar with. That’s powerful as hell, if grotesquely underappreciated by potential employers. And I think it’s really life-enriching, although it can lead you to the habit of, say, irritating your wife by deconstructive the narrative of a commercial for psoriasis medicine (the Onion, of course, has covered this).

If you’re really a glutton for punishment, I’ve actually de-academified a couple of papers I did for seminars, and reworked them into more-readable essays that still use a bunch of the art history toolkit. You can check out:

A feminist analysis of how Sports Illustrated used photographs of Serena Williams


A multi-tooled look at how the painter Thomas Eakins exemplified a really specific and wrong view of science at the turn of the 20th century.

OK! All that talk about analytic lenses doesn’t seem to leave a ton of room for actually, y’know, appreciating the art! Which leads into the second question, from my music-writer friend Harris: How do you reckon with the matter of personal taste: what critical frameworks are useful when assessing art you like, and alternatively, art you don’t like?

Setting your taste aside is one of the big things you have to learn to do in academia, and I have really mixed feelings about it. I mean, clearly you need to do it if you’re conducting a feminist analysis of a work… your aesthetic feelings about the piece aren’t relevant to the toolkit, so you set them aside. But when you do that, you’re also setting aside the thing that makes you (and your eventual audience) care about art to begin with, and I think this is at the root of why a lot of academic writing is so hostile to readers; it’s way too easy for the humanity to be leeched out of the humanities.

Looking back at grad school, there’s almost an element of indoctrination to it. Many times I saw (and experienced) the cycle of someone coming in fresh, loudly saying in their(/my) first class, “but what about beauty?”, getting snickered at, internalizing the fact that we don’t talk about beauty here, and then joining the snickerers a semester later. It just kind of gets stomped out of you by peer pressure.

Which, honestly, was one of the nice things about finishing grad school. It’s useful to be able to shut down your taste, but it also kind of sucks to have to do it all the time. I think in a way this goes back to the “head art and heart art” thing I was talking about a while back. This headspace is 100% head art, and while there’s a lot of rewarding stuff there, it wears you down.

Right on. Stay safe.


OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.

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