I am by no means an art history expert, but I did take 3 art history classes at my university. Some of them weren’t quality, but they all discussed art in the context of the intellectual traditions of the time. Even if we were to spend a whole lecture on details in 2-3 paintings, it would always be situated within the context of the tradition that the painting grew out of. For the most part, I personally feel quizbowl painting tossups have failed to incorporate context details. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but I think players and writers can enrich their intellectual lives by incorporating more contextual clues since so few of us are actually concerned about the world of a painting or about creating paintings ourselves. Also, if the writer is incompetent enough, they will often only look superficially for visual clues and create a tossup that isn’t very good.
So what do I mean by context clues? It can be a lot of things. It can be unique facts about the materials and techniques of creation. It can be the artist’s own words about the painting, or his inspiration for the painting. It can be the history of the painting as a physical object, or the social and political pressures that led to the iconography of the painting. Basically, it is any piece of information about the painting that doesn’t come from the world within the painting itself.
To illustrate this, let's look at two tossups:
I’ll be honest, my first reaction to this tossup while playing it was “Are you kidding me? The question writer was that lazy?” Even if I accept that the lead-in is actually interesting (which I don’t think it is, because it appears to be a pastiche devintartist who was googled by the question writer,) the question writer literally selects two from a sea of hundreds of people for the second clue. Furthermore, that second sentence is absolutely incorrect – that guy is wearing a mask and doesn’t have a pudgy white face. This is an example of where reading to find context about James Ensor and his life and times would help this question’s accuracy out – James Ensor was fond of clowns, masks, and the like and depicted many figures in his paintings with masks and not just “pudgy white faces.” There are many points where this tossups can use so much more context, if you add in the phrase "The positive-atheist philosopher Emile Littre" instead of just "Emile Littre" you get many more people to start thinking about the context instead of just the name. If you substitute the much more accurate phrase "Les Vingt" for the standalone phrase "The Twenty" people will recognize you're talking about the artistic group The Twenty (I guess you could also fix that by saying "the artistic group The Twenty") If we really want to be complete, the man with a skeletal face clue is also not correct - that's paint applied to the man's face (though some books dispute this apparently.) I'll add, I'm just not convinced that a player is actually buzzing on at the right a man in a blue suit wearing a white sash is standing on a green platform" unless they have "quizbowl-studied" this painting - if you take a random person who has never played quizbowl but who is knowledgable about this painting, they're probably not going to buzz on that clue because it isn't specific enough.Joel Pelletier created a version of this painting entitled American Fundamentalists. One figure in this painting wears a black conical hat and has a pudgy white face and is standing behind a bald man with a green face. Emile Littre is shown holding a baton in this work, while at the right a man in a blue suit wearing a white sash is standing on a green platform. Another figure in this painting wears a tophat with a large green stripe and has a skeletal face. A large red banner reading Vive la Sociale hangs above the crowd in this work, and the artist drew himself as the title figure at the center of the painting riding a donkey. This painting was originally rejected for exhibition with the Twenty, and it shows a Mardi Gras parade. For 10 points, name this painting by James Ensor depicting a religious figure walking into a European capital.
ANSWER: Entry of Christ into Brussels, 1889 [or Christ’s Entry into Brussels, 1889]
On the other hand, this other tossup pretty much captures everything that I would want in a painting tossup:
This tossup is fantastic and I’m going to praise it. In my Romantic art class, we read Ewa Lajer-Burcharth’s article on the Intervention of the Sabine Women, so that lead-in is definitely buzzable. The lead-in also uses a clue that tells you “this is some painting involved with the French Revolution,” which is great context. The second clue is also great - John Flaxman was someone whom David studied a lot. That third clue is another very juicy clue about the original display of the painting that I also encountered in class and found interesting – if you’re super perceptive you can also see that it tells you it’s definitely an Enlightenment era or beyond painting because it would only be in the Enlightenment that you would want to make viewers feels as if they were part of the painting. The fourth sentence about David’s imprisonment in Luxembourg Palace is another contextual clue that makes this question buzzable for anyone who may not know about this painting in particular, but they know about David’s life. The rest of the clues are also good, even if they are of the inner-directed kind that permeate many tossups – but, what I do like is that they actually name the figures of this painting as if this question writer has studied the painting instead of just searching for this painting on Wikipedia, looking at it, and transcirbing “A figure in white holds her arms out in this painting.”Ewa Lajer-Burcharth argues a woman in red staring directly at the viewer in this painting represents the “Reign of Terror” which cannot be forgotten in her book about the artist titled Necklines. A horseman sheathing his blade on the right is based on a figure from Flaxman's Fight for the Body of Patroclus. It was first displayed in the old architecture firm of the Louvre across from a mirror so viewers could see themselves as participants. The men are depicted naked while the women are clothed in this work that was inspired when the artist’s estranged wife visited him while he was imprisoned in the Luxemburg Palace. The Tarpeian Rock is visible in the upper left hand corner of this painting, whose central scene shows Titus Tatius holding his shield up on the left while Hersilia holds back her husband Romulus from throwing his spear at him. Imagined as a successor to Poussin’s depiction of a rape, for 10 points, name this painting showing the titular ladies separating two warring classical tribes, a work by Jacques-Louis David.
ANSWER: Intervention of the Sabine Women
Hopefully, anyone reading this post can see why tossup 2 is inherently more interesting and playable than tossup 1, and I encourage the quizbowl community to start writing more questions like tossup 2. It may seem that writing a question in the style of tossup 2 takes a lot of work – but to be honest, it really doesn’t: 80% of the clues from that 2nd tossup can be found by just picking up a Romantic art / French revolutionary art general survey at your local university library. Even if you can't find the time to get one of these books from your local university library, you can just google books it (like I did here with Ensor: http://books.google.com/books?id=9wMQBo ... ls&f=false) to find a good source of contextual information.
Let me just clarify a couple of points: 1.) You don’t need to find that super-cool scholarly article to cite (even though this tossup does it); all I'm really asking for is to provide that background information about each painting. 2.) There is no need to suppress detail clues at all. In fact, if tossups existed on Christ's entry into brussels that used accurate, and memorable clues about the world of the painting, I would have no issue with that question in of itself, but I do think I would want some percentage of a tournament's questions to be include contextual information.
So if you’re an editor or a writer, and you’re going to write / edit that next Eduard Manet tossup for a tournament, please take the time to go and get an Impressionism / general survey art history book from your local university library and write some of the clues for your tossup out of there. You will enjoy the process much, much more, you will learn infinitely more than just by looking at his bizarre paintings, and you’ll find that players who are knowledgable about art will be more likely to love, and not just like your question.