NYC dream: How to study Art History

Art History is our story from the past. The one and only possible way of studying the past is via documentation created in the past. Unfortunately, in the field of Art History, the process of documentation or cataloguing did not follow any objective rules. Hence, our evaluation of the history of art is rather subjective and biased by our individual opinion and assessments. In the following essay, I will review different ways in which Art History has been studied from the Renaissance to the present day. In the end, I will also provide my personal opinion on which methodology offered the most interesting analysis of the past.

To understand the art during Renaissance period, we need to study the ideas of ancient Greek and Roman authors and philosophers. The question, “What is beauty?” always intrigued the scholars and artists in ancient days. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, described “beauty” with specific lexicons – harmony and proportion, fantasy, elegance and vitality. In addition, the history of ancient Greek paintings written by the Roman author Pliny the Elder in his encyclopedia “Natural History” influenced the art during Renaissance. Pliny’s writings were verified by later discovery such as the signature of three sculptors on the sculpture piece “Laocoon”. In addition, Giorgio Vasari’s book named “’The Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Architects, Painters, and Sculptors” provided a biological model, where art, like living beings, is born, grows, ages and dies. Vasari also focused on the personal style of each artist. This consideration of individual personalities of artists provided a novel layer to art connoisseurship.

During 18thcentury, the focus of the study moved from the biographies and personalities of artists to the development costs. Winckelmann was a proponent of this idea. Like Vasari, he clarified that there were no universal rules for critiquing or creating the beauty in art.

In 19th century, Art History became connected to museums and Universities and was considered as an academic discipline. During 19th and early 20thcentury, some earlier hinted concepts were developed as key theme of paintings. Two such concepts are “Formalism” and “reflection of spirit of time”. Formalism dealt with the idea that art forms had the life of their own and they evolved over time following natural rules of evolution. The reflection of the spirit of time, also known as “Zeitgeist” can be understood using the Elder of Pieter Bruegel as an example where a general mentality of the people is reflected in the themes of fear, violence and death in art.

In late 19th and early 20th century, the study of context in which the art was made gained importance. It is also during this time, when credible cataloguing of art started. There were growing skepticism towards universal categorization of art and belief on fragmented and individualized process of Art History. Guy Billout’s illustration of Jacques Derrida, a philosopher, looking at his own reflection is an example of this theme.

In recent years, Art History is more aware of the socio-economic conditions under which art was created. The analysis of art history has also evolved as now art historians combine techniques from other disciplines such as science to study the evolution of art. One such example is Maximmilan Schich’s paper titled “Quantitative social science. A network framework of cultural history” published in Science magazine where Schich has reconstructed aggregate intellectual mobility of more than 150,000 artists all around the world over two millennia through the documentation of their birth and death locations. He used tools from graph theory to locate historical trends of cultural centers beyond the scope of specific, isolated events and narrow time intervals. Hence, my personal opinion of the best methodology of studying art history is by collecting and analyzing data from the credible catalogue of art works all around the world over many years.  

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