Thinking about Art History

I just started teaching a course in art history–1750 (Neoclassicism) to the present. I’ve taught genres within art history–women’s art, environmental/ecoart–but never a survey. It’s a challenge, but I am really enjoying it. I’ve been reclaiming my artistic roots (drawing, painting, collage, printmaking), and this is one more venue for doing so. My approach to the course is to frame the work and art periods by the social, political, environmental, and technological context of the time period–how were artists influenced by the times in which they lived?

I recently came across a fascinating series of books titled “Very Short Introductions” by Oxford University Press. These “very short introductions,” which can fit in a pocket and are not more than 100 pages or so, cover a wide range of topics. I am currently reading A Very Short Introduction: Art History. I had thought when I purchased it, that this would be an introductory survey. But I was pleasantly surprised that it is, in fact, a discussion of the discipline of art history.

What I am discovering is that my contextual approach to art history is a fairly recent development in the field. The author, Dana Arnold, is well schooled in feminist, postmodern, and post colonial theory and applies it. I am certainly familiar with the critique in Linda Nochlin’s 1988 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists,” which deconstructs the traditional art historical¬†privileging of white, Western, male, genius artists. This Very Short Introduction explains why that has been the case, and it goes back to the very first writings on art by Vasari (1511-74), who was greatly influenced by Pliny the Elder (CE24-79). Vasari, following in Pliny’s footsteps, emphasized individual artists and their masterpieces, creating an art historical cannon that remained largely unchallenged until the 20th century!

Why do I find this fascinating? This Very Short Introduction charts the trajectory of how art has been valued over the centuries, which has largely been based on the ancient Roman standards of one man, and then subsequently reinforced by another man from the Renaissance. In both cases, these men rarely had the original art to study, relying on written descriptions and prints.

Despite recent post-modern challenges to “the cannon,” it continues to dominate how art is evaluated. Though women, artists of color, and (less so) collaborative groups have been “allowed” into the cannon, the cult of the lone “genius” artist and his/her masterworks remain the standard by which artists and their works are judged.

Well, I am half-way through the Introduction, so more on this later. But, definitely worth pondering!


About Ann T. Rosenthal

eco/community artist, educator, writer
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