New AP Art History Curriculum Opens Doors to World

By Leo Doran — April 15, 2016 4 min read
John Gunnin, an AP Art History teacher at Corona Del Mar High School in California, has asked his students to analyze “Trade (Gifts for Trading Land With White People),” a work by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. The 1992 piece is housed in the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va. Source: With permission of the artist and the Accola Griefen Gallery.

John Gunnin, a veteran high school teacher, greeted the newly enrolled students in his AP Art History with a challenging first assignment.

During the first few weeks of this school year at Corona Del Mar High, in California’s Orange County, Gunnin asked the students to dissect a contemporary piece made for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America.

Despite their limited experience formally analyzing sophisticated visual art, the teacher asked his students to respond to a digital display of a nine-foot-tall, HD-quality image of the mixed-media artwork, “Trade (Gifts for Trading Land With White People),” by a Native American artist, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. The assignment was to study the piece from political, visual, cultural, historical, societal, and economic angles.

Works such as Smith’s are emblematic of a major overhaul of the AP Art History course that is designed to shift away from the rote memorization of a mostly Eurocentric selection of images to focus on the layers of meaning of a more global set of artworks.

Those changes were largely unnoticed when they went into effect at the beginning of the 2015-16 academic year—partly because they were overshadowed by major controversies that swirled around the recent redesign of the AP U.S. History curriculum.

Statistics released by the College Board show that 23,314 students from 2,072 schools nationally took the AP Art History exam in 2015. That’s more than the number who took AP French Language or Comparative Politics tests, but still a small figure compared with the more than 500,000 who took the English Language AP.

Gunnin, a member of the College Board’s AP Art History development committee, helped oversee the big changes in the national curriculum that sought to bring more diversity to student’s lessons.

One of the committee’s changes was to encourage students to focus on the broader cultural context of a smaller number of works of art intended to more accurately reflect world history.

The correction to a more globally representative list “is long overdue—at least 30 years, if not more” said Emily Shaw, the assistant curator at Columbia University’s Media Center for Art History.

Smith’s “Trade (Gifts for Trading Land With White People),” is one of the 250 works selected as culturally significant by the AP’s committee and a good example of new points of emphasis. Her piece is a biting indictment of America’s foundations and of contemporary American culture’s commoditization of Native American culture. The artist satirizes the traditional three-paneled structure of European Medieval altar pieces by presenting the form in a roughly hewn, blood-red collage of newspaper clippings, photographs, and paint, all beneath a clothesline adorned with trinket souvenirs from professional and college sport franchises that have adopted American Indian mascots.

Many of the non-Western works selected by the development committee are meant to challenge AP students to step outside of their own cultural frameworks and work to assimilate the difficult and layered imagery.

By the time Gunnin’s students graduate in May, they will have been exposed to historical and contemporary works from Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific Islands.

In recognition of the diversity of traditions that increasingly define art history today, Gunnin opens his class with comparisons of works by contemporary artists. His lessons expose students to treatments of feminine power by comparing the intensely polemical work of Shirin Neshat, whose photography grapples with the intersection of feminism and Islam, and the staged photography of Cindy Sherman, who explores similar themes through an explicitly classical Western lens.

Images: AP Art History teacher John Gunnin likes to present his students with two works of art that feature similar themes expressed through contrasting styles. One such comparison focuses on the piece on the left by Cindy Sherman, which references the Biblical story of Judith and Holifernes, a subject tackled repeatedly by well-known European artists like Carvaggio and Artemesia Gentileschi. He juxtaposes it against the work on the right, Shirin Neshat’s stark portrait of an armed woman wearing a hijab, a contemporary example of the AP’s shift towards a more global selection of artworks. Sources: Cindy Sherman, “Untitled,” 1990, chromogenic color print, 82 x 48 inches, 208.3 x 121.9 cm, (MP# CS--228). Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. Shirin Neshat, “Rebellious Silence,” 1994, B& W RC print & ink (photo taken by Cynthia Preston), 11 x 14 inches, copyright Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

At first, it felt strange to fly through lessons on periods and styles that he used to emphasize more heavily, Gunnin said.

But now he revels in having the power to share an “egalitarian approach to the world and to art” with his students.

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An alternate version of this story appeared as “New AP Art History Curriculum Opens Doors to World” in the April 27, 2016 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2016 edition of Education Week as New AP Art History Curriculum Opens Doors to World


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