A page from one of my grad school notebooks.
One strategy you can use to become a better writer is to study your course readings. How does the author structure his or her article? Make an outline of the flow of the text that you’re reading. Every source you read will have an introduction and conclusion, but each author will have his or her own style of writing and argumentation. Take notice of where, in the text, the author describes a work of art, talks about iconography, explains the historical circumstances surrounding the artwork, provides biographical notes on the artist, and so on. Also note if the author seems to focus more on description, history, or analysis. How do all these elements – and anything else not be listed here – form a cohesive argument that builds from paragraph to paragraph? Does the author have a “smoking gun,” or a final, shocking piece of evidence that cements their case? The more you read, the more you will familiarize yourself with different ways of writing about art history, and hopefully you will begin to develop your own style.
Telemaco Signorini, Unable to Wait, (1867). Fondazione Cariplo.
The automatic assumption that Russia shorn of its expansionist communist ideology should pick up where the czars left off just prior to the Bolshevik Revolution is therefore a curious one. It assumes that the evolution of human consciousness has stood still in the meantime, and that the Soviets, while picking up currently fashionable ideas in the realm of economics, will return to foreign policy views a century out of date in the rest of Europe. This is certainly not what happened to China after it began its reform process. Chinese competitiveness and expansionism on the world scene have virtually disappeared: Beijing no longer sponsors Maoist insurgencies or tries to cultivate influence in distant African countries as it did in the 1960s. This is not to say that there are not troublesome aspects to contemporary Chinese foreign policy, such as the reckless sale of ballistic missile technology in the Middle East; and the PRC continues to manifest traditional great power behavior in its sponsorship of the Khmer Rouge against Vietnam. But the former is explained by commercial motives and the latter is a vestige of earlier ideologically-based rivalries. The new China far more resembles Gaullist France than pre-World War I Germany.
China could not now be described in any way as a liberal democracy. At present, no more than 20 percent of its economy has been marketized, and most importantly it continues to be ruled by a self-appointed Communist party which has given no hint of wanting to devolve power. Deng has made none of Gorbachev's promises regarding democratization of the political system and there is no Chinese equivalent of glasnost. The Chinese leadership has in fact been much more circumspect in criticizing Mao and Maoism than Gorbachev with respect to Brezhnev and Stalin, and the regime continues to pay lip service to Marxism-Leninism as its ideological underpinning. But anyone familiar with the outlook and behavior of the new technocratic elite now governing China knows that Marxism and ideological principle have become virtually irrelevant as guides to policy, and that bourgeois consumerism has a real meaning in that country for the first time since the revolution. The various slowdowns in the pace of reform, the campaigns against "spiritual pollution" and crackdowns on political dissent are more properly seen as tactical adjustments made in the process of managing what is an extraordinarily difficult political transition. By ducking the question of political reform while putting the economy on a new footing, Deng has managed to avoid the breakdown of authority that has accompanied Gorbachev's . Yet the pull of the liberal idea continues to be very strong as economic power devolves and the economy becomes more open to the outside world. There are currently over 20,000 Chinese students studying in the U.S. and other Western countries, almost all of them the children of the Chinese elite. It is hard to believe that when they return home to run the country they will be content for China to be the only country in Asia unaffected by the larger democratizing trend. The student demonstrations in Beijing that broke out first in December 1986 and recurred recently on the occasion of Hu Yao-bang's death were only the beginning of what will inevitably be mounting pressure for change in the political system as well.
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But it is not clear that nationalism rep resents an irreconcilable contradiction in the heart of liberalism. In the first place, nationalism is not one single phenomenon but several, ranging from mild cultural nostalgia to the highly organized and elaborately articulated doctrine of National Socialism. Only systematic nationalisms of the latter sort can qualify as a formal ideology on the level of liberalism or communism. The vast majority of the world's nationalist movements do not have a political program beyond the negative desire of independence from some other group or people, and do not offer anything like a comprehensive agenda for socio-economic organization. As such, they are compatible with doctrines and ideologies that do offer such agendas. While they may constitute a source of conflict for liberal societies, this conflict does not arise from liberalism itself so much as from the fact that the liberalism in question is incomplete. Certainly a great deal of the world's ethnic and nationalist tension can be explained in terms of peoples who are forced to live in unrepresentative political systems that they have not chosen.
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All that being said, not everything you encounter in art history will speak to you or interest you. You might find yourself in a situation where you are completely uninterested in the art (or even culture) that you’re studying, and thus struggling to care about the material. Telling you that art history matters regardless of whose history it is probably won’t jolt you into sudden fascination with your course material, but try to find something that you can genuinely appreciate about what you’re studying. See your art history class as an opportunity to view the resurrected past; a mental portal to ghosts of lived experiences that remain as a collective visual memory.
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Even if your art history class seems like it is just a semester-long exercise in how fast you can read and how well you can memorize names, dates, and facts, I would urge you to push the boundaries of how you approach your course and think about art. In other words, for the benefit of your own mind, don’t allow yourself to settle for the bare minimum. Resist what is easy, and resist laziness. Don’t let your course end with a file folder full of notes and old exams that you may or may not look at again. From a professor’s perspective, the material we present to you in class and in your readings is all required knowledge, but we want you to take what you’ve learned and digest it. Form your own ideas about art. Your status as a student of art history does not preclude you from expressing your thoughts and ideas about an artwork. Do not hesitate to be bold in your interpretations while maintaining respect for historical constraints.