An important dilemma for me as an art history teacher is how to make the evidence that survives from the past an interesting subject of discussion and learning for my classroom. I also want my students to question the historical value of any image. Artists and historians interpret historical events. I would like my students to understand that this interpretation is a construction. Primary textual documents provide us with just one window to view history. Artwork is another window, but the students must be able to judge on their own the factual content of the work and the artist's intent. It is imperative that students understand this.
Barber says in
History Beyond the Text
that there is danger in confusing history as an actual narrative and "construction of the historian's (or artist's) craft."
Are photographs a more accurate testimony to historical events? Or can paintings be equally accurate? For the art historian, the evidence is the artwork and the documents that support it. My solution is to have students compare different media used in two specific historical periods because they will have the chance to read primary sources of each of the images selected, discuss them, and then determine whether and how they reveal, criticize, or impartially report the events. Students should be able to identify if the artist accurately represents an historical event, and if it is not accurately represented, what message is the artist trying to convey.