Art History and Its Methods
The meaning of the word art, derived from the Latin ars, meaning “skill,” has changed through history. In medieval Europe, proficiency in the “liberal arts” was the goal of an educated person; only by the 19th century did the word come to denote painting, drawing, sculpture, graphic arts, and decorative arts. A distinction then arose between artist and artisan, the latter denoting a skilled manual worker, the former connoting capacity for imaginative invention. Although the arts may be taken today as comprising the musical and verbal as well as the visual, art or fine arts is usually assumed to mean the visual arts painting, sculpture, architecture, and, by extension, printmaking, drawing, decorative arts, and photography.
The concept of a history of art is relatively recent. In the mid-16th century Giorgio Vasari compiled information about Renaissance artists’ lives and works in Lives of the Artists. Modern art history may be thought of as beginning in the mid-18th century with Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who applied a conception of history as cyclical to what remained of the art of ancient Greece and Rome. From the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel onward, much of the theoretical support of art history was supplied by German historians and philosophers. Heinrich WÑ™lfflin provided, in the early 20th century, a technique for understanding style by comparing two works of different periods and noting their differences; this is still the most widely used heuristic (interpretative) approach today.
Art history, congealing as a distinct discipline in the humanities in the late 19th century, is now largely nontheoretical. Historians examine works and documents about the works in order to place them appropriately in the present set of recognized groupings. Broadly, the four most general categories for Western art are ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and modern. In the past, the humanistic, classical art of Greece served as a positive standard by which works were judged. Today, art historians are neutral with regard to different styles none is superior or inferior; all are worthy of study.
The Visual Media
Art has been made for many reasons: for religious devotion, for commemoration of people and events, for adornment of utilitarian objects, for personal expression. It has also been created on many scales: huge cathedrals, large public murals, small private manuscripts, and, most familiar, easel paintings. Perhaps the broadest generalization is that the visual arts are spatial rather than temporal. Music and literature must be experienced serially in time; the visual arts must of necessity be experienced in space.
In painting, space is an illusion an indication of three dimensions in two. This is rendered by conventions understood by the work’s audience, and conventions vary in different periods and places.
For example, space can be understood by the overlap of shapes (the shape partly imposed on another is in front); by the location of shapes in relation to one another (the shape higher up is farther away); by the lightening and graying of tones to simulate atmospheric effects in nature; or by a complex mathematical system by which is determined the size diminution of objects as they increase in distance from the picture plane toward a theoretically infinite vanishing point on the horizon (see perspective).
Sculpture can represent three dimensions in three dimensions and (except in the case of relief sculpture, such as bas-relief, which partakes of both actual and illusionary depth) is best seen from a moving vantage point. In this way the volumes that make up the work are continually rediscovered in new and interesting interactions with the surrounding voids.
Architecture is also three-dimensional, but with an entirely different effect from that of sculpture. Architecture encloses spaces, and defines and orders them, to the advantage of various human activities that take place within them. As one moves around and through an architectural environment, spaces appear and disappear, generating reactions by virtue of their scale and structure.
To some degree, the physical materials used by artists influence the properties of the resulting work. A fresco painting (pigments applied to a wet plaster wall) will have different visual properties from an oil painting on canvas (see painting techniques), and an oil painting will have different properties from a watercolor on paper. A sculpture modeled in wax and then cast in bronze (lost-wax process) will differ in effect from one carved directly out of stone or wood (see wood carving). The multifarious materials at the disposal of the architect determine both the expressive tenor and structural limitations of a building. In short, great art is in harmony with its medium.
Experiencing the Arts Today
Today the arts are more accessible than ever before. Most metropolitan areas have at least one art museum, and the dissemination of all the visual arts through photographic reproduction has brought the most remote works to a convenient coffee table. Works known second hand through reproductions, however, are only ghosts of their real selves, and one must then try to construct in one’s imagination their true appearance and effect.
Since the artwork exists as a physical artifact with special properties, it has become a rarity in short supply and high demand. In a society that values things in terms of money, the artwork takes on great importance as a precious object. Every day brings news of astounding auction prices or astounding museum thefts, and original works are often seen only behind plexiglass and in the company of guards. Further, art criticism and the history of art can often seem an exotic and arcane region of intellectual sophistication, where lofty decisions about quality and importance are made and passed down to a wider audience.
This notion is misleading. The accessibility of art means its cultural and intellectual accessibility as well. Furthermore, historians are becoming more and more interested in types of art previously ignored because they have been termed popular; also, so-called high art is now more and more present in almost everyone’s life. A museum should exist to bring art experience to its public, not to sequester precious objects. The critic’s role is to expand in others their capacity for response to a work by making trenchant observation and analysis of it, not by pronouncing judgments from on high.