restricted access What Is Art History?
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What Is Art History? Ada Cohen For many people, thinking about art starts and ends with a trip to a museum. There for a few hours or maybe even a day, while going through the galleries, the museumgoer is pulled into many different worlds as she encounters various objects and ideas: a serene impressionist riverscape; the victory implied by a jewel-encrusted Ottoman sword; the energetic build-up of drips,lines,and dots on an abstract expressionist canvas; the regal ceremony enacted on an ancient Assyrian relief; or the absorbing narrative of a Japanese painted scroll. One of the pleasures of being a professional art historian is the opportunity to explore worlds other than one’s own through the in-depth study of artworks—and not only for a couple of hours. Art helps us learn things about others as well as ourselves,and museums facilitate our study by serving as custodians of works of all sorts and making them available to the public. Much of world art, however, resides outside the confines of the museum, and art historians pursuing their subject may find themselves in such different places as a Buddhist cave temple in northwestern China, a cathedral in Paris, a mosque in North Africa, or the cemetery for foreigners in Rome. Art historians engage with both art (material objects but also intangible images such as videos) and history (different times and places). Unlike “art appreciation,” art history is perhaps history above all because it asks questions like what happened and when it happened, for whom, by whom, and why. But it asks these questions in light of a very particular activity in human life—art, a visual medium—and in this sense it is a separate field of its own, distinct from history. One thing is clear: art historians do not make art; they study it, both in itself and in its relations to the times, places, and people who produce, look at, 28 Ada Cohen and even use it.Art is a form of culture,but also a lens into a culture.When you study art history, all these many facets emerge, expanding your field of vision. It used to be thought that art is very tightly connected with certain forms of skill and that its traditional media are the “high” (i.e., the most prestigious or most important) arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture. But art historians may now study things like pottery, photographs, and quilts. Many more things count as art today, but someone must first think that this is the case, that a work is worthy of being called art. Who gets to make that decision? Usually someone with power and influence,especially institutions like museums,which bring art to the attention of the public and shape tastes and attitudes, but also professional art critics and sometimes academic art historians. These kinds of issues were perhaps most famously exposed when a number of forces contributed to making a urinal one of the icons of twentieth-century sculpture. First, the French artist Marcel Duchamp reoriented a bought object (a urinal),gave it the signature “R. Mutt”and the date 1917, and submitted it under the title Fountain to an art exhibition.Second,certain art critics and art historians recognized this as a significant move and agreed to engage with the object and write about it. Third, museums expended funds to purchase and exhibit replicas of the object, inviting visitors to linger, think, and react. Duchamp’s work was provocative and history-making, but it was not beautiful . It used to be thought that art is beautiful and that beautiful things are art. Although many people, especially those who have not studied art history, continue to think that art and beauty go together, for art historians the connection is no longer automatic,and influential artists like Duchamp participated in this development. Don’t get me wrong: art historians still study very beautiful and very skillfully made works, like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre Museum in Paris or the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican,but they may also study very simple or unbeautiful works that someone somewhere and for some reason has considered art. I will say more about these matters later. But for the time being keep in mind that some older definitions of art allowed only the beautiful and the skillful, while newer and more inclusive definitions give the designation art to any human-made object or intangible image (like a...