Why Study Art History?

The success of a work of art is often judged by the numbers of layers of meaning which allows us to give a variety of interpretations to the work. Certainly, when a person views a work of art a dialogue begins between the viewer and the work of art and the layers of meaning are revealed, at least, revealed to the enquiring mind.

As Janson suggests, one should avoid using the cliched expression "I don't know anything about art but I know what I like". What the person is really saying is not "I know what I like" but "I like what I know".  As with many things in life, your enjoyment of art is closely tied in with your knowledge of it.  Once you are aware of the tools of knowledge we use in Art History, then you can use these tools to interpret, have a dialogue with, an unfamiliar work of art.

The basic tools with which we will work when considering a work of art include such things as form, line, colour, composition, light, iconography, iconology, historical and social setting.  These tools will help us interpret the "language" of the painting.

Taking a painting to bits, if you like, and considering it under different headings, considering different aspects of the work, does not, as some would say, destroy  or take away from the enchantment of the view. Rather, it will give an added depth to your appreciation.

It is similar to the study of a poem. Taking a poem apart, studying it under headings such as rhyme, rhythm, symbolism, alliteration, etc, is like taking a watch to bits, seeing how all the small pieces fit together to form the complete watch. By understanding more of its workings you are in a position to fully appreciate the beauty of the object as a whole.

What you are doing is taking to bits the watch, the painting, or the poem, looking at each bit separately and then putting all the bits back together, but putting them back with an enlightened view on how the bits all fit together to form something aesthetically pleasing and/or with a philosophical, political or spiritual message.

Some bits may even be concealed from direct view such as the under-painting say of the Impressionists.  But once you know the type of under-painting used you can then appreciate surface light and colour in a much more intelligent and enlightened way.

This brings in the term style which in art historical terms means the distinguishing features of the line, the form, the colour , the tone, which help us see the style of a particular artist or period.  It is the style of a particular work which enables art historians to determine, by comparison and analysis, the period to which a work belongs.  It is this that will help us differentiate the Egyptian style from the Roman or Greek style.  We then can break the analysis down further into, say, provincial characteristics and schools such as the Florentine School or the Venetian School.

Then again it will be broken down into individual artists within the period and then sub-divided again into different periods of the artist's own development.  We talk, for example, of Picasso's Blue Period, and so on.

After studying art history, you should be at least asking yourself, even if not answering, the following questions about a work of art (never underestimate the importance of asking the right questions!): What is the content?  What is the work about?  What is the subject-matter?  Is the composition conveyed to us largely by line, or by tone?  How does the artist form volume?  Can we, by looking at the style of the work, estimate an approximate date of composition?  Can we see any influences from previous periods? If the work is abstract, can we see where the artist has drawn his inspiration?  Could it be the play of light on the sand, on leaves?  Or could he have taken his inspiration from examples of primitive art?

Art history opens your eyes to the world with which you are surrounded.  You will be more aware of the landscape in New Zealand, the changing light, juxtaposition of colours and times of the day.  You will be more able to "read the landscape" of a face or body.  You will also be better equipped to take on garden architecture, interior design or, of course, painting and sculpture.  You will see life and passion in architectural and artistic masterpieces and use this passion and expression of others to enhance your knowledge 0f the past and your appreciation of the present.