The Joy of Exams
I always do a section of term definitions on my Intro to Modern midterm. Define twelve terms that relate to modern art, for one point each--given that these are all terms covered in class and that the book has a glossary defining most of them, how hard can this really be? Yet somehow this is a thing even my best students tend to have some trouble with. I think only one person thus far this semester has gotten full points.
I thought, for instance, that this semester I had really stressed the difference between Orientalism and Japonisme, because the majority of students define Orientalism incorrectly. But apparently I really stressed the difference between Orientalism and Primitivism (also a problem area), so while no one this semester is confusing that pair, most of the definitions for Orientalism are really definitions of Japonisme. This would not be so odd if it weren't that Orientalism is such a major theme in the academic world these days and I would have thought my students (unlike me) might have imbibed the works of Edward Said with their mothers' milk. I guess Orientalism is more the province of graduate students than of undergrads. I will, thus, keep trying to make clear that Orientalism generally involves eroticization of "exotic" foreign cultures, particularly Muslim cultures but also potentially Hindu and Far Eastern cultures. At least, that's Orientalism in 19th and early 20th century art. And it's not as though we haven't looked at a good many examples.
The very term Avantgarde is, for some reason, also problematic. A certain number of people always do get this right without the slightest difficulty, but a strangely large number always suppose it's a specific movement, or that it's "a new country's art movement" or some other odd thing.
And again, despite my continued efforts to clarify the meaning of Nonobjective art, students continue to define it as "art without a focus" and art that can mean different things to different people. I think some of them probably understand the term better than they are able to define it, but very few seem to state that it's art that doesn't depict something you can see out there in the real world. They don't seem to connect it with Malevich's Black Square (which they reserve for their definitions of Suprematism) or with Kandinsky's later work. Maybe I should make them define Nonobjective later in the semester, when they've seen more examples.
Of course, there are always some definitions that are simply humorous.
"Supermatism--It was an art movement that would just use simple geographic shapes to depict their work." I actually gave partial credit for this because despite the wording, it's clear the writer has some idea what Suprematism is. Anyone (myself included) might accidentally write "geographic" instead of "geometric." All the same, I'm envisioning Malevich attempting to depict the Black Square by means of a map of Moscow or Novosibirsk.
I guess Malevich will keep us amused. And so will all that fuzzy-looking subjective Nonobjective art. At least everyone seems clear on what Pointillism is, and nearly everyone can say something reasonable about Fauvism, despite the paucity of references to the term meaning "wild beast-ism".