What is the Point of Art History?

Image: Frans Hals, The Merry Drinker, 1628-30. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Ever since Barack Obama made his negative remark about the usefulness of Art History, art historians have been falling over themselves to prove the point of their profession. But is there really anybody out there who doubts the value of art history? Unfortunately art historians have felt the need to justify their field and have been writing about the rather hard to define but definitely real worthiness of their subject ever since.

Recent comments on the subject that I have come across include an article by M J Stern in Slate where he argues we should perhaps study art history to be able to impress others with our knowledge and to avoid being bored in museums. After all a short course in art history does wonders and hence we can all overcome the problem of being overwhelmed by a Mondrian and feel part of the in-crowd. This is a rather vain and selfish argument for studying art history. Assuming that someone who scoffs and turns at a Mondrian is  “overwhelmed by its vibrancy” is presumptuous to say the least. Since when are we not allowed to just dislike something? We don’t all have to gasp at the sight of a great masterpiece and its not just a matter of educating the masses.

Well known art historian Bendor Grosvenor, who never studied art history it turns out, argues that we should perhaps not study art history at all and just look at pictures a bit more carefully.  While I am all for looking at pictures, and looking again, I would argue art history offers a bit more than “theorising and looking at small illustrations in books”. Gosh I hope it does. I don’t really believe Grosvenor meant it that harshly though, considering the blog he writes and the tv programs he helps create, where is often caught diving into books full of small illustrations.

Grosvenor referred to a recent article that I came across as well by Christine Riding, Chair of the Association of Art Historians, in Apollo Magazine where she argued the case for art history. Surely the chair of the Association of Art Historians will know what to say!? I love her ironic writing style, as when she suggests that art history is perhaps “life-enhancing but not career-making then”, but goes on to argue that studying art history can be useful indeed as the range of professions that are open to art historians is wide and meaningful. Art History skills, apparently, are “eminently transferable […] across a range of art and non-art specific professions”.

Although in these days of austerity we can argue about the need for less vocational subjects, I can’t help feeling a bit sad that there is this felt need at all. We have all heard of the teenager complaining why he/she has to do history and when he/she is ever going to need history in adult life. But we all know the hard to formulate answer to it. Most of us, I hope, get the value of understanding our past and studying history. Most of us find it perfectly normal that literary historians find meaning in the writings of authors from the past or present. And we can appreciate that we need thinkers in every society, who have studied philosophy, theology, literature or other topics so valuable but economically perhaps so hard to value at all.

So why even wonder about art history? I think it has something to do with the way art history has developed into an iconographic discipline. It focuses  on the world beyond the picture plane; on themes and topics, encyclopaedic meaning and visual dictionaries. These meanings are only known to the initiated and remain hidden to the casual viewer (unless you take one of these short courses of course!). A different development within art history is where art history has placed itself within cultural history and sees art as a product of a society, a culture, just like literature, politics and music. Within literary and general cultural history discussions can be found about an author, a composer and his or her methods, materials, choices and interpretations, but within art history we fail to discuss the artist and the act of painting, drawing, designing. There is this invisible third space that we tend to ignore.

I would like to call our space as a viewer the first space; the space of the viewer (us) who experiences an art work. Then there is the second space, which is the created illusionary space within the art work (the scene set in a painting). Both these areas have received a lot of attention within art history. But the third space is the space in between these two. The space taken up by the world of the artist. This is where the magical ingredients become down-to-earth materials: some coloured oily paste on a palette, a piece of paper and a pencil, some building blocks. This is where brushes are losing hairs and canvas sags. This is also where the artist makes choices, tries out colour harmonies, line effects, and pigment mixes. This is where physical materials are used to create mood and ideas and where a love life or Beethoven is translated into paint. While we are happy to discuss the choices of a composer or an author, there are few art historians who discuss the choices of an artist as it is hard to crawl into their space. There are a few studies that cover the technical aspects of materials (paints and pigments or the introduction of canvas) but rarely can we wonder about the brush work (only when its wild and expressive perhaps), composition, colour combinations, tone or value, mood and ideas, etc. Inspiration is found and choices are so often made instinctively and we struggle to access that world, understand and analyse. And so we discuss the scene the artists create, the world they have conjured up for us (see most museum labels which describe the scene in a painting but never the actual painting). We discuss our reaction to an artwork, and we discuss the contemporary reception of the works in their own time. Perhaps focussing on the art work itself will help us get beyond the question of the usefulness of art history.

Studying art history usually follows out of an interest in history, beauty, art and painting, or cultural developments. People pick up books because they are taken by something, in this case perhaps a painting. They want to know more. I did not study art history because I wanted to avoid being bored in museums, nor have I gained most of my (perhaps limited) understanding from just looking at pictures. Art history can not only illustrate general history (what did Shakespeare look like?) but it can tell us something about the artist and their cultural idea of beauty, propriety, gender etc. Painting styles and method gives us hints into the artists’ choices.  Learning to see from different perspectives (illustrative art history, cultural art history or iconographical art history for example) has helped me realise how relative our understanding of the past is. How we pick and choose from the past and only read a certain carefully chosen thread of history. The point of art history is the same as the point of all the humanities. Whether you analyse French literature, military history, Beethoven, Michelangelo or Picasso; studying the past, and the historical and cultural products of the past, offers an endless source of understanding of our own culture today. Studying art history not only provides many paths into jobs of a wide variety (we can’t deny the huge value of museums), but the history of art also encourages cultural thinking, debate and meaning today. Anyway, we already knew all of this, didn’t we?

I promise my next blog post will be a bit less ‘lofty’. Back to paint-stained aprons and grubby brushes!

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