Why Do Art Historians Make Us Memorize?

1. They are great big meanies.

2. They never found out about the internet.

3. They actually think we’ll remember this ****.

4. Somebody did it to them.

One of the hardest things that art history students struggle with is the requirement to commit works of art to memory. Say “memorize” and images of archaic scholastic torture arise, rote recitation without comprehension, rigid, frowning schoolmasters—something out of Dickens. I say memorize, and you say—unfair! We have better ways to learn. Why can’t it all work like uploading a video?

Yet, to memorize is simply to commit to memory. To commit to memory is to learn. You have memorized the English language very well to read this. But you didn’t know that you were memorizing. You just pointed, and somebody said “banana,” and this happened enough times for you to get it. Art history in the beginning is just a pointing at things, a naming, and this, like any language, takes repetition. The trouble is that in college we are do not have many tries for each label, at least not in class. In class, we accelerate the process, because you are now able to learn much more quickly. We spin you through 600 or more works of art in fourteen weeks. It’s dizzying. After the fourteen weeks, whatever you forget you will remember enough to look up on the web or in your book (which you are urged to keep). First, though, you need to learn vocabulary, artists’ names, titles, dates, how to think about remembering, what the important categories are. Our works of art are words, and we are going from toddler to schooled really fast. Why so fast? Well, we could go slower, but you need to take a few other courses. Most students understand that learning about works of art and identifying them is useful. But what you may ask for is less, much less, like, say 10 or 20 works of art on an exam. A kind of top 10 list of quality. Then, lots and lots of exams and review sessions before each until quizzing and review eats up half the course time in the semester. You want to see each work many times in class, so it sticks. But we need to get you some of all these major periods, and we can’t keep saying “cubic style,” or we never get past the Egyptians. Once is what you get. The repetitions are up to your independent, disciplined, continued study. And this part is essential, for this is the way you will own the works of art. Yes, own them. The point of knowledge is not sounding smart, or even landing a good job (though nobody minds that); the point is that you own what you know, and nobody can take it from you. Your knowledge means that you are the authority. Learning by heart allows you to internalize the knowledge and place it at your command. The great works of art from world history will not be some superior, external authority, but what you know and are. You will be more capable, and though it may feel some days like a marathon, you are in these games.

But, you say, “do I really need to know so much”? You’re just taking a course, a requirement, a gen ed, and you’re not going to be an art historian, probably not even a famous artist; you might not have anything to do with art at all after college; you just want to get on with a decent G.P.A.; you’re the kid who stumbled in and just sat down for a nap. Trouble is we don’t know that. If only there were a crystal ball and we could see into your future: Group A will need a solid preparation for inevitable success, but, for Group B, “college lite” will do, and we are not going to discuss options. But you don’t want a crystal ball, and I sure don’t want to peer into it, for as far as I’m concerned, you’re all Group A, and I’m going to treat you as beautifully competent. It’s the only way I operate.

So, engineers, we will teach you how to build a bridge, and we will not pretend that you not up for the job, because nobody wants to drive over a bridge built by someone who took introduction to engineering with Group B. Can bridges collapse in the world of art? Google search: “Marion True” or “F.B.I. art crimes.” It’s no joke that art historians can go to jail for messing up, and institutions can close. Or that people through ignorance of art can destroy history. Google search: “Baghdad Museum,” “Timbuktu manuscripts,” or “Bamiyan Buddha.” This course is the first step in earning your credentials, because we don’t know that you won’t be a top curator or a cultural hero or a famous artist someday. We’re not going to second guess that your life won’t change here, that you’re not brilliant, that you can’t.

So, from “banana” to fluent in two courses. Just study hard, and your professors will love you. Even if you don’t study hard, we respect you for what you can do. If you learn one thing in college, please know that being asked to perform at a higher level is a sign of belief in your powers—and future.

Oh yeah, the answer is #4. The reason: because it works.