Every art student, no matter their major, has to take at least one art history course as a part of their course requirements. I, being a painting major, am one of these people. And I don’t mind. I don’t always love it, what with the sometimes bad projections/photos of paintings, the occasional droning voice of a less than enthusiastic professor, and the sometimes intense speed at which works and time periods can be moved through. But I bear with these small hiccups, and end up learning a lot about the field I’m trying to break into. However, I hear more than enough of my fellow students decrying their art history courses. Now, being a junior, I hear a lot of people saying that they’re so excited to be “done with art history.” I find this to be kind of an alarmingly sad statement coming from studio art majors.
Now, like I said, art history courses can sometimes be boring- maybe your professor has a weird voice, they’re a little boring, whatever. In my opinion, these are things you just have to get over. It’s not their job to MAKE you interested in the material- you chose the course. What I find alarming about an art student wanting to be “done with art history” is that, in my opinion, to make art, you should have some sort of knowledge of what came before you. A lot of people with the “done with art history” attitude tend to be really invested in the fallacy that by not learning art history, they’re somehow producing their own work in some sort of vacuum of ultra-originality, free from outside influence. It makes their artwork more “unique!” i.e. immature and suck-ish (sorry, way harsh, Tai.) But seriously, whether you want to remain ignorant of it or not, your work is influenced by other works, which are in turn influenced by other works, and so on. So, if you choose to remain ignorant of that fact, you’ll also be ignorant of when you’re treading on familiar ground, maybe very familiar ground, and your self-constructed world in which you’re oh-so original will come crashing down once someone who knows about these things sees your work, as tends to be the case.
And overall, my work has only improved from my learning art history. We don’t really learn how to”read” art when we’re in high school, so a lot of artwork that had seemed esoteric to me before became really interesting or even inspiring to me. Did I like every painting that I learned about? No. But I learned about some artists that I’d never heard of before, or gained new understandings of ones who I had. Connecting art with an actual time period or movement puts it into context, which makes it much easier to appreciate. Looking at Mondrian works, for instance, is hard without knowing of the De Stigl movement.
Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red and Blue, Courtesy of Moma.org
Who knew that this image is representative of a movement fixated on a utopian and spiritual mission? Also, knowing this, one becomes privy to just how incredibly influential these simple works have been:
Yves Saint Laurent 60’s Mod dress.
Learning art history just helps you understand the world more- specifically visual culture. And this is, you know, pretty important to an aspiring artist! Honestly, I couldn’t imagine ever being “done” with art history- I have so much to learn and understand; and as we gain understanding of the works of others, we also get closer to understanding our own work as well.
Banner image courtesy of wired.com