What is Art? – An Introduction to Art History


Learning Objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  1. Define Art History and discuss its impact on the world today.
  2. Understand the language and methodologies used in the academic study of art.

“What’s visible becomes thinkable, and what’s thinkable becomes doable.”

– Timothy Snyder

Looking Forward

In 2003, when Colin Powell went to the United Nations to make a case for going to war with Iraq, U.N. officials decided to discreetly cover the tapestry reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica that graces the entrance to the Secretariat. As Maureen Dowd observed in The New York Times, “Mr. Powell can’t very well seduce the world into bombing Iraq surrounded on camera by shrieking and mutilated women, men, children, bulls and horses.” The fact that it became necessary to hide Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece to make a case for militarism reminds us just how much power images and objects have in the world. As Timothy Snyder, a prominent historian of the Holocaust, argues in the quote above, images communicate ideas and influence people’s attitudes in consequential ways. This means that what we do as art historians—interpreting, contextualizing, and thinking critically about visual culture, and teaching others how to do so—really matters: not just for those involved directly with the art world, but for society at large.

Pablo Picasso's Guernica
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937, oil on canvas, 349 cm × 776 cm, Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid

“Art history is relevant” is not how the discipline of art history is typically framed in popular discourse. Most people picture art historians as wealthy, white, intellectually conservative, and disconnected from the rest of the world. If the humanities are viewed by many critics as outdated fields with little to contribute to “productive,” STEM-driven society, art history (as President Obama once unfortunately made clear) has become their poster child.

This representation is frustrating. Many art historians are drawn to art history not because they are narrow-minded, but because they deeply respect objects that they study and want to make sure art is treated with the same meticulous rigor that scholars afford texts. While texts are vitally important for understanding history, images and objects also have immense communicative power, and they deserve equally meticulous and nuanced study. Art history is relevant, critical, and a product of its current moment—just like art itself.

What is art history and where is it going?

Art history might seem like a relatively straightforward concept: “art” and “history” are subjects most of us first studied in elementary school. In practice, however, the idea of “the history of art” raises complex questions. What exactly do we mean by art, and what kind of history (or histories) should we explore? Let’s consider each term further.

Art versus artifact

The word “art” is derived from the Latin ars, which originally meant “skill” or “craft.” These meanings are still primary in other English words derived from ars, such as “artifact” (a thing made by human skill) and “artisan” (a person skilled at making things). The meanings of “art” and “artist,” however, are not so straightforward. We understand art as involving more than just skilled craftsmanship. What exactly distinguishes a work of art from an artifact, or an artist from an artisan?

When asked this question, students typically come up with several ideas. One is beauty. Much art is visually striking, and in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, the analysis of aesthetic qualities was indeed central in art history. During this time, art that imitated ancient Greek and Roman art, was considered to embody a timeless perfection. Art historians focused on the so-called fine arts—painting, sculpture, and architecture—analyzing the virtues of their forms. Over the past century and a half, however, both art and art history have evolved radically.

Comparison of left - Lysippos, Apoxyomenos (Scraper) and right - Kiki Smith, Untitled
Left: Lysippos, Apoxyomenos (Scraper), Roman copy after a bronze statue from c. 330 B.C.E., 6′ 9″ high, Vatican Museums; right: Kiki Smith, male figure from Untitled, 1990, 198.1 × 181.6 × 54 cm, beeswax and microcrystalline wax figures on metal stands, Whitney Museum of American Art
How to Read Captions

As you begin to advance through the readings, you will encounter a number of image captions, so let’s take a look at what all that information means, and how it can help you to study and research art.

Take a look at the image and its caption:

Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper
Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, 1498, tempera and oil on plaster, Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan

Here is what this all means:

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci—this tells us who made the work of art

Title: Last Supper—this is what people call the work of art

Date: 1498—when the work of art was made.

Medium (materials): tempera and oil on plaster—what the work of art is made of

Location: Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan—the current location of a work of art, which sometimes is a museum

Artists turned away from the classical tradition, embracing new media and aesthetic ideals, and art historians shifted their focus from the analysis of art’s formal beauty to interpretation of its cultural meaning. Today we understand beauty as subjective—a cultural construct that varies across time and space. While most art continues to be primarily visual, and visual analysis is still a fundamental tool used by art historians, beauty itself is no longer considered an essential attribute of art.

A second common answer to the question of what distinguishes art emphasizes originality, creativity, and imagination. This reflects a modern understanding of art as a manifestation of the ingenuity of the artist. This idea, however, originated five hundred years ago in Renaissance Europe, and is not directly applicable to many of the works studied by art historians. For example, in the case of ancient Egyptian art or Byzantine icons, the preservation of tradition was more valued than innovation. While the idea of ingenuity is certainly important in the history of art, it is not a universal attribute of the works studied by art historians.

All this might lead one to conclude that definitions of art, like those of beauty, are subjective and unstable. One solution to this dilemma is to propose that art is distinguished primarily by its visual agency, that is, by its ability to captivate viewers. Artifacts may be interesting, but art has the potential to move us—emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise. It may do this through its visual characteristics (scale, composition, color, etc.), expression of ideas, craftsmanship, ingenuity, rarity, or some combination of these or other qualities. How art engages varies, but in some manner, art takes us beyond the everyday and ordinary experience. The greatest examples attest to the extremes of human ambition, skill, imagination, perception, and feeling. As such, art prompts us to reflect on fundamental aspects of what it is to be human. Any artifact, as a product of human skill, might provide insight into the human condition. But art, in moving beyond the commonplace, has the potential to do so in more profound ways. Art, then, is perhaps best understood as a special class of artifact, exceptional in its ability to make us think and feel through visual experience.

History: Making Sense of the Past

Photograph depicting two women admiring a basalt sculpture of the Aztec god Coatlicue
Coatlicue, c. 1500, Mexica (Aztec), found on the SE edge of the Plaza Mayor/Zocalo in Mexico City, basalt, 257 cm high, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

Like definitions of art and beauty, ideas about history have changed over time. It might seem that writing history should be straightforward—it’s all based on facts, isn’t it? In theory, yes, but the evidence surviving from the past is vast, fragmentary, and messy. Historians must make decisions about what to include and exclude, how to organize the material, and what to say about it. In doing so, they create narratives that explain the past in ways that make sense in the present. Inevitably, as the present changes, these narratives are updated, rewritten, or discarded altogether and replaced with new ones. All history, then, is subjective—as much a product of the time and place it was written as of the evidence from the past that it interprets.

The discipline of art history developed in Europe during the colonial period (roughly the 15th to the mid-20th century). Early art historians emphasized the European tradition, celebrating its Greek and Roman origins and the ideals of academic art. By the mid-20th century, a standard narrative for “Western art” was established that traced its development from the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval Mediterranean to modern Europe and the United States. Art from the rest of the world, labeled “non-Western art,” was typically treated only marginally and from a colonialist perspective.

Profile view Queen Mother Pendant Mask
Queen Mother Pendant Mask (Iyoba), 16th century, Edo peoples, Court of Benin, Nigeria, ivory, iron, copper, 23.8 x 12.7 x 8.3 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The immense sociocultural changes that took place in the 20th century led art historians to amend these narratives. Accounts of Western art that once featured only white males were revised to include artists of color and women. The traditional focus on painting, sculpture, and architecture was expanded to include so-called minor arts such as ceramics and textiles and contemporary media such as video and performance art. Interest in non-Western art increased, accelerating dramatically in recent years.

Today, the biggest social development facing art history is globalism. As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, familiarity with different cultures and facility with diversity are essential. Art history, as the story of exceptional artifacts from a broad range of cultures, has a role to play in developing these skills. Now art historians ponder and debate how to reconcile the discipline’s European intellectual origins and its problematic colonialist legacy with contemporary multiculturalism and how to write art history in a global era.

Why does art and art history matter?

In these toxic times art can help us transform and give us a sense of purpose. This story begins with my seeing the Confederate monuments. What does it feel like if you are black and walking beneath this? We come from a beautiful, fractured situation. Let’s take these fractured pieces and put them back together.

– Kehinde Wiley

Rumors of War statue
Kehinde Wiley, Rumors of War, 2019, bronze, 8.2 m tall x 4.9 m long, Richmond Museum of Fine Arts, Virginia

Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War looms above viewers, encouraging them to consider a more inclusive story of American art and history. The enormous sculpture was exhibited in 2019 in Times Square in New York City and now sits in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. The bronze equestrian sculpture displays an African American man in Nike shoes, a hoodie, and jeans atop a powerful horse who rears upwards as the rider remains calm. The sculpture provides a counterpoint (and counter-narrative) to the once-nearby sculpture of Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart. It also draws on centuries of paintings and sculptures of powerful white men on horses. Wiley’s sculpture, and the sculptures of Confederate leaders displayed in Richmond along Monument Avenue until recently, took on new layers of meaning in 2020 as conversations and public protests turned more pointedly to the question of why Black lives matter and to the role of art in public places. As sculptures of Confederate leaders and other white supremacists were toppled, defaced, or removed, many people continued to ask: what is the role of art in public spaces? Why should we care about art at all? How does art challenge problematic narratives or work to uphold them? Can art facilitate reconciliation? Can learning art’s histories make us more empathetic?

Studying the histories of art is an engaging and important way to consider issues of identity, power and propaganda, race, gender, cross-cultural contact, discrimination and resiliency, spirituality, and more. As the many examples we shall discussed in our course address, art did not and does not merely illustrate ideas, but actively encodes them. Moreover, for cultures that did not have a written language, the material and visual record is all the more important because it is the primary way in which we learn about them.

The skills you will learn studying art history are many—and lucky for us, they apply to any career path we might find ourselves on. Learning to look closely and to analyze the forms you are seeing is a useful life skill to think more critically about our intensely visual world (Social media! Advertisements! Movies! Video games! And so much more!), but it might also help you look closely as a medical doctor (diagnosing depends on the ability to describe what you see), graphic designer, website designer, or financial planner. Translating what you see into written or oral form is another skill—you will learn to articulate better what you see and to use more precise language to say what you mean. Writing about art will sharpen your compositional and communication skills—so useful in any career! Other skills you will develop or refine are maybe less obvious: engaging with art from across the globe, from different cultures, time periods, faiths, and more, inevitably helps us to deepen our empathy.



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