What Is Art History?

Except when we talk about this modern academic discipline, we rarely hear the juxtaposition of the words “art” and history” in everyday conversations. In fact, when I first heard it, I was confused. These two words seem to have no connection with one another. History, as I see it, is a record of past events and actions, especially social, political, and economic ones. The most well-known of these actions and events are ones that occurred on a large scale and greatly affected a plethora of people and thus were the most well-documented. Regardless, these events have all passed (some passed earlier than others) and escaped us. They are intangible. Most people think of art as creating work that others can interpret using their five senses: seeing, listening, smelling, tasting, and touching. Unlike historical events, numerous artworks created in the past survive to this day. We may see them, touch them, and form our own opinions and interpretations of them. Unlike historical events, art works are tangible. How then are these two words related? The way I see it, artworks created in the past are simply little tangible pieces of history.

Today, when most people think about learning and admiring art, they think of visiting museums. Walking around, taking pictures, and seeing and interpreting for themselves what the works in front of them is saying. This is the image that came to my mind when I first thought of art history before I developed an appreciation and passion for it. However, this is only part of the academic discipline. A small part. Art history is so much more than that! Museums enable visitors to appreciate and marvel at the visual and tactile quality of a work but they can not help a visitor understand why the work was created and why it appears the way it does. Art appreciation does not require knowledge of the historical context surrounding a specific piece of artwork. However, art history does.

The ultimate goal of art history is to determine the original historical context of an artwork. This provides art historians with a much fuller, much broader understanding than one would achieve just by examining the physical and aesthetic qualities of a chef-d’oeuvre. Seeing the artwork answers the “what” part of the story. Determining and making sense out of the work’s historical context answers the “who”, “when”, “where”, “why”, and “how” aspects of the story. Thus, art history central aim is to determine the historical context of a particular work of art and develop a deeper and broader understanding of the work.

Since art history seeks to understand the bigger picture of a particular artwork, what qualifies as art? Scholars originally placed works in the categories of architecture , sculpture, pictorial art (painting, drawing, printmaking, and photography), and crafts arts/art of design. However, this range of what qualifies as art is now expanding. Recently, art historians have looked to everyday items as art (for example, an ancient Roman coin bearing the emperor’s portrait). According to some scholars, performance art, although it is fleeting and impermanent, is also a form of art. To me, art is anything that an artist (whether self-acclaimed or widely-recognized) wants it to be. If the artist intended it to be art, then so it is.

Although art historians might not agree to what qualifies as art and what does not, they do all ask the same questions when study art history. Five of the most important questions are the following:

1. How old is the work?

2. What is its style?

3. What is its subject?

4. Who made it?

5. Who paid for it?

Aside from determining historical context, another major aspect of art history is perspective (as in point of view, not the artistic technique of creating an illusion of depth). The best art historians analyze a work from multiple point of views. He should not side with one perspective or show bias. However, given that art historians are human (and thus have their own beliefs and opinion) and are involved in culture, they can not be perfectly neutral and objective when examining perspective of a work of art. 

Art history challenges me to analyze and to seek to develop a deeper and fuller understanding of a work of art. Throughout this blog, I hope to share my passion for art history. I hope to present various artworks from different time periods, different countries, different cultures, different medias, and different styles but also provide historical context.

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