Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Threshold concepts in art history

A threshold concept is transformative, integrative, irreversible, bounded, and troublesome. So say Ray Land and Jan Meyer in their seminal paper on threshold concepts from 2003, which claims that learning a subject like history of art is not about acquiring knowledge but crossing thresholds, or moments of 'I get it!'.

Let's unpack those dimensions:
Natalya Goncharova, Linen, 1913, Tate.
  1. Transformative: a threshold concept has potential to utterly change a student's sense of the subject. 
  2. Irreversible: once you've crossed the threshold, there's no going back. I had seen Natalya Goncharova's Linen many times but one day I half-closed my eyes and thought I saw a skull, and since then I've have been able to see it as I had before.
  3. Integrative: a discipline threshold has the potential to pull together everything you know about the subject. It reaches the parts other concepts don't reach. 
  4. Bounded: what works as a threshold concept in art history may not work as such in other subjects. It's what marks your subject as different from other subjects. 
  5. Troublesome. Discipline thresholds challenge previous assumptions and are often counter-intuitive.
There are also threshold practices - procedural thresholds - but we'll look at those in another post.

So what are the discipline thresholds in art history, and why are they important?
There are many ideas which structure our thinking about art, but few which are genuine thresholds, and which hold true across the discipline. There are also key areas of knowledge and important kinds of skill, but these can usually be acquired incrementally, whereas discipline and procedural thresholds can't - they tend to be a case of all-or-nothing.

I've taken a deep breath and written briefly about what I think may be the three most important threshold concepts, below.

We can talk about the artwork's meaning without knowing the artist's intentions. This is my top discipline threshold for two reasons. It's utterly transformative, and underpins almost all the really important and exciting concepts in art history, none of which will really make sense unless this one does. It's also troublesome because the idea that the artist is the only reliable source of meaning has had such a strong purchase on people's understandings of the creative process. I am convinced that if I was to show a painting to a final-year student - one who has passed exams on reception theory, postcolonialism, and so on - they would instinctively begin their search for meaning with reference to the artist and their personal circumstances and intentions.

There really is no such thing as Art. There are only art historians. I've travestied the opening words to E.H. Gombrich's The Story of Art in order to make the point that anyone who studies art history thinking it is about art is likely to get frustrated before long, since they may well entertain the view that as historians we are uncovering an artwork's meaning. (This is the view of art history that Dan Brown uses in The Da Vinci Code). But we don't uncover meaning, we produce it. A beginner's study of art history may well involve learning skills of visual analysis, and not involve much study of other historians' works, but a more sophisticated art historical practice has, at its heart, an understanding that meaning is made by historians, and that the real object of study in art history must be the work of other art historians - that is to say, other constructions of meaning - rather than the art itself.

Art doesn't reflect, it works. The art object isn't passive, it has an ontological status different from other kinds of object. I've challenged students about their use of 'reflect' on countless occasions, and while most seem to acknowledge the logic of preferring 'mediate' or some other verb to 'reflect', but few seem to grasp the vast implications that the different words signify, and the enormous possibilities that open up when we conceive of artworks having an active function.

Finally, and more briefly, why are threshold concepts important?

As their name suggests, discipline thresholds mark the discipline's boundaries, and someone who hasn't crossed them can't really said to be 'in' the subject. I am sure many art history graduates find that although they've acquired the knowledge, understanding and skills which the sector regards as a benchmark for expertise, somehow the subject still doesn't seem to 'click' and they still struggle with core problems. A key moment for me was when my supervisor advised me to read Stuart Hall's Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices after it came out in 1997. (Yes, I did have a first class degree and an MA in the subject but felt increasingly as though it didn't make sense!) I had many of the pieces but Hall's essay in particular helped things to 'click' into place, and it had a transformative effect. We can use discipline thresholds to identify what really matters in the subject and build our teaching around it so students can better focus on what really matters and lies at the heart of the discipline.

Further reading:

Jan Meyer and Ray Land, ‘Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge 1 – Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines’, Occasional Report 4 (ETL Project: Edinburgh, 2003): http://www.etl.tla.ed.ac.uk//docs/ETLreport4.pdf

Glynis Cousin, 'An Introduction to Threshold Concepts', Planet 17 (2006), 4-5: http://journals.heacademy.ac.uk/doi/abs/10.11120/plan.2006.00170004.

QAA Subject Benchmark Statement in History of Art, Architecture and Design: http://www.qaa.ac.uk/en/Publications/Documents/Subject-benchmark-statement-History-of-art-architecture-and-design.pdf

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