001 Art History: Where We Are & Where We’ve Been

We have all done it. We have all walked into a random museum, in some random city, and seen a random piece of art that has made us wonder why we aren’t millionaires.

Jackson Pollock, Convergence 1952

“I could do that.”

“That doesn’t require any technical skill.”

“My daughter made something just like that. She’s 4.”

These are all fair criticisms of contemporary art. In fact, these are the exact criticisms that the art world has faced since the turn of the 20th century.

If we think about art as a family, then art history can be seen as its genealogy. Not only does art history seek to preserve the social, economic, and political context from which various artworks originate; art history helps to articulate changes in its basic identity and why those changes matter. Therefore when looking to understand what art currently is (or to be able to tell the difference between good and bad art) we must first come to understand what art was, how our collective understanding of art has changed, and why it is that those changes occurred.

But here is the real issue: Most people have either not been provided with nor taken the time to seek out the history of art. Art history has largely been swept under the rug as a “non-essential” in both the private and public education systems because it is perceived as “non-profitable.” Since these are the operating assumptions of our schools, it comes as no surprise that they are the working assumptions of the public.

Unfortunately, these assumptions could not be further from the truth.

At the time of its sale in 2006, Jackson Pollock’s painting No. 5, 1948 sold for a record-breaking $140,000,000 USD. Convergence (pictured above) sold for $300,000,000 USD.

Dismissing the value of Art History on the grounds that there is no money to be made in the art market is absurd. Dismissing the value of Art History on the grounds that it is non-essential to a public that hasn’t ever had the opportunity to know different is all too easy.

So, this is where we are…

We are caught in a cycle of miseducation regarding art.

Most people cannot explain why art is an essential component of human existence, let alone explain why we would study its history.

Because most people do not have the skill set to articulate the importance of art history, they go on to label it “nonessential” or “irrelevant.” They vote in their local elections for representatives who share these opinions. The local representatives then write laws pertaining to education. These laws articulate what children should or shouldn’t learn in schools of all levels. Due to budget cuts, they are often required to reduce funding on the non-essentials. So they cut the “fluff” from curriculums. No more woodshop, studio art, music, band, theatre, culinary, choir, and pottery classes.

And, we perpetuate the cycle of ignorance.

But, this is where we’ve been…

Grotte de Lascaux, in situ

The year is 23,000 BCE. In the distance, we see a young couple sitting together. The lady is holding a stone figure in the palm of her hand, it was a gift from her mother. This gift, a small stone woman with a curvaceous form, provides comfort and hope. Comfort in a time of expecting, and hope for a safe and healthy pregnancy.

It is 16,000 BCE. We are in the south of France, and we are deep within the earth. No one knows why we are here, but that does not matter. The handprints and drawings that we leave behind will outlive us by millennia, and they will continue our legacy even after we have long been forgotten.

In 432 BCE we gazed up at the finished Parthenon; in 1512 AD we first crooked our necks to view the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling; and, in 1872 AD we saw the impression of a sunset that we could never forget.

The crazy truth of human history is this: No matter where we go, we (as humans) continue to make things designed to outlive ourselves.

Maybe we do this because we want people to remember us, or maybe we do this because we want others to remember the things we feel are important.

Either way, the history of how our ancestors experienced the world around them is found in the history of the things they made. If we fail to study, to remember, and to consider the works left behind for us then we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. We will effectively silence the voices of those that have come before, and our understanding of humanity will become shallow.

We will not be able to teach our children the value of listening to others without becoming hypocrites ourselves.

Art history is, of course, the history of objects. But, simply cataloguing the history of art and art-making is not it’s goal.

Art Historians seek to address what those objects meant for the people that made them, how their function has been modified by the passing of time, and why these changes occur. But more than these, Art History provides a basic (and unifying) sense of what it means to be human. It requires us to listen to perspectives and voices that we have know way of knowing. It forces us to consider those fundamental needs that bind all of humanity together. It helps us understand our own humanity.

This is Art History, and this is why it matters.

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