Let’s Talk About: Why I love Art History (and why I think you should too!)

In all the years I’ve had this site, I realise that I’ve never actually talked about this. When we love something we can forget to share where our passion comes from. But I should have done: a subject will only grow when people believe it matters. And if you’re reading this, you’re probably interested enough for me to convince that Art History is the essential subject I believe it to be.

So let me tell you more about why I think it’s brilliant.

A painting of a woman in a yellow dress decapitating a man using a sword. A servant is helping her to hold him down.
The recent surge of interest in Artemisia Gentileschi is just one example of Art History taking an old story of Renaissance art and deciding it needed shaking up with something new.

Art History is storytelling. Artworks are of course known for telling stories – but only the most basic kind of Art History simply retells the stories you think you know, the traditional narratives about an artist or artwork. Rather, the subject is interesting when it gives you the chance to investigate how those stories came into existence and acceptance in the first place.

One such story is the myth of the individual genius. From Leonardo da Vinci to Jackson Pollock, some artists have been labelled as exemplary because they’re seen not just as talented, but as uniquely – even divinely – inspired. Without throwing out all claims to their talent, there’s two ways in which this is a problematic approach. The first is that it’s been used to define “The Canon” – a single, hegemonic version of what ‘Good Art’ is and what ‘Artistic Progress’ looks like which held sway for generations. Even just two years ago on my MA, fellow students were saying how surprised they were by being made to think outside this canon lineage. Thankfully loads of work has been and is being done by many Art Historians to challenge this and introduce new narratives, but old habits cling on and hold significant social sway.

There’s a lot of egotism in this assumption that nobody else thought in the same ways as these individual artists in their time. Artists, no matter how radical their visual approach, are still members of society. Their attitudes and ideas are shaped by social, political and technological factors with influence extending far beyond one artist. Art History isn’t just about saying, or agreeing, that any artwork, no matter who it’s by, is important for its own sake. Though this is different to saying something is good or likeable for its own sake – liking pleasing things is a great place to start! But it’s about finding the stories of how – and why – that artwork came to be as it did.

I love Art History most when I get to dive down rabbit-holes to piece together this wider context of ideas and influences. When one hole leads to another and another until you don’t quite know how you arrived where you end up, but it’s turned out well regardless. Will explaining the pattern on an early-Soviet dress lead you to Italian poetry, factory labour conditions, or Spartak Moscow? Why not all three?? What about the artist; what people, events and conditions might have inspired their creative approach? And it’s in these connections, which sometimes seem so unlikely, that the storytelling happens.

I have a way of seeing the artwork I’m starting with as being in the centre of a web. It might have many threads reaching out from it, and many interlinks between those threads. It might expand to indefinite range, and other artworks will get caught up in it along the way. This is the second of my favourite things. Art History isn’t just the stories of what inspired an artwork or artist in the first place, but the stories of what happens to them next. Looking at what else gets caught up in that web over time and just how it connects to your starting point. What images, techniques, themes, have reverberated through history, and through art? Some threads lead seamlessly from one point to another; others make stops along the way.

Take as an example Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon – a problematic work, but one which illustrates what I mean.

Picasso's "Demoiselles d'Avignon" is a painting of five nude women believed to be prostitutes. They're painted in pink and in a Cubist style - eyes all facing us, bodies slightly abstracted in shape. At least two women have faces borrowed from African masks. The background is a collection is abstract shapes and colours.

This 1907 painting is credited as the first work of Picasso’s genius- one headline calls it “The Day Modern Art Was Invented“. But this perspective is only possible with the perspective of ‘individual genius’ I called out before. In fact, it hasn’t appeared out of nowhere. We could talk just for starters about:

  • The re-emergence of ‘flat’ perspective in late 19th-century French art
  • The influence of Cezanne in using increasingly more abstract shapes in his landscapes
  • The history of prostitute paintings and what they’re used as symbols of (sensuality, otherness or social hypocrisy could all get a mention)
  • A longer history of painting gatherings of women and what they’re shown as being up to (and for who’s pleasure).
  • The role of African art (as grouped into a generality by contemporary study) and colonial attitudes, and how Picasso acknowledged his sources in a way which now strikes us as condescending.

This last point in particular show us that the stories are never finished. Just as art is rooted in the society in which is was created, so too is Art History. Just look at the work done by Art Historians in the last 50 years or so to bring the stories of women’s art, queer art, Black art into the spotlight. To look at art as a product of class and colonial relation.

This is why I believe the work Art History can be of use to all of us: it gives us a guide through which to see the world. You don’t have to be an expert, but acknowledging the significance of visual culture and understanding how it has developed make paths through the world clearer. Knowing the history of images and the stories which have influenced our visual culture gives us power to draw our own conclusions about its effect or value. In a visually and culturally complex world, this is no insignificant thing.

Disclaimer: all Messy Lines opinions are personal. Other approaches to Art History are available. If you think my definition of Art History is wrong, that’s OK! Drop me a message on social or email julia@messylines.com to chat.

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