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What is art history and where is it going?

By Dr. Robert Glass
Peter Paul Rubens, three paintings from the 24-picture cycle Rubens painted for the Medici Gallery in the Luxembourg Palace, Paris. From left to right: Peter Paul Rubens, The Presentation of the Portrait of Marie de’ Medici, The Wedding by Proxy of Marie de’ Medici to King Henry IV, Arrival (or Disembarkation) of Marie de’ Medici at Marseilles, 1621–25, oil on canvas (Musée du Louvre, Paris; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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 (the art of classical antiquity), 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.
Left: Lysippos, Apoxyomenos (Scraper), Roman copy after a bronze statue from c. 330 B.C.E., 81 inches high (Vatican Museums, photo: Steven Zucker), CC BY-NC-SA 2.0); right: Kiki Smith, male figure from Untitled, 1990, 198.1 x 181.6 x 54 cm, beeswax and microcrystalline wax figures on metal stands (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) © Kiki Smith
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.
Images of Peter and Paul appear much the same through the centuries in Byzantine icons. Left: glass bowl base, 4th century, Roman (The Metropolitan Museum of Art); center: mosaics, 11th century, Hosios Loukas Monastery, Greece; right: panel icon, 17th century, Greek (Temple Gallery).
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, I suggest, 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.
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; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

History: Making Sense of the Past

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.
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.
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; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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.
Smarthistory’s videos and articles reflect this history of art history. Since the site was originally created to support a course in Western art and history, the content initially focused on the most celebrated works of the Western canon. With the key periods and civilizations of this tradition now well-represented and a growing number of scholars contributing, the range of objects and topics has increased in recent years. Most importantly, substantial coverage of world traditions outside the West has been added. As the site continues to expand, the works and perspectives presented will evolve in step with contemporary trends in art history. In fact, as innovators in the use of digital media and the internet to create, disseminate, and interrogate art historical knowledge, Smarthistory and its users have the potential to help shape the future of the discipline.
Additional resources
"Introduction: Learning to look and think critically," a chapter in Reframing Art History (our free art history textbook).
"Introduction: Close looking and approaches to art," a chapter in Reframing Art History (our free art history textbook)—especially useful for materials related to formal (visual) analysis.
Check out all the chapters on world art in Reframing Art History.
Essay by Dr. Robert Glass

Want to join the conversation?

  • starky tree style avatar for user Libby Endsley
    How do people decide which artists are more important to history?
    (40 votes)
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    • duskpin seedling style avatar for user Theo
      It is largely open to interpretation, there is not single authority on this. An important question to ask is which artists are important to you -- what do you value in art? which artists do you want to learn more about?

      But in understanding an artist's place in history, we look at the impact they had on other artists (for example Keith Haring did similar things to what Andy Warhol had done decades earlier, and they even worked together on pieces) or on culture & society (consider how often the Mona Lisa is referenced, or the image of Van Gogh's sunflowers is used).
      (13 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user nguyennguyennhi.97
    Can a song be called art? It does not have visual characteristic but it's beauty can be felt, and there are absolute originality, creativity and imagination in a music score.
    (21 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Nicole White
    Should art have boundaries? If so when should a line be drawn?
    (11 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Natalie
    Isn't it odd that history is told by what the present wants to say about the past not what the past is as a whole?
    (11 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      When one reads history, one has to be aware of the chronological, political and class agendas of whoever wrote that history. It's not odd. It's kind of like watching the olympics on TV. If you're watching in Japan, you'll see more news of Japanese teams and athletes than of the American teams and athletes. History is written like this, too, but with the added biases of class and ideology thrown in.
      (17 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user randy  mckee
    Yes, as an art educator, I am often puzzled by the need to sing more vigorously the simplistic artforms of under-developed countries, regions or cultures... the west, with all the knowledge that influences our society and has pushed us well past the general standard production of decorated crafts that emerge from many other cultures that are now promoted, has pushed boundaries within art that many cultures can't understand. We don't teach Aboriginal Physics or Native American mathematics. Why do we attempt to revert, within the historical development of Art, to cultures that have not pushed as far as the West? Many cultures have been doing the same designs for hundreds of years and have not changed until Western influences have altered their mindset and they explore beyond their own culture (like printmaking with our neighbors to the north, the Inuits)...
    I have liked some of your answers and was wondering your thoughts on this thing that has been sitting in the back of my brain.... Thanks!
    (0 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user drszucker
      You raise a very complex set of issues. I think there is quite a lot of room for different types of knowledge and I think it is a common misunderstanding that cultural knowledge is somehow in competition, a zero sum relationship—if we focus there, we are not focusing here. It may take a bit longer, but the more I learn of other cultures, the better I understand my own. I have also found that the art of non-industrial cultures is in fact not static. Cultural forms shift and change as circumstances do. And as we all know, circumstances do change, always. If art looks the same, it is likely because we don't recognize the changes and we need to look more carefully. Historians used to look at much of the thousand years of the European Medieval era and call it the dark ages. This was a period once considered regressive, even primitive and unworthy of scholarly attention. However, as more research was undertaken, as we learned more about it, the less dark it seems. What we once dismissed as barbaric—the Gothic, the Romanesque, the Hiberno-Saxon, the Carolingian, and Ottonian—we now celebrate as brilliant. Everyone makes their own choices, but what history has taught me is that if a culture seems initially uninteresting, it is because I don't know enough about it. People are capable of brilliance no matter where they live.
      (38 votes)
  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user James Sforza
    Could cuisine be art? It's inspired by history (ingredient availability), regionally traditional, can be visually stunning, and can be innovative in every way.
    (3 votes)
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  • boggle yellow style avatar for user kailomango
    this topic seems pretty complex as well as fasinating
    (8 votes)
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  • stelly blue style avatar for user Adeyeye Helen
    does art history include stories since they are organized by historians
    (6 votes)
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  • starky seed style avatar for user Sergio Alan Barreto Varelas
    Literature isn't considered "art"? Why?
    (1 vote)
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  • piceratops sapling style avatar for user Michaela
    Would a valid definition of art be: anything that moves us?
    (4 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user drszucker
      We are all free to define art as we wish, but for many who have studied this question, emotional response is not enough to define art. A beautiful bird, a lovely sunset, a fragrant blossom, might move us but isn't usually thought of as a work of art.
      (4 votes)