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Humanities

Art history

Spontaneous conversations about works of art where the speakers are not afraid to disagree with each other or art history orthodoxy. Videos are made by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker along with other contributors and maintained at http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/.
Community Questions
A thumbnail for: Art History Basics
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Art History Basics

New to art? If so, this is a good place to start. We often think we should understand what we see and that we know what we like, but art can be challenging. It has meant different things at different moments in history. Art gives us access to the way other people have seen the world. Jump in and explore!
A thumbnail for: - 400 C.E. Ancient cultures
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- 400 C.E. Ancient cultures

Humans have been making art for tens of thousands of years, long before there was writing. Why was Egyptian art obsessed with death? Why did the ancient Greeks seek the perfect human form? How did the ancient Romans use art as state propaganda? Why was the naturalism of ancient Greek and Roman art abandoned with the rise of Christianity? This topic explores the art of the ancient world, from the Venus of Willendorf to a 6th-Century Chinese Bodhisattva.
A thumbnail for: 400-1300 Medieval Era
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400-1300 Medieval Era

Were the Middle Ages really all that dark? Hardly! How could we call the period that saw the building of Chartres Cathedral with its stunning stained-glass windows, dark? Sure, the Roman empire collapsed, but with the Christianization of Europe came magnificent churches, illuminated bibles, and intricately designed broaches. This period also saw the birth of Islam, the third great monotheistic religion.
A thumbnail for: 1300-1400 Proto-Renaissance
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1300-1400 Proto-Renaissance

This is a transitional period. In the art of Florence and Siena there is a move away from medieval abstract depictions of space and the human body as artists began to focus on the illusion of mass and space and the expression of human emotion. With hindsight, it is possible to trace elements of Renaissance art back to this period. This century saw the creation of the beautiful poetry of Dante and Petrarch, but it is also the century that saw the worst outbreak of the Bubonic plague (known then as the Black Death) which wiped out close to half the population of Europe—a terrifying statistic, difficult to imagine today. This topic focuses on two Italian city-states—Florence and Siena, both proud republics in the 14th century, and the great painters of those city-states, Giotto and Cimabue in Florence, and Duccio, Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers in Siena.
A thumbnail for: 1400-1500 Renaissance in Italy and the North
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1400-1500 Renaissance in Italy and the North

This is the century that sees the full realization of the Renaissance and the end of the medieval way of thinking about the world. The Humanist rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman culture is supported by the wealth accumulated in prosperous cities such as Bruges, Florence, and Venice. New wealth and increasing trade created a demand for an art based on the world we see. The second half of the century saw the invention of the printing press, and Columbus’s voyage. And though he was heading for the East, Columbus landed in the Americas, and suddenly there were vast new continents for Europe to exploit economically and to Christianize. The century begins with the magnificent sculptures of Claus Sluter and ends with the elegant figures of Leonardo da Vinci.
A thumbnail for: 1500-1600 End of the Renaissance and the Reformation
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1500-1600 End of the Renaissance and the Reformation

If there was one century in the past that saw radical changes in established ways of thinking comparable to the 20th Century, it would be the 16th. Before this, in Western Europe, there was only one type of Christianity—under the authority of the Pope in Rome. But in 1517 a German theologian and monk, Martin Luther, sparked the Protestant Reformation. His ideas spread quickly, thanks in part to the printing press. Luther challenged the power of the Pope and the Church, and asserted the authority of individual conscience. At the same time, it was increasingly possible for people to read the bible in the languages that they spoke. It is also during this period that the Scientific Revolution began and observation replaced religious doctrine as the source of our understanding of the universe and our place in it. At mid-century, Copernicus suggested that the sun was at the center of solar system (not the earth), radically repositioning human beings and therefore calling into question our centrality in the universe that God had created.
A thumbnail for: 1600-1700 The Baroque
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1600-1700 The Baroque

The 17th Century is the era of the Baroque style, characterized by energy, drama, and movement. The Church in Rome needed art that spoke to its resurgent power even as the conflict between Protestant and Catholics continued. A new realism—with a special sensitivity to light—also pervades the art of this period across Europe and can be seen especially in the work of Caravaggio, Velazquez, Ruysdael, and Vermeer. But where in Catholic countries, the Church remained a major patron of religious images, in the Protestant Dutch Republic, artists painted an expanded range subjects like still-lifes, landscapes and genre paintings for the middle class.
A thumbnail for: 1700-1800 Age of Enlightenment
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1700-1800 Age of Enlightenment

From the frivolous paintings of Fragonard to the politically-charged moralizing images of David, this tutorial brings us from the King of France and his court—the 1%—to the democratic aspirations of the French and American revolutionaries. The Kings of France ruled by divine right, but Enlightenment thinkers (for example, Voltaire and Diderot) asserted our ability to reason for ourselves rather than rely on the teachings of established institutions. Rousseau in “The Social Contract,” stated that power to govern resided in the hands of the people. In 1788 the new United States ratified its Constitution, and in 1793, King Louis XVI was beheaded. Artists in France, America and Britain—some sympathetic to revolutionary ideals, others not—were nevertheless all caught up in the political upheavals of this period.
A thumbnail for: 1800-1848 Industrial Revolution I
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1800-1848 Industrial Revolution I

With the failure of the French Revolution (Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, and after his defeat, a King was restored to power in France), there was a turn away from public, political life, toward personal, subjective experience. In large part, this turn characterizes the new style of Romanticism (don’t confuse this with our own use of the term romantic!), whether we look to art in France, Spain, England or Germany. Where Neo-Classical painters created virtuous and heroic subjects with figures willing to sacrifice for the public good, Romantic painters asserted the primacy of emotion and the irrational.
A thumbnail for: 1848-1907 Industrial Revolution II
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1848-1907 Industrial Revolution II

The art of this period is familiar, since the world of the Realists, Impressionists and Post-Impressionists is much like our own. More and more people lived in cities and worked in factories or shops for wages. Scientific and technological advances increased dramatically during this period and although there was dislocation and privation, standards of living increased sharply. In essence, modern mass culture was born. Artists responded sometimes by embracing these radical changes, and at other times by resisting them. Key here is understanding the authority of the various art academies in Europe, which controlled matters related to taste and art, and which were, to some extent, always connected to the government. A small number of artists rebelled against the strictures of the academy, and against the demand for art to tell clear stories for a middle class audience, and formed what we know as the “avant-garde.”
A thumbnail for: 1907-1960 Age of Global Conflict
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1907-1960 Age of Global Conflict

Europe in 1907 was powerful, wealthy and stable. The British Empire was unmatched with huge territories that stretched across the globe. The Austrian-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires remained intact, and the Italians, Germans, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese retained colonies. Nevertheless, the old order would soon collapse, a result of the Great War in 1914. But this trauma was only the beginning. A global financial collapse precipitated by the stock market crash of 1929 allowed Mussolini, Franco and Hitler to seize power. The violence only worsened with the Holocaust, Japanese Imperial expansion, and the Second World War. At the same time, this was a period of radical advances in music (Stravinsky, Bartok, etc.), in dance (Duncan, Graham, etc.) in literature (Joyce, Pound, etc.), science (Einstein, Heisenberg, etc.), and of course, in art (Matisse, Picasso, etc.). In the years between the wars artists explored abstraction and the irrational. After the war, and with Europe in ruins, the focus of the art world shifted from Paris to New York where Abstract Expressionism was born.
A thumbnail for: 1960 -  Age of Post-Colonialism
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1960 - Age of Post-Colonialism

By 1960, the unprecedented violence of the first half of the century had ebbed, replaced by the Cold War and threat of nuclear catastrophe. The vacuum left by European powers as they withdrew from their colonies instigated a global power grab as small nations sought autonomy but became proxies in a global strategic confrontation between Western and Soviet or Chinese ideologies. At the same time protest movements in the West called for an end to war, racism, and gender inequality. Powerful, entrenched conservative institutions such as the Catholic Church were transformed. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., coupled later with Watergate, created a deep distrust for institutional authority. Artists responded by producing exceptionally thoughtful, original and provocative work that became increasingly global in its perspective.
1960 - Age of Post-Colonialism
By 1960, the unprecedented violence of the first half of the century had ebbed, replaced by the Cold War and threat of nuclear catastrophe. The vacuum left by European powers as they withdrew from their colonies instigated a global power grab as small nations sought autonomy but became proxies in a global strategic confrontation between Western and Soviet or Chinese ideologies. At the same time protest movements in the West called for an end to war, racism, and gender inequality. Powerful, entrenched conservative institutions such as the Catholic Church were transformed. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., coupled later with Watergate, created a deep distrust for institutional authority. Artists responded by producing exceptionally thoughtful, original and provocative work that became increasingly global in its perspective.

The postwar figure

Artists first represented the human body more than 30,000 years ago and haven’t stopped since. Figurative art has been a continuous tradition through human history. Even in societies where the biblical law forbidding the graven image is most strictly interpreted (Judaism and Islam for example), there have always been instances of figural art. The same is true for the era of modernist abstraction when artists found new ways to portray the body on canvas or with the lens of a camera that could profoundly describe the human condition in , and abstraction the post-holocaust era.

Pop & After

When people walk into an art museum they often expect to see treasures of their cultural history—beautifully crafted precious objects that express profound truths—images of God, nature, man’s heroism, but Campbell soup cans hawked on TV? Pop art sought to upend our comfortable understanding of what art is and it did just that. Warhol, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, and others confronted the visual reality of our commercial consumer culture by focusing on the mechanics of representation and the subject matter of daily life in the middle of the 20th Century.

Minimalism and the land

“Primary Structures,” “ABC Art,” and “Minimalism” are terms that attempted to categorize the work of Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Sol Lewitt and other artists who produced hard edged, often geometric and seemingly machined objects in the later 1960s and early 1970s. These stark, often cold and cerebral forms were the very antithesis of the deeply emotive gestural art of the Abstract Expressionists and their followers who had dominated the New York art scene since the 1940s. Here was an art that renounced the authentic “hand’ of the artist and sought instead to create forms without reference to the world beyond the object’s own logic except perhaps as Platonic expressions of a pure ideal.

Process art

By the second half of the 20th Century, the avant-garde had an avant-garde of its own. Even as Pop, Minimal and Concept artists renounced the handmade work of art, a small group of women recognized the subversive value of handicraft in an age of industrial manufacturing and in an art world dominated by male artists and critics who sought theoretical purity. During her short career, Eva Hesse resituated the ancient question of how to meaningfully represent the human body and unleashed decades of experimentation that continues to this day. Judy Chicago, Linda Benglis, Jackie Windsor, Faith Ringgold, and others used the lowly status of craft and its historical association with female artisans to contrast with “high art.” By focusing of the act of making, on process and craft, these women began the process of fracturing Modernism’s reductive and largely male narratives.

Conceptual art

Can art be an enactment? Can the “art” be relocated from the object crafted by an artist to the more ephemeral reaction of the viewer? Must an artist actually “make” a work of art at all? Conceptual artists recognized that when the 19th Century avant-garde broke with the academies and their emphasis on technical execution (the blending color or compositional clarity for example), they were freer to focus on more conceptual issues such as modern urban life, subjectivity, or pictorial language. Fast forward to the second half of the Twentieth Century when intellectual content became the defining characteristic of art and concept fully eclipsed craft. In the 1960 and 70s the art of Beuys, Haacke and others became increasingly conceptual. These artists used found objects, performance, and installation while de-emphasizing the act of “object making.”

Postmodernism

If you’ve done the tutorials on Nineteenth and Twentieth Century art then you likely have an idea that by “Modernism,” art historians are referring to a set of ideas that characterize art and culture after about 1848. Key to understanding Modern art are the ideas of a heroic “avant-garde” that challenges authority and the expression of the individual (one that is invariably white and male). The term “Post-Modernism,” was initially used in the art world in 1979 for architecture that arbitrarily borrowed historical styles with little regard for original meaning or context. The term was quickly and broadly adopted, and came to refer to a strategy to undermine Modernism’s utopian and heroizing tendencies by using multiple yet simultaneous critical perspectives. Post-Modernism was not anti-Modernism, it was instead, an effort to destabilize Modernist narratives with deeply skeptical critical strategies that emphasized the plurality of gender, race, nationality, politics, and economic inequality.