Is Smarthistory the Art History Textbook of the Future?

The teaching of art history has been changing rapidly in the past decade. As high quality digital images of artworks have become increasingly available, professors have scrapped their ancient Kodak slide projectors and carousels packed with slides and switched to computer driven LCD projectors that deliver seamless Powerpoint presentations and web-based virtual tours of the Sistine Chapel. At least, in this time of digitally driven change, academics have been at least able to take comfort from one source of constancy: their textbooks.

Janson's History of Art, 1184 pages long, and weighing in at 8.1 pounds is now 50 years old and available in an 8th edition. For a list price of $190.00 (or $140.02 on a student with a sturdy backpack can still buy an encyclopedic history of western art, lug it to class, and then take it back to the dorm to pore over the Poussins and Picassos. Yes, Janson and its competitors are now supported by "innovative" online supplements, but the printed textbook remains the essential core of college art history courses.

Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker
In the view of Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, the Deans of Art and History at the fully online Khan Academy, traditional printed art history textbooks will soon go the way of slide carousels. Harris and Zucker are the innovators behind Smarthistory, which bills itself as a "multimedia web-book about art." They believe that Smarthistory can involve and inform students with video "conversations" that allow the passionate, subjective side of art history to shine though in a way that traditional textbooks, with their authoritative and singular viewpoints, do not allow. Harris and Zucker put it this way: "We find that they (traditional art history texts) are difficult for many students, and just are not particularly engaging."

Of course, there are many academics who have their reservations about the idea of Smarthistory serving as a course text. One well-regarded art historian and author told me that the "the site is of limited scope and value" and that it should be seen "as a supplemental resource, along with many, many other online resources." His views on the matter are clear; "Smarthistory cannot possibly replace a comprehensive textbook, certainly not now and possibly never."

Thomas Germano, a Professor of Studio Art and Art History at the State University of New York, takes a pragmatic, middle of the road view: "I do believe this is the future of most textbook publishing but there will always be a demand (albeit ever shrinking) for traditional print." Students, who are increasingly comfortable with the internet, and who are also struggling with the soaring costs of college, are likely to be very receptive -- perhaps more than their professors -- to Smarthistory's youtube zeitgeist and zero cost.

Since Smarthistory was founded in 2005 -- it originated from a set of podcasts Harris and Zucker made at MOMA and the Metropolitan and took off from there -- it has logged over 3.9 million visitors and received numerous awards. A year ago, it became part of the Khan Academy, an ambitious website which aims towards the lofty goal of "changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere."

To understand what Harris and Zucker are attempting to do -- and to appreciate the way their insights and observations work together  --  take seven minutes and watch their short video conversation about Bernini's "St. Teresa in Ecstasy." An interview with Harris and Zucker follows. 

John Seed interviews Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker of 

JS: Is Smarthistory ready to replace printed art history textbooks?

BH/SZ: Yes - Smarthistory is ready to replace printed textbooks, but more importantly, we think we have created a different type of textbook.

Since joining the Khan Academy last fall, we've added close to 150 new videos including 90 for the Google Art Project. We've focused on works of art that are most often taught in introductory college-level art history courses (and AP classes). We continue to add new content (videos and essays) every week.

Students tell us that Smarthistory does a better job than the textbook because it uses multimedia, and because it's both experiential and conversational. They also appreciate that it's on the web, and that it's free. Teachers appreciate that Smarthistory uses a creative commons license so that they are free to use this content without asking permission. We also make nearly 2,000 high resolution photographs of key works of art available on Flickr with a creative commons license.

Also, keep in mind that nearly every Smarthistory page contains a set of curated links on that topic. There are a lot of great sites out there from educators, museums, and other educational institutions, but we all know that a simple google search often doesn't lead students to the best resources.

JS: How many videos have you and your contributors posted so far?

BH/SZ: There are approximately 450 videos, and over 200 essays. To date, we have 50 contributing authors, including the two of us. Smarthistory depends on the community of art historians to create an open educational resource for our discipline. We are always looking for art historians interested in contributing to topics in their area of expertise.

JS: How does your content engage students in way that a textbook might not?

BH/SZ: Just like in a classroom, students using Smarthistory can look closely at an image while listening: we never appear as talking heads. With a textbook, students divide their attention between text and image and often only look to the image to illustrate what the text has discussed. As you know, that's not ideal for teaching students to engage with a work of art.

JS: Are you able to present the variety and quality of images that the teaching of art history necessitates?

BH/SZ: Because we're web-based, Smarthistory is not limited in the number of images we can use. For example, for a recent video on Raphael's "Galatea," we used 23 images. They show related works of art; the Villa Farnesina, its garden, multiple views of the room where the fresco is located, and details. In contrast, the textbook uses a single photograph that isolates the Raphael from the surrounding frescos.

Being web-based allows us to easily add and update content. That means we stay current while textbooks publish expensive revised editions every few years. Our videos can also be downloaded in the Khan Academy app--so they can be viewed off-line ensuring that the student have access to our content when and where they need it.

JS: How do you produce your videos, and what is their point of view?

BH/SZ: We record most of our audio on-site to give students a sense of what it's like to be in the museum, church or the palace we're visiting. The textbook tends to isolate and decontextualize the object.

In contrast, our audio offers powerful clues to the on-site experience, foot falls on a marble floor under stone vaulting, and our photographs display, not just the isolated image shot from scaffolding high above the floor, but also photos that show what the viewer really sees including the worshippers and tourists who have come to visit. We show the work of art embedded in a world our students recognize. And instead of the disinterested voice of the textbook, we often convey the enthusiasm that comes from direct aesthetic experience.

JS: Smarthistory uses "conversations" in place of lectures. Can you tell me more about why they are structured this way?

BH/SZ: Our audio discussions are spontaneous and unscripted, making them more engaging for students to listen to. We hope this empowers students to have their own conversations in museums based on the close looking and art historical method we model. And the conversation doesn't just take place between us. You can view the videos on the Khan Academy website, and because there is such a large and engaged learning community there, you can ask questions, and usually get them answered by fellow students: we sometimes chime in as well. Questions and answers from all the videos are aggregated here:

JS: Am I right that many of your videos are now available in a variety of languages?

BH/SZ: Yes, thanks to the active learning community at Khan Academy, our videos are being transcribed and translated into numerous languages using the crowd-sourced platform, Amara. For example, our video on the sculptures from the East Pediment of the Parthenon have been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Chinese, Turkish, French, Dutch, Russian, and Bulgarian and additional translations are underway in Greek, Catalan, Kannada, Japanese, Bengali, and Cebuano.

Towards Eclecticism

When it comes to art and culture, I like anything that is good.

Isn't that what we all love to argue about? Every discussion about art is about different view of what makes something good. Could it be said that the whole history of art is based on that discussion? The idea that something is good is the single underlying justification for its place in the complex social and historical hierarchy that we call art history.

This is the 96th blog about art I have written for the HuffingtonPost, but I don't consider myself and art critic, even though many people assume that I am. I consider myself an "arts blogger" and have carefully avoided presenting myself as a critic. There are several reasons for this. The first is that I have trouble making firm judgments, including definitive pronouncements about just what is "good" in art. Another reason is the fact that I am not a trained art historian or journalist: I'm a painter who started writing twelve years ago. The final reason is that I don't like offending people, and offending people is -- and should be -- an inevitable by-product of writing criticism.

 My respect for criticism was recently re-awakened by the death of Robert Hughes. Reading his various writings on art, and particularly using his book "The Shock of the New" for 25 years has been tremendously important to me. Re-reading some of the things he had to say has reminded me that although I may still be an arts blogger, it might be worth at least dabbling in criticism.

So, here is my critical manifesto, my starting point:  

When it comes to art and culture, I like anything that is good. 

Yes, I have shown you my hand, and the cards are blurred. Critically speaking, my development has been a movement towards eclecticism. Here is the Wikipedia definition of that term:
"Eclecticism is a conceptual approach that does not hold rigidly to a single paradigm or set of assumptions, but instead draws upon multiple theories, styles, or ideas to gain complementary insights into a subject, or applies different theories in particular cases."
That's right: you don't have to choose a favorite "ism." If you are eclectic, any and every approach to art making is there for you to draw from at will. Eclecticism is the Smörgåsbord of aestheticism. 


Image by
I'm assuming that this is the point in my blog where those of you who are aligned clear, singular theories of culture are clicking are reaching for your mouse to click back to the HuffPost Politics vertical. If you are still reading, I'm hoping that there is a chance that my fluid approach seems to hold some kind of potential.

Many of the problems we face today began with the German art historian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann. He did the world a great service/disservice by applying categories of style to art objects. In other words, he gave us the systematic, categorical skeleton that today holds up the flesh of art history.

When I say that Winckelmann did a service, what I am applauding him for is that he gave the tools that opened up a very precious and powerful field of study. When I say he did a disservice, I am implying that by setting up a system that resulted in categories, styles and theories he also steered the study and appreciation of art into a cul-de-sac. Scientists are familiar with the observer effect which states that "the act of observing will influence the phenomenon being observed." I am going to argue that from Winckelmann forward the tradition of art in our culture has been affected by a similar effect. Styles, categories and movements are helpful in the making of art, but the consciousness that these things exist has a limiting effect on the imaginations of artists who begin to think about them, or who aim to become associated with them.

There are so many practical dangers that come from the development of styles and categories. In recent times, the most sinister dangers for living artists have emanated from the art market/gallery/museum nexus which carefully regulates, monitors and attempts to manipulate what is hot and what is not. If you have been following the recent controversies at MOCA in Los Angeles, you have seen an example of how heated these types of internecine arguments can get. If you are an artist who pays too much attention this system and its politics, you are in deep trouble because you have become a follower.

Some of the worst art I come across is by artists who are too conscious of some category they want to belong in, or of an individual style they wish to emulate. Haven't we all seen pieces by "Outsider" artists are ridiculously well informed about what is "in" and what is "out?" Or, how about artists who want to be the "next" Diebenkorn, or the "next" Basquiat, or the "next" Warhol, but who haven't a clue about they actually are in any authentic sense? How about those "street" artists who are out-doing each other to have "street cred" so that they can sell their t-shirts at Nordstrom's?

Before you try to hold me to what I just said  -- "WOW, Seed is sounding like a critic now" -- I should remind you that I might soon look at the problems mentioned above from a different point of view. Being eclectic means always being open to acknowledging that something good can appear outside of any system you have set up. Eclecticism is infinitely flexible and paradoxical, and that seems to suit my caste of mind.

John Stuart Mill once said that "All good things which exist are the fruits of originality." This is the kind of thinking that made steady progress in the modern era. Valuing originality gave progressive critics a yardstick to apply, for better and for worse. Later, in the so-called Postmodern era, true originality has seemed less possible, partly because originality had become such a cultural fetish that a kind of cultural exhaustion took hold. Paradoxically, trying too hard to be original leads to a profound lack of originality.

I need to ponder the idea of  "Post-postmodernism" a term that describes a possible future artistic culture: I just saw the term for the first time earlier today. It was used by Professor Ruth Weisberg of USC in a brief article posted for the upcoming Trac2012 representational art conference. Weisberg, a representational artist, posits that "Post-postmodernism is going to be more like the great periods of classical and Renaissance art, and therefore much more about the direct expression of a sensuous experience of the world with a deep and abiding connection to human aspirations."

Weisberg's thinking is noble and optimistic, and I would be pleased if she is right. One of the things I notice about her statement is that is isn't specific about media or style, but that she values qualities: directness and sensuality.

I'm going to suggest that I personally have no idea about what Post-postmodernism is going to be. I've always thought that the term Postmodern was lame because it means so little, and Post-postmodernism just isn't a very poetic or engaging label. I also worry that Post-post-postmodernism might be next...

Eclecticism is beautiful because it allows every label, every approach, every style and every work of art to allowed into the ring of possibilities. I know, it is a cop-out too, but I am confident that we can all argue our way through all this and still let what is good or great make its way towards the top. There are so many new kinds of art media out there, and so many individuals with unique approaches to art-making that eclecticism is looking more and more feasible to me. The atomized, democratized culture brought on by the internet may mean that art criticism is -- for better and for worse -- going to be crowdsourced in the future.

Looking over the Guardian's selection of Robert Hughes' 20 best quotes, there is one that stands out for me, and which hints that Hughes, in addition to having moments of commanding critical clarity, had a personal well of eclecticism to draw from. "I have never been against new art as such" he stated, "some of it is good, much is crap, most is somewhere in between."

I'll miss Hughes' commanding judgements of what was and wasn't crap, while relying on my own eclecticism to sort out what comes next. Since I'm not yet ready to call myself a critic, I'm always looking for others to do the dirty work. I  think it's best that I remain an "arts blogger" for the foreseeable future.

A Few Words About Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes, the Australian born art critic, writer and television commentator, died on August 6th at the age of 74.

For 25 years I have used his book "The Shock of the New" as the textbook for "Introduction to Modernism." On the first day of class I always take some time and explain to my students something about the book they will be reading. I tell them that they are about to read the single best book about modern art that has ever been written. I also tell them that as they read the book they may be overwhelmed by the author's confidence in his own judgments, his erudition and by his sarcasm.

Hughes was a true critic, a vanishing breed. Fewer and fewer newspapers feel that they can afford critics, and the great democratization of art writing that has appeared along with the maturation of the internet has generally caused variety, novelty and self-indulgence to overwhelm judgment. I understand the critics have done genuine damage to individual careers, and I also think that some -- Clement Greenberg for example -- have wielded undue influence over our ideas about American art.

Still, good critics challenge us all to expect more, and Hughes was a master at doing just that. I have never agreed with all of Hughes' judgments, especially his evisceration of Jean-Michel Basquiat, but trying to respond to him is one of the things that turned me into a writer. His most recent and final book "Rome" was judged by historians to be rife with errors when it was released in Europe, and many apparently remained after the book was revised and relased for publication in the United States.

Many of its descriptions were so vivid and revealing that I read the book with rapt attention and real joy. Hughes wrote so well that he could say anything convincingly: that was his strength and his weakness. If you have been offended by Hughes -- and to read him well is to be offended -- how can you not appreciate what he felt in his heart about art and artists?
"The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning. It's not something that committees can do. It's not a task achieved by groups or by movements. It's done by individuals, each person mediating in some way between a sense of history and an experience of the world."
Don't you wish you could have said that? Or something even close to it?

Watch the clip below, which shows Robert Hughes visited the art collector Albert Mugrabi, and then ask yourself "Is there anyone else who has done a better job of deflating the conceits of contemporary art?" When he stands next to a Damien Hirst bronze and laments that art has become "...a kind of bad and useful business," I can't help feeling chastised and challenged.

Don't you think he might have been right?