Art History, Critical Thinking, and Ancient Aliens

Art History, Critical Thinking, and Ancient Aliens

So I was scrolling on Twitter, as I do, and some fun tweets came across my feed.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, we are always rallying against the idea that aliens are the progenitors of all things prehistoric. A user name Renfamous put up a tweet pointing out the inherent racism in the show Ancient Aliens and also pointing out that ancient peoples had imaginations and were capable of re-creating what their imaginations came up with through art and other forms. I shared the tweet and enjoyed the conversation that sprouted from the thread.

One comment, however, started its own thread, and I found it to be very poignant. The user KtO pointed out that, of course, it’s racist, suggesting that it was the result of removing art history from the classroom. They went on to argue some other things as well as creating a dichotomy between art and science that I don’t agree with, but their initial statement is something worth thinking about.

Initially, I was going to write a whole defense about how anthropology and archaeology do acknowledge art and are very aware of art history. But that wasn’t the point, the point was that children aren’t being taught this. They’re not being taught how to look at artwork critically and to think about art, so when they are finally exposed to things like rock art, they make the “looks-a-like-is-a-like” fallacy.

I’m trying to remember if I had any art history classes when I was in grade school and high school. I think there was something art history like offered at one of the high schools I attended, but as far as grade school, I can’t recall ever having more than an hour of art class a week. My generation was the beginning of the culling of “nonessential” classes like art and music and humanities. And look where that’s gotten us…

Which has me agreeing with KtO on this. People don’t seem to understand that art history is more than just looking at pretty pictures throughout history. It is the critical connection of art with the viewer. Of trying to understand the mind of the artist who created the piece, what they were trying to communicate, and understanding the time an environment that the piece was created in. Sure there’s art out there where it’s simply just what it appears to be; sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. But, many times artists are trying to create a deeper connection and meaning with their art through symbolism. This can be something as simple as having a small image in the painting somewhere to show a connection between the painting and the object, or it can be as complicated as the color scheme and choice of line weight.
I am not an art historian. I know what I know because I spend a good deal of time in art museums, and have had a brief introduction to art history because of my archaeology and anthropology degrees. I’m sure like any field, there is a great deal of back and forth, and theory, and all that good stuff. But in the end, art history really is another form of critical thinking, as are most humanities classes, and thus their loss from the classroom is a reduction in teaching critical thinking to our children.

And where does that get us?

Well, it gets us things like Ancient Aliens. Where ancient alien theorists go out and find random bits of ancient culture and then decide that it couldn’t possibly be what the archaeologists and historians have decided it is, it must be rocket ships, and airplanes, and alien people. Why else would things look the way they do?

“It looks like a man operating sophisticated spaceship dials to me, not the depiction of the man’s soul leaving his body,” to paraphrase Von Daniken’s arguments. Is he a Mayan specialist? Does he know much about the Mayan culture? Has he spent years, if not decades studying the artistic representation of the Mayas and their complicated image-based language? That would be a no on all accounts. Von Daniken simply looked at a picture one day and decided that it looked like a guy in a spaceship to him, and never thought any more critically about it after that. And yes, I feel comfortable calling Von Daniken out on this.

Art history is critical thinking, and this is an argument I’m comfortable making. Many things that on the surface appear frivolous are actually there to make us think about things at a deeper level. Why do we do philosophy and logic, so that we learn how to break down arguments and understand the difference between evidence and feelings. Why do we do math, so that we can understand procedure and the logical flow of one thing to another. Why do we study music, because it’s a useful way of learning how to interpret our surroundings and allows us to be critical both socially and politically. And again with art, why must we learn about art? Because our eyes cannot be relied on to give us the truth at all times, we must learn to engage critically with things that we see and hear and experience to understand what is real and possible versus what is fanciful.

So maybe next time you hear a great school talking about removing another humanities class from the roster to make room for teaching to the test, even if you don’t have kids, maybe weigh-in and ask them not to remove it. Yes, you can take these sorts of classes as adults, retrain your brain, technology, or weaknesses in critical thinking and strive to build that muscle much like a bodybuilder. But wouldn’t it just be easier if we taught this from the beginning? Isn’t that what school is supposed to be doing anyway? Shouldn’t they be teaching us to think and to engage, to be critical of the world around us, to make logical arguments and be able to actually have an argument that doesn’t result in name-calling and personal attacks?

So yes I think KtO is correct, a loss in art history and art education, in general, has contributed to the popularity of Ancient Aliens, and the spread of their frankly racist message. Will art history as adults fix this problem? As adults, we have to make a conscious effort to recognize there is a problem and then work towards correcting it. So it really comes to a person by person basis for identifying a shortcoming and choosing to overcome it. I suppose the answer to this question then comes to how strong is your faith in humanity? And also we should put our education back in the schools.

af line art

Hi! I’m an archaeologist who likes games, video games, gaming, horror, the supernatural, and debunking pseudoarchaeology. Check out my vids for more on the above topics, and toss us a coin if you like what I do.

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