M.A. examination essays should be designed and written to demonstrate a firm grasp of the general history of art, with some demonstration of a more than superficial knowledge of the key monuments, essential bibliography, and the most important ideas pertaining to that history.
The essay should directly address the question asked and not some other problem! The answer should be organized into a logical, coherent essay. The introduction and conclusion should make basic points about the historical development of the subject posed in the question. The body of the essay should reveal a breadth of knowledge of relevant issues, supported by ample citation of key examples of specific works of art.
There should be a demonstration of knowledge of the leading schools and major artists (key works, distinct styles, and theoretical concerns) and an explanation of their importance in the own historical context and in the history of art. In general, the mastery of the basic monuments in each period and basic level of the traditional or currently accepted scholarship concerning them: i.e. at least at the level of advanced, 300-level undergraduate courses. To be competent, proof of familiarity with the most important works of art include specialized "period" surveys, such as Snyder's Medieval Art, etc.
Beyond that basic, advanced-undergraduate-level competence, we look for two general categories:
1. Some acquaintance with more advanced scholarship in the field. For example:
a. with current controversial questions or with more problematic, less straightforward monuments of the type under discussion, and the problems they raise and the implications of those problems for the question under discussion.
b. with monographic studies of particular key works and the broader variety of scholarly opinions concerning them.
c. with historiographical developments in the scholarship of art history, e.g., how different scholars or groups of scholars have treated the material under discussion.
2. Some degree of critical approach to the monuments and the scholarship concerning them.
a. The essay should offer some sense that you have weighed or analyzed what you have learned. There should be indications that you have actually looked at the works of art and tested what is written against what you see, not just read what is written about them. On the other hand, while we are delighted to see evidence of original thought and ideas, we do not value originality above logic. Startling new theories are valuable in exam essays only when they are persuasively argued and rigorously supported by well-chosen and well-presented evidence.
b. The essay should demonstrate an ability to synthesize information- what you have read, what you have seen for yourself, etc.- to produce a coherent exegesis.
3. We do not want lists as essays: "and then there was… and then there was… and next came…" The essential examples or stages of development should be there, but treated analytically, explained, and applied to an organizing idea or thesis.
Essay answers should include an introductory thesis, posited, developed and supported by means of the evidence of relevant examples, citations from major scholarship on the subject, etc., evaluated, explained, and applied to the development of the central argument. The ability to evolve and present ideas or theories of greater sophistication and complexity than those presented in most survey texts should be developed. Lists of examples or descriptions of chronological sequences are not sufficient in themselves. The essay should end with a conclusion, which sums up the evidence and presents the findings succinctly and clearly.