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What’s the best way to learn about the history of art?

Published 9 June 2016

Anna M. Dempster, the RA’s Head of Academic Programmes, assesses the different approaches, from a chronological survey and a theory-led perspective to the handling of artefacts.

  • From the Summer 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    All too often an art history class summons up a vision of a dark room, illuminated only by a rolling stream of projected images chronologically narrated by a cultured intellectual with a soothing voice. Admittedly, a survey approach can certainly be useful. There is an efficient logic to a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, whether that be in a course that gallops its way from 3,000 BCE to the present day, or one that covers a shorter bite-size chunk. A lot of ground can be covered and this approach provides a perspective of how it all fits together.

    However, a simple timeline of events is often not enough for the culturally curious. In an essay in History Today, ‘What is the History of Art?’ (1985), Alex Potts remarked that “the history of the visual arts, defined simply as a chronological description of the various objects we now classify as art, would be a pretty marginal affair”, and that it only becomes “more interesting where it claims that art has a symbolic value, and that visual artefacts reflect important attitudes and ‘realities’ of the society”. Art, alongside other cultural artefacts, provides clues to understanding our past and becomes a part of all human history. Here expert interpretation of the evidence is key – only through the eyes of someone who can expertly source, filter and explain does the story come to close to the ‘truth’.

    A survey perspective can have additional limitations. Too often it reads like a roll-call of ‘masters’ (mostly men) and their ‘masterpieces’ (mostly European). It has an exclusive flavour and comes across essentially as a story of high culture expounded by an elite. From Vasari’s hugely influential Lives of the Artists (1550) to E.H. Gombrich’s seminal Story of Art (1950) four centuries later, the big question remains who’s in the club and who’s out. An accepted ‘canon’ – which scholars generally believe includes the most important contributions to shape our culture – is temptingly unambiguous but frustratingly unyielding.

    It is not surprising that there are constant calls for alternative perspectives. One of these is the ‘New Art History’, also the title of a book published in 2001 by Jonathan Harris following debates that began in the 1970s. This theory-led approach, applies frameworks from other fields to reconsider value judgements and shine a light on under-appreciated art and culture.

  • Pierre Auguste Renoir, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard

    Pierre Auguste Renoir, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, 1908.

    © Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London/Bridgeman Images.

  • The influence of feminist, postmodern, Marxist and psychoanalytical theory has enabled novel interpretations of existing works, as well as the discovery of overlooked works and artists. A theory-led approach means we can dive deeper into ideas that reflect broader social and cultural concerns. For example, the late-20th and early 21st-century preoccupation with body, gender and identity has placed these topics as central to both academic theory and artists’ practice.

    Theories can provide powerful frameworks by which to deconstruct the complex world. However, by definition, they have boundaries. Whether taking a survey or theory led approach to art history, it’s critical not to underestimate the role of the object. Although the examination of specimens remains a mainstay of medical and biological sciences, it is much less common in the arts and humanities. And yet, as Annette Wickham, Curator of Works on Paper at the RA, explains: “Starting with the physical evidence provided by a work of art reveals important, sometimes surprising, insights that inform its broader interpretation.” Learning with objects has the benefits of providing a multi-sensory, interactive, discursive experience. And it’s fun. “People respond well to something tangible and also to a progression from the specific to the more general,” Wickham concludes.

    Our relationship with art is nothing if not physical. Research by neuroscientists into how the brain responds to an aesthetic experience has provided novel, albeit controversial, evidence that we can literally feel what we see (see ‘The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience’ by Ramachandran and Hirstein, 1999). This might explain why viewers of Degas’ ballerinas sometimes report a sensation of dancing. The experience of seeing has the ability to excite the same parts of the brain that control corresponding muscles in bodies.

    Although we may be taught ‘don’t touch’ from an early age, the best dealers, collectors and curators will often reach for the artwork first to examine it by hand, understanding that its physical properties can hold information that their eyes alone might miss. For Milko den Leeuw, painting conservator and founder of the Hague-based Authentication in Art Congress, which aims to promote best practice in the field, access to the physical object provides crucial insights. "First, the impact of true size and the object’s context. The object’s original purpose is better understood when we can ‘meet’ it in real life and in situ. Secondly, the perception of colour. No technique, not even the best digital option, is close enough to the original. To experience colour depth one has “to see” the object in real life. Thirdly, the construction of a physical artwork. Materials must be constructed and manipulated in order to get the result an artist wants to achieve and this starts inside an artwork. To discover that aspect of the making of an object we have to examine it physically, technically and in the right historical context.”

    So what is the best way to study the history of art? Well, it depends on what you want. An expert-led chronological overview can situate works and artists and explain their evolution. Using theory and focusing on themes allows for deep and rich exploration and can unpack the complex nature of art and its many interpretations. An object-based approach creates a tangible link with the past that we can consider in context. At the Royal Academy we do all of these, through our exhibitions, courses and classes, our archives and collection. Together we can explore the history of art and what that means for the future.

    Anna M. Dempster is Head of Academic Programmes at the RA.

    The RA’s Academic Programmes include Courses and Classes that introduce traditional art-making processes, as well as perspectives on the history of art, culture and the art world.
    For details, contact Mary Ealden, Courses and Classes Coordinator, on 020 7300 5641 or mary.ealden@royal academy.org.uk.

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