Q&A with Professor David Cateforis, History of Art
Q: What should students expect to encounter at a lecture? What kind of experience should they anticipate?
A: There are different kinds of lectures that they might attend. There would be lectures by art historians, which would be dealing with an art-historical subject. It might be Japanese prints or it might be a feminist analysis. For a lecture like that, they would just sort of have to see how much of it they can follow and try and understand the argument. If it’s a good lecture, it should be accessible to a college student.
My main advice would be: go in and try to follow it, and get out of it what you can. Don’t be intimidated; don’t think “I’m not prepared for this.” Give it a shot. An art history lecture is going to require some kind of ability to look at art and understand how it relates to an argument, and it also may require some cultural or historical knowledge that if the lecturer doesn’t provide, there might be a gap there in comprehension.
Another kind of lecture that a student might encounter would be an artist’s talk. And often an artist lecturing on her own work will do so in a very informal way. So those might not require the same kind of art-historical knowledge, but they’re particularly interesting to get the artist’s perspective. They’re usually informal; the artist may not show the work in chronological order, they may jump around, they may say very little about some pieces. And they may not say very much about it at all, so the student would just sort of have to absorb the visuals. The more knowledge you have about art and artists, the more that you’d get out of a talk like that, but the student should go in and be open to it.
I would say that would be my basic advice to either of those, would just be open to what that lecture or presentation is offering you. You know, we always relate what we know to what we don’t know. Let’s say a student comes in knowing something about Andy Warhol and nothing else. If an artist comes in that has something to do with Warhol, they’ll perk up and say “I know something about Warhol, I know something about that.” So that’s always a good strategy; draw on the knowledge that you do have and try and make connections, but then go beyond that to try and form new understandings.
Q: Do you think it would be necessary for a student to do background research, or can they just go and expect to be provided with enough information to understand what’s going on?
A: Doing a little preparation would be a good idea. If an artist is coming to talk, try to find that artist’s website or a newspaper article about that person. The more you know going in, the more you’ll get out of it. In the same way that you are supposed to read the textbook chapter before
you go to the lecture so you can get more out of the lecture. And in fact, that will psych you up for the talk, because if you see some images online, and you like them, you’ll want to hear more. If the lecture title has a word in it that you’re not familiar with, look it up before you go to the talk. You’ll have a leg up on your classmates who didn’t.
However, I think generally an art historian giving a lecture will try and provide her audience with the information they need to follow it. Because they are aware that they are speaking to a college audience that has an interest in art and may have some understanding of art, but might not have special knowledge of their particular subject.
The thing about art lectures as opposed to, say, a philosophy lecture, is there’s going to be something to look at. So that’s going to be your anchor. So even if you don’t follow everything that the lecture’s saying about Michelangelo’s David or about this 18th or 19th century print, at least you can be looking at the image and sort of be thinking about it and asking questions about it. If you go to a philosophy lecture about Hegel and there’s no image, and you’re lost from the first sentence, then you don’t have that anchor that you can hold onto even if you’re not following everything.
Q: How can students be active listeners and ask good questions?
A: I like to ask questions after talks, and I will often ask a question if I feel that the talk didn’t address a certain point that I saw an opening for. For example, I attended a lecturer just the other night about religious imagery and he showed all these images of Christ with the long hair parted down the middle and he talked about how there’s this kind of standard representation that gains validity even though there are no images of Jesus from during his lifetime. And so I raised my hand afterwards and I said “what about the earliest of images of Jesus that show him without a beard?” So I asked him about something that he didn’t address, but I was coming from my own base of knowledge. So that would be the kind of question that I would ask.
Another would be if I hear the lecturer say something that I then connect to the image, and she doesn’t go there. Like if she says “so we have these five figures all wearing red robes and they’re looking at this mountain” and then she doesn’t say anything more about the red robes, I might raise my hand and say “have you thought about why they are wearing red robes?” So that might be helpful to sort of actively listen, try to follow the points, and if the speaker gives you some information, but doesn’t do anything with it, then that’s a good opportunity to ask the speaker about it. Pay attention and see if there are things that the lecture doesn’t address that are sort of in the mix that you could follow up with a question.
But often a student is just going to have basic informational questions. You know, if it’s a lecture about communist art, and the speaker never really defines communism. I don’t know if that’s a good question, because that indicates that there’s a kind of gap between the level of knowledge of that listener and the level of knowledge that the speaker expects of that audience. So that might be a case where rather than raising your hand and asking that question in the room, you should go home and look something up on communism to then try to understand some of the points in the lecture that you maybe lacked a basis for in order to really absorb it.
Q: So how can students tell if it is a question that they should take home and look up on their own or a question that they should ask? What advice could you give for telling the difference between those?
A: Maybe active listening involves figuring out what kind of knowledge the speaker is assuming on the part of her audience. Suppose it’s an artist giving a talk, and the artist is mentioning names of other artists, or dealers, or curators, and you’ve never heard of these people. That’s the kind of question where you probably wouldn’t want to raise your hand and say “Who’s Jeff Koons?” You’d want to look that up later; this would be the kind of work that you’d do on your own to kind of complete that knowledge acquisition process that the lecture has initiated. But if you do know who Jeff Koons is, you could raise your hand and say “Can you talk a bit more about why you mentioned Jeff Koons in relation to this work of yours?” That would be a good question. There’s a question that’s building on knowledge you already have that connects to the talk. That’s good. A question that’s just trying to fill a gap in your knowledge, that maybe the speaker assumes you already have, that may be less appropriate. I mean, there’s no such thing as a dumb question, but there are questions that will further everyone’s understanding, and then there are questions that are just for your own education that are maybe better pursued on your own.
Q: Is there any specific lingo or terminology that they need to know before going to a lecture?
A: Well, every discipline has its own terminology. So, unless you’ve studied art history, there’s no way that you can comprehensively know all the terms that you might need. I think this is an issue for everybody. Terminology is just one of those areas where you know it or you don’t. If I were going to hear a lecture on music, I know what some things are, but if they start getting into technical lingo, I just know that I can’t follow this in the level of detail that a specialist can, and that’s okay. That’s something I might reflect on. The reflection might be thinking about gaps in knowledge that the student might be interested in filling and how to go about that.
Reflecting on the Lecture
Q: Should students take notes, and if so, how? What should they be writing down?
A: Everyone takes notes differently. Taking notes may involve writing down observations. When I take notes, I try and take them fairly comprehensively. I’m just following along and writing down: “artist made this work, it connects to this...” If the artist says something particularly distinctive, I may try to capture their words. Or at least paraphrase.
But then I think there’s a second step, and this may be the reflective part, is to then go through your notes and figure out what are the big points. Now, in the case of the artist’s talk where they are just showing a lot of work, you may never get that. It may just be a lot of observations. But the fundamental reason to take notes is to retain. To remember.
I do see students who just sit there listening, and maybe they are understanding what they are hearing, but they have no way of absorbing and retaining it unless they have a way of processing it. So taking notes is one way, talking about it is another. I always tell my students: go home tonight and tell your roommate what you learned in art history today. This is a way of making it your own.
Q: What would you advise students to reflect on?
A: What they learned. What they saw. But also what they wished they knew. What knowledge they felt they lacked to fully appreciate it. You could say “the artist was using a lot of terms that I couldn’t understand, but I had the image to look at and I was trying to connect what they were saying versus what I was seeing.” Look at the image, think about what the person is saying, reflect on the type of knowledge that you would like to gain to get a fuller understanding of that particular topic.