Faculty Spotlight: Exploring the Depth of Art with Marnin Young, Associate Professor of Art History

By: Talya Hyman  |  May 10, 2018

Art Historian Dr. Marnin Young serves as the Associate Professor of Art History at Stern College for Women. Dr. Young’s knowledge and passion for the art world is not only captivating, but infectious. It is with his eloquence and enthusiasm that Dr. Young instills within his students a newfound appreciation for analyzing art through a reflective and individualized lens. This summer he will be leading an art travel course where Yeshiva University students will have the opportunity to become immersed in Paris’s vivid art culture and history. The Observer had the chance to speak to Dr. Young about art, teaching, and his summer course in Paris.

Talya Hyman: What does art mean to you? 

Marnin Young: For me, art constitutes a rich and increasingly rare sensory experience that just isn’t matched anywhere else in our contemporary world. But I also believe that the visual arts give us access to the ways human beings throughout time have understood themselves and their world. I very much like this doubleness in art–it has a sensual immediacy, but it ultimately belongs to the past.

TH: When did you first fall in love with the art world? 

MY: I had always been immersed in what could be called the art world. My parents were trained as artists, and museums were a constant destination in my childhood. But I never thought of belonging to that world until I took an art history class my first semester in college. I knew right then and there that art history was my calling.

TH: What’s the best thing about being an art history professor? 

MY: Well, I get paid to do what I love. That’s not bad. As an art historian, I get to travel a lot to do research in foreign archives and to see works of art in person. I love being able to dig into historical data and to unearth paintings I’ve never seen before. In the classroom, I have always enjoyed the format of the art history class, with its back and forth between the presentation of visual imagery, verbal exposition and discussion. Because images are provided right there, students have a very quick ability to test my claims. This keeps all of us on our feet and leads to really interesting conversations.

TH: What do you think is a common misconception people have about art history? 

MY: I think there is often some confusion about the difference between art history and studio art or art history and art appreciation. As the name suggests, art history is a historical subject, and for better or worse we really don’t spend much time learning how to make works of art. Many art historians probably disagree, but I also try to minimize aesthetic questions of beauty, taste, or value. Or at least I try to turn them into historical questions. Students in my classes do understand how works of art are made and why some are maybe better made than others, but I hope they also come to see how these processes and evaluations are structured by cultural frames of understanding.

TH: A lot of students are excited about the upcoming Paris, Capital of the Arts summer travel course. Have you led this course before, and what made it special?

MY: I’ve taught three previous summer courses in Europe: two in Paris and one in Rome. The first class in 2011 was built around an exhibition of the work of the nineteenth-century artist Edouard Manet. The second one, in 2014, was about Art and Revolution, and it was cross-listed with the Political Science department. In 2015, the Italy class thematized the persistence of classicism from antiquity to the nineteenth century, and it complemented a parallel course on Jewish History taught by Steven Fine. Each of these courses was unique, but they shared a very powerful sense of immersion in cultural history. We got to see a lot.

TH: Why is studying art in Paris so significant and impactful? 

MY: Paris has an especially rich collection of museums. New York is probably its closest competitor, but there’s nowhere else quite like it. In these summer courses, we spend a lot of time in front of major works of art that simply can’t be seen anywhere else. This summer we’re focusing on foreign artists who worked in Paris. So for example we’ll have a chance to see exhibitions of paintings by Mary Cassatt, Pablo Picasso, and Marc Chagall, but we’ll also look at artists from Leonardo to Delacroix in order to understand the emergence of Paris as the capital of the arts. The city used to be the undisputed center of artistic production and display, and it has preserved a lot of this history. When you’re there you always get a visceral feel for what life was like for artists in the past.

TH: Do you have an all time favorite work of art and/or artist? 

MY: I have lots of favorites, but I’m currently working on the painter Georges Seurat. His most famous painting is called A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, now in the Art Institute of Chicago. It shows a group of middle-class people leisurely sitting and walking in a park just to the west of Paris. It was painted in a new technique, called pointillism, which involved the meticulous application of tiny dots all over the surface of a huge canvas. The work was first exhibited in 1886, but I still feel it says something about the nature of modern life, how even leisure is controlled, managed, and laboriously produced. It is simultaneously a dreamlike escape from modern life and a critique of the very need to escape from modern life. It is visually compelling, complex, and profound, which is about all I would ever ask of a work of art.

TH: What is one fact about art history/art that all students should know?

MY: When the Mona Lisa was briefly stolen from the Louvre in 1911, more people came to look at the empty spot where it hung than had ever looked at the work itself. (Nobody needs to know this, of course, but it’s a telling little detail about how artistic celebrity too often takes the place of real looking).

TH: What do you hope your students take away from your courses, both in Paris and in the classroom?

MY: I hope my students in New York and Paris all come away with a sense of the complex connection between, on the one hand, the works of art they see either in reproduction or in real life and, on the other hand, the rich historical context in which they were made. That, for me, is art history in a nutshell.