Art through Ages – What Is Art History? Part 1

What is art history? Except when referring to the modern academic discipline, people do not often juxtapose the words art and history. They tend to think of history as the record and interpretation of past human actions, particularly social and political actions. In contrast, most think of art, quite correctly, as part of the present—as something people can see and touch. Of course, people cannot see or touch history’s vanished human events, but a visible, tangible artwork is a kind of persisting event. One or more artists made it at a certain time and in a specific place, even if no one now knows who, when, where, or why. Although created in the past, an artwork continues to exist in the present, long surviving its times. The first painters and sculptors died 30,000 years ago, but their works remain, some of them exhibited in glass cases in museums built only a few years ago.

Modern museum visitors can admire these objects from the remote past—and countless others humankind has produced over the

Fig 1 King on horseback with attendants, from Benin, Nigeria, ca. 1550–1680. Bronze,
1′ 7 1–2 ″ high. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Michael C. Rockefeller
Memorial Collection, gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller).

millennia, whether bronze sculptures from Africa Fig 1 or paintings on canvas by American artists Fig 2

Fig 2 Joan Mitchell, Untitled, ca. 1953–1954. Oil on canvas,
1′ 5″ × 1′ 4″. Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown
(gift of Marilynn Meeker, 1986).

—without any knowledge of the circumstances leading to the creation of those works. The beauty or sheer size of an object can impress people, the artist’s virtuosity in the handling of ordinary or costly materials can dazzle them, or the subject depicted can move them emotionally. Viewers can react to what they see, interpret the work in the light of their own experience, and judge it a success or a failure. These are all valid responses to a work of art. But the enjoyment and appreciation of artworks in museum settings are relatively recent phenomena, as is the creation of artworks solely for museum-going audiences to view.

Today, it is common for artists to work in private studios and to create paintings, sculptures, and other objects that commercial art galleries will offer for sale, as the American painter Joan Mitchell (1925–1992) did when she created large untitled canvases of pure color Fig 2. Usually, someone the artist has never met will purchase the artwork and display it in a setting the artist has never seen. This practice is not a new phenomenon in the history of art—an ancient potter decorating a vase for sale at a village market stall probably did not know who would buy the pot or where it would be housed—but it is not at all typical. In fact, it is exceptional. Throughout history, most artists created paintings, sculptures, and other objects for specific patrons and settings and to fulfill a specific purpose, even if today no one knows the original contexts of those artworks. Museum visitors can appreciate the visual and tactile qualities of these objects, but cannot understand why they were made or why they appear as they do without knowing the circumstances of their creation. Art appreciation does not require knowledge of the historical context of an artwork (or a building). Art history does.

Thus, a central aim of art history is to determine the original context of artworks. Art historians seek to achieve a full understanding not only of why these “persisting events” of human history look the way they do but also of why the artistic events happened at all. What unique set of circumstances gave rise to the construction of a particular building or led a specific patron to commission a certain artist to fashion a singular artwork for a particular place? The study of history is therefore vital to art history. And art history is often indispensable for a thorough understanding of history. Art objects and buildings are historical documents that can shed light on the peoples who made them and on the times of their creation in ways other historical documents may not. Furthermore, artists and architects can affect history by reinforcing or challenging cultural values and practices through the objects they create and the structures they build. Thus, the history of art and architecture is inseparable from the study of history, although the two disciplines are not the same.
The following posts in this series introduce some of the distinctive subjects art historians address and the kinds of questions they ask, and explain some of the basic terminology they use when answering these questions. Readers armed with this arsenal of questions and terms will be ready to explore the multifaceted world of art through the ages.