Art History and Its Methods

Topics: 2nd millennium, History of painting, Art history Pages: 18 (5973 words) Published: November 11, 2007
All cultures throughout history have produced art. The impulse to create, to realize form and order out of mere matterÑto recognize order in the world or to generate it oneselfÑis universal and perpetual.


Every work of art has two aspects: it is a present experience as well as a record of the past, and it is valued, preserved, and studied for both identities. As present experience, artworks afford people the pleasures, the tensions, the dramas, and ultimately the satisfaction to the senses of pure formÑin the visual arts the relationships among colors, lines, and masses in space.

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 artsÑpainting, 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 Wšlfflin 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 stylesÑnone 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 illusionÑan 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...
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