Editorial | Digital Textbooks / Thomas Buser’s History of Drawing

Posted in books, resources by Editor on January 31, 2015


Jacques-Louis David, The Intervention of the Sabine Women, 1794. Black chalk, pen and black ink, gray wash with white heightening on two sheets and five fragments of paper pasted together, 25.7 x 34 cm (Paris: Louvre; photo: T. Le Mage).
Click here for more information.

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As someone regularly faced with assigning new editions of textbooks that seem increasingly overpriced, I wonder how long it will be until resources such as the basic art history survey text are available digitally for free. Yes, these are choppy waters—pedagogically, methodologically, ideologically, and as business practice—further complicated by recent legislation, primarily from California: SB48 signed into law in 2010 along with SB 1052 and SB 10532 signed in 2012. But I think the stakes are high in our getting this right.

Thomas Buser’s History of Drawing, which surveys Western drawing from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries, seems worth noting to me as an early example of what we might see more of in the coming years. I imagine most instructors would assign pieces in conjunction with other materials, but the price (free) facilitates such flexibility. If students in a studio drawing course are introduced to eighteenth-century artists they otherwise wouldn’t know about, that seems useful to me. In the context of a survey, I can imagine building one or two individual class sessions around the topic of drawing with this as a starting point for students. While there aren’t notes—an all too common and unfortunate characteristic of the textbook genre that could be rectified in the digital realm—there is a reasonably extensive bibliography, excluding (at least presently) the twentieth century.

With permissions an ever moving target, we’ve made huge strides during the last decade toward more open policies. Buser has adopted an approach that likely wouldn’t work with publishers (or profits) involved, but again this strikes me as a gain. If the image selection is admirable, in most cases the image quality is not. On the other hand, Buser’s text is also a work in progress, one of the biggest advantages of this new format.

I don’t usually voice opinions too loudly here (I try not to voice many opinions even softly and I’m certainly not speaking on behalf of HECAA), but here’s my concern: if art history—and I have in mind a discipline much larger than the eighteenth century—doesn’t move toward more affordable digital options, we will be further marginalized, characterized as an intellectual luxury, available only to a small, elite segment of higher education. At least at its best, the museum as an institution is premised on public access; it’s time we find some way to extend this vision to introductory art history texts.

Craig Hanson

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From Busser’s History of Drawing:

History of Drawing is a textbook and reference book available free to anyone who loves drawings. . . .Thomas Buser earned his doctorate in Art History from NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts in 1974. He taught courses in Baroque Art and the course History of Prints and Drawings at the University of Louisville until his retirement in 2005. He has published Religious Art in the Nineteenth Century in Europe and America (two volumes, 2002) and the textbook Experiencing Art Around Us (second edition, 2006).


3 Responses

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  1. Amelia Rauser said, on January 31, 2015 at 11:17 am

    I’ve already abandoned textbooks in some of my courses, using a combination of (free) online resources and photocopied articles instead. It’s messy, but it can make for a livelier set of perspectives for students, and they certainly seem to prefer it.

  2. Ann Lee Morgan said, on January 31, 2015 at 2:52 pm

    Maybe you should be voicing more opinions! You make an excellent point—although obstacles may be formidable for a while.

  3. Editor said, on January 31, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    Thanks, Amelia and Ann, for the comments. To lively perspectives with respect for the obstacles. . . -CH

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