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Anne D’Alleva

The Fundamentals of Art History
Third Edition

Prentice Hall
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chapter 1

introducing art history
Art is long, life is short.
Prouerb attributed to Hippocrates (c. 4 6 0 -3 5 7 bce)

This chapter will introduce you to art history as an academic discipline. It distinguishes the aims and methods o f art history from related disciplines like anthropology and aesthetics. It also attempts to answer two questions that are more complicated than they appear at first glance: What is art? and What is history?

what do art historians do? The object of art history
Art historians do art. But we don’t make it, we study it. We try to understand what artists are expressing in their work, and what viewers perceive in it. We try to understand why some­ thing was made at the time it was made, how it reflected the world it was made in, and how it affected that world. We talk about individual artists and their goals and intentions, but also about patrons (the people who commission artworks), viewers, and the kinds o f institutions, places, and social groups in which art is made and circulates—whether that’s an art school, temple, or government agency.

What is “art”?
“Art” is one o f those words that people use all the time but that is hard to define. All sorts o f cultural and political val­ ues determine what gets included or not included under this term, which makes it difficult for people to agree on precisely

what art is. However, it’s important to make the attempt as a first step in discussing what art history, as a discipline, actu­ ally does.
This process o f definition is complicated for two reasons: first, the term “art” has not been around very long in Western culture; and second, there is rarely an exactly corresponding term in other cultures. In Europe, the term “ art” as we com­ monly understand it today emerged in the Renaissance— earlier periods had no direct equivalent for it. The Greek phi­ losopher Plato (c. 428-c. 348 bce ), for example, used the term mimesis, which means imitation, to talk about painting and sculpture. In ancient Greek, demiourgos, “ one who works for the people, ” can refer to a cookas well as a sculptor or painter. Simi­ larly, more than a thousand languages are spoken in Africa, and more than six hundred in Papua New Guinea, but none o f them includes a precise translation for the term “art.”
In defining this term, many people today would start from an essentially post-Renaissance definition o f art as a painting, sculpture, drawing, print, or building made with unusual skill and inspiration by a person with specialized training to pro­ duce such works. Most people would agree, according to this definition, that the decoration o f the Sistine Chapel ceiling by
Michelangelo (1475-1564) is art (even if they don’t particu­ larly like it themselves). What belongs in this category o f “art” does shift over time. It often happens that objects excluded from this category at one time now easily qualify as art. In the nineteenth century, for example, people commonly exclud­ ed the sculpture, paintings, and architecture o f Africa, the
Pacific, and other regions o f the world because they (wrongly) regarded these arts as “ primitive” or inferior to Western art, not simply different from them.
One problem with this definition o f “ art” is that itconsistendy leaves out a lot o f other things that people make and do.
For example, it excludes useful objects like baskets or ceramic pots made by people with craft skills but with no professional training as artists. This kind o f work is sometimes called “ folk art” or “ low art,” to distinguish it from “ high art” such as the Sistine Chapel. From this perspective, the category “art” doesn’t include many things historically made by women in
Europe and North America, including embroidery, quilts, and

hand-woven textiles. At the same time, people sometimes use this definition o f “art” to exclude a lot o f modem art, which they don’t think is characterized by sufficient skill, serious­ ness, or conceptual complexity. (Maybe you’ve had the experi­ ence o f being in a modem art gallery and hearing someone say—or even saying yourself—“A child could make that!
That’s not art.” )
Although some people are perfecdy happy to exclude any­ thing from the category “art” that doesn’t fit a fairly narrow definition, that’s not a productive attitude for a scholar to take. Excluding things from a category is often a way to de­ value them and to justify not engaging with them in a serious way. As I see it, “art” should be a flexible, inclusive catego­ ry—a term and idea that get us looking at and thinking criti­ cally about all the different kinds o f things people make and do creatively.

A working definition of art
For the purposes o f this book, I’ll define art as potentially any material or visual thing that is made by a person or persons and that is invested with social, political, spiritual, and/or aesthetic value by the creator, user, viewer, and/or patron. My definition o f art includes the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but it also includes such things as a wood figure from Papua New Guin­ ea, a quilt, an Ottoman ceramic pitcher, and an advertising poster. It includes ephemeral (non-permanent) things such as a masquerade costume made from leaves by the Bwa people o f Burkina Faso in west Africa. Using the word “ thing” here doesn’t mean that a work o f art has to be a concrete object like a marble sculpture— a film or a performance can also be art in this sense. All these things are made with special skills and with great attention to their appearance, although most would be excluded from the traditional category o f “ high art.” In my definition, art may have economic value but not economic value alone. A pile o f pine logs on a flatbed truck has economic value but isn’t in the category o f art—unless, o f course, the loggers deliberately arranged the logs in a certain way that carries social/political/spiritual/aesthetic meaning.
Remember that I’m not using the term “art” because it’s universal or inherent to the objects o f our study, or because I

want to create hierarchies or make value judgements. Many artists and art historians today reject the idea that a work o f art is, by definition, an inherently “ higher" or privileged type o f object. This is the idea that Barbara Kruger (b. 1945) critiques when she tells her viewers “ You invest in the divinity o f the masterpiece" (Figure 1.1). Rather, I use a broad definition o f art because regarding things as “art"— putting them in that category— helps me ask better questions and opens up cer­ tain ways o f thinking about them.
Though you may find the concept o f art that I've outlined here challenging, you probably won’t find it particularly hard to categorize the images included in this book as art. Most o f the illustrations come from the major art-history textbooks, which focus primarily on well-known artworks that have been studied and considered important for some time.

What is “history”?
Our word “ history" comes direcdy from the Latin historia, which means “ inquiry" as well as “ history.” The Webster’s Dic­ tionary definition goes like this:
1. TALE, STORY
2. a: a chronological record of significant events (as affecting a na­ tion or institution) often including an explanation of their causes b: a treatise presenting systematically related natural phenomena c: an account of a patient's medical background d: an established record [a prisoner with a history of violence]
3. a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events
[medieval history]
So how do we put these bits and pieces together into the practice that we call history? History is telling tales about the past— it is making stories. These stories are not fictions
(although sometimes fiction can tell history). But histories are grounded in the events that happened— they have to be
“ true" in the sense that they are based on verifiable historical evidence. And yet all historians must confront the challenge o f the gaps, omissions, misrepresentations, and inconsist­ encies in the various documents, objects, texts, and memo­ ries comprising the historical record. This is why writing or

You invest in the


i

wry v .

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (You Inuest in the Diuimty of the Masterpiece), 1982.
Photostat, 71 ’ , x 45 / in (182 x 116 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
/
Kruger's u/ords frame a detail of the Sistine Chapel ceiling (the ultimate masterpiece) that represents God reaching out to e n d o w Adam with life (the ultimate act of creation).
Her work critiques the ways that masterpieces are "made.'’ we as a culture decide to inuest aesthetic and other kinds of ualue in certain works even as we devalue others.

telling history is an act o f interpretation, creative as well as scholarly. Sometimes I think that being a historian is like be­ ing a weaver— history isn’t a blanket already woven for us, but instead starts from the scraps o f yam that are the remains o f a tattered old blanket. We take those bits and pieces o f yam and weave them again into a blanket. It’s a new blanket, but if we’re skilled weavers, it will tell us something o f what the old blanket was like.
On top o f all this, the chronological range o f art history sometimes confuses students. How far in the past does art have to be for it to be history? Why is it that some art histo­ rians write about contemporary art? As I see it, art historians write about the art o f the past, which both is history and tells history. They also write about art o f the present that will be the history o f this time: it is art that will tell people in the future about this present moment. O f course, contemporary art often has something to tell us, too, about the moment we live in. It can be a risky business, because the winnowing process o f history hasn’t taken place— artworks o f enduring significance have yet to emerge as such. What i f the art histo­ rian makes a mistake? What if her subject doesn’t turn out to be as significant as she thought? There’s no easy answer, ex­ cept to say that, along with this risk, there’s excitement, too, in telling the history o f contemporary art, precisely because that winnowing process hasn’t yet taken place.

why is art history important?
Jt is the glory and good ofArt
That Art remains the one u>ay possible
Of speaking truth— to mouths like mine, at least.
Robert Browning (1812-89),
The Ring and the Book, lines 8 4 2-4

Why is art history important? This is one o f those questions that you tend to ask yourself as you’re working late into the night to prepare for an exam or write a paper. Why, you may ask, am I torturing myself with this course ...
Considered in the cold light o f day, there are several possible answers to that question. Lots o f undergraduates

take art history simply to fulfill a general education require­ ment for their degrees. For them it’s a completely utilitarian undertaking. Other people study art history to become more cultivated, to possess some o f the knowledge— and polish— that they feel an educated person ought to have. These are both legitimate reasons, as far as they go, but I think there are other answers to the question that are much more interesting.
The first is that art history teaches you to think differently.
It teaches you to ask interesting questions, to reject standard answers and conventional wisdom, to look beyond surfaces and obvious appearances, to see the nuances in things. Art history will help you develop skills in visual analysis and criti­ cal reading; you will learn to build solid arguments and to ex­ press your ideas effectively, both verbally and in writing. This training will not only help you if you want to become an art historian; it will also enhance your ability to practice a lot o f different professions.
The second answer is that art history gives us unique ac­ cess to the past, because history cannot be told only through documents, texts, and words. Human lives are short, but the things people make are enduring, and they give us a sense o f what those past lives were like. As the poet Robert Browning said, art is a way o f “ speaking truth”— o f expressing ideas, emotions, viewpoints that sometimes can’t be expressed in any other way. If you want to know a culture’s “ truths,” then look at its art
I think there’s another good reason to study art history, although people don’t talk about it much. And that is pleas­ ure. The joy o f it. Taking a course is hard work, and there’s always the grind o f exams and paper deadlines. But I hope that at some point in your study o f art history you’ll experi­ ence the sheer joy o f being totally absorbed in a work o f art, o f feeling that you “get” what Michelangelo or Kathe Kollwitz
(1867-1945) or a Native American beadworker was trying to do. That you’ll experience the excitement o f art-history “de­ tective work” as you piece together an interpretation, creat­ ing a narrative about a work or an artist or culture. That you’ll feel awed by a great example o f human creativity—and that you’ll be stirred to happiness or anger or sorrow by it. Or that you’ll be touched by the sense o f humanity conveyed in the

trace o f an artist’s hand in a chisel mark on a stone surface or the stitches on a quilt (Figure 1.2).
Now maybe I’ m a hopeless romantic, but I believe in the value o f such experiences both intellectually and emotionally.
As a teacher, I want my courses to change the way students see themselves and see the world— w hat’ s the point o f study­ ing art together i f you leave my course with the same ideas, knowledge, and skills going out that you brought into it? I hope you will be open to the possibility o f all that your en­ gagement with art history can offer.

a=-MftgT

i.2

Harriet Powers, Bible quilt, c. i 886. 75 x 89 in (191 x 2 2 7 cm). National M useum of
American History, Smithsonian Institution, W ashington, D .C.
Harriet Powers ( 1 8 3 7 -1 9 1 0 ) w a s an ex-slaue from Athens, Georgia, whose t w o suruiuincj a/orks are masterpieces of the quilting art and the best suruiuincj early examples of this rich artistic tradition in the southern United States.

evaluate their quality. Modern techniques o f connoisseurship were developed in the nineteenth century, as practitioners such as Giovanni Morelli (1816-91) tried to systematize the process o f attributing anonymous works o f historical art to particular artists. Techniques o f connoisseurship are rarely taught on undergraduate courses today, but they can be part o f the training o f museum curators, who often need to work with artworks that are not well documented.

Art history’s toolbox: formal and contextual analysis
When starting out in art history, you may find it helpful to group the different approaches to interpreting works o f art under two broad categories: “ formal analysis” and “ contextu­ al analysis.” These approaches are dependent on each other.
Often, art-historical interpretation requires us to do both at the same time.
Formal analysis includes those methods and questions that mostly concern the visual and physical aspects o f a work o f art. In formal analysis, you seek the answers to your ques­ tions in the work o f art itself, usually without referring exten­ sively to outside sources. You’re exploring the visual effect o f the work o f art, looking at what the artist is trying to accom­ plish through visual means.
In contrast, contextual analysis often requires you to go outside the work o f art for your answers. What you’re trying to do in contextual analysis is understand how a work o f art expresses or shapes the experiences, ideas, and values o f the individuals and groups that make, use, view, or own it. To de­ velop a contextual analysis, you might look at such evidence as documents, other images, books from the period, the art­ ist’s writings, and histories.
Although these terms may be unfamiliar, you already practice the basics o f formal and contextual analysis— for ex­ ample, when you take the time to look closely at an advertise­ ment. Responding to an advertisement engages many o f the same processes as art-history analysis. You interpret a visual image (and often an accompanying text) to decipher its mes­ sage and evaluate this message in context. The context is usu­ ally a targeted consumer group, people who exhibit certain

Reading captions for information
Artist's name

scholars. In this case, a range may be given

A caption usually gives you the artist’s name

(for example, “460-450 bc” or “gth-ioth cen­

first. If the artist’s (or architect’s) name isn’t

tury

known, then it may say something like “artist

may be used (circa is often abbreviated as “c ”).

unknown” or list nothing at all. An expression

bc

means “before Christ” and is equivalent

like “After Polykleitos” means that the work is

to

bce

a copy by an unknown artist of an original by

anno domini (“in the year of our Lord,” or after

a known artist, in this case the ancient Greek

the birth of Christ). It is equivalent to ci, or

sculptor Polykleitos. An expression like “Cir­

“common era.”

cle of Rembrandt" or “School of Rembrandt” indicates an unknown artist who is thought to have worked closely with, or been a student of, a known artist.

ad

”) or the Latin word circa (“around”)

, “before the common era.” ad

means

Medium

A caption will usually also list the materials used in the work because photographs often cannot give a truly accurate impression of what materials make up a work.

Title

The title ofthe work usually follows the artist’s name. Sometimes a work is titled by the artist, as in sculptor Audrey Flack’s (b. 1931) Marilyn
(Vanitas) (see Figure 2.3). Sometimes the title is a descriptive one that the artist didn’t give to the work but that is used as a convenient way to refer to it, for example the Arnolfini
Portrait (see Figure 3.6). The practice of giv­ ing titles to artworks hasn’t been used in all

Size

The measurements are important because they give you a sense of the work’s scale. Size and scale are often hard to judge from pho­ tographs, especially in a textbook, which can picture a miniature portrait and a palace on the same page.
Period or culture

time periods and cultures, so many are named in this way. Sometimes a title refers to a pa-

or culture (as in Edo Period, Japan, or a partic­

tron or collector— for example, Velasquez’s

ular dynasty for Egyptian art). In art-history

painting Venus and Cupid is also known as the
Rokeby Venus after a famous collector who

textbooks where the chapters are organized by

once owned it. In English-language titles,

|

This tells you the work’s original time period

ted from the caption.

[

the first word and other main words (nouns,



verbs, adjectives, adverbs) usually start with

I

a capital letter, while conjunctions (such as and) and prepositions (such as by, from) are

I

lower-case. In other languages there are

t
!
z

different conventions.
Date

[

The date for a work may be precise, as when

I

it’s signed and dated by the artist, or it may be an approximate date determined by

period or culture, this reference may be omit­

Collection and location

This tells you where the work is now. It is often the name and location of a museum or gal­ lery, or the name of the collection that owns the work but that may not necessarily display it in public (such as the Government Art Col­ lection in Britain). Where the work belongs to a private collector, the location may simply be given as “Private Collection,” abbreviated to
“Priv. Coll.”

desirable characteristics. The ad is trying to persuade these consumers to purchase a product or, in the case o f public service announcements, to inform them o f something or per­ suade them to act in a particular way.
Let’s take an example from a US National Institute on
Drug Abuse (NIDA) magazine ad campaign, which combines text and images to counter steroid use among high school athletes (Figure 1.3). Looking at the ad’s formal qualities you note that the word “ steroids” appears in large, bold type in the upper left corner o f the ad; it attracts attention, yet is im­ mediately undermined by the question mark that follows it.
The message would shift dramatically if, say, the word “ ster­ oids” were followed by an exclamation mark. The message is underscored by the image o f the athlete, whose appearance is clearly calculated to appeal to teenage readers. Note that he is very good-looking, with strong features and sexy, tousled hair, and is the same age as the target audience. He is pictured twice: in a close-up that lets the viewer see how good-looking he is, and also in action, lifting a large dumbbell, which sug­ gests that he is a strong, successful athlete, even though he doesn’t have the oversized muscles o f someone on steroids.
The ad’s visual message is enhanced by knowledge o f its context. It targets high school athletes, and the text lists as the negative side effects o f steroids: acne, baldness, stunted growth, and the risk o f HIV. Three o f these focus on physical appearance, about which high school students typically have a lot o f anxiety. The list does not include some o f the more seri­ ous long-term effects o f steroid use, including liver tumors, heart attacks, strokes, and kidney failure, perhaps because these might seem too abstract or remote to young people, who often see themselves as invincible or immune to death.
The brief, punchy text is written as if spoken by the teenage athlete depicted and not the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
In other words, this isn’t the preachy argument o f some gov­ ernment bureaucrat, but the direct statement o f an equal.
In the first paragraph, I analyzed the formal elements, focusing on design and the interaction o f image and text to decipher the ad’s message. In the second paragraph, I pur­ sued a contextual analysis, relying on outside knowledge to try to understand the ad. You can take any advertisement and

NIDA m* A.steroidabuse org

1.3

Poster from a public information campaign by NIDA against steroid use,
2005

interpret its formal and contextual elements in a similar way.
When you’re browsing through a magazine, although you may not stop to work systematically through the process o f formal and contextual analysis, your process o f interpretation is related in many ways to art-historical methods.

Museum accession numbers
Captions in museums and galleries and in scholarly books often include a number or code. This is the unique accession number assigned to each object when it enters a collection.
The number usually includes the date the object was “acces­ sioned” (for example, the year 1977 may be cited in full or abbreviated to “ 7 7 ” ), followed by other data separated by full stops. These numbers or letters give museum curators and scholars further information, such as which part o f the col­ lection the object belongs to (for example, African Art or Eu­ ropean Ceramics).

Conclusion
I hope this chapter has provided you with a better understand­ ing o f what art history is and how it differs from other aca­ demic disciplines. As you advance in the study o f art history, in addition to formal and contextual analysis, you’ll learn to use theoretical models, such as psychoanalysis, feminism, and semiotics, that approach interpretation in specialized ways.
But for now, thinking in terms o f formal and contextual anal­ ysis may help you ask a full range o f questions when you’re interpreting works o f art. The next two chapters will examine these fundamental methods o f art history in more depth.

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