What is Art History?

A person thinking of a major in history or the arts may want to know what art history is. The answer to this question could also be useful to a person who is trying to decide on a college major, especially if they enjoy both history and the arts. Familiarity with art history could also help a person decide which college classes to take for pure enjoyment, even if they plan to major in something else.

Understanding Art Versus Artifact

Art history often begins with understanding what is art versus what is an artifact. The modern word “art” comes from the Latin “ars,” which referred to skill or craft. Most people understand art to be something that not everyone can do to the same ability. Art often emphasizes creativity and imagination over utility or functionality.

What Distinguishes Art From Other Expressions

Another aspect of art history is making sense of what distinguishes art from any other type of expression. There have always been arguments about what art is versus what generalized expression is. Graffiti is a good example of this. A person with a can of spray paint puts a tag onto a train. To one person, the tag is art. To another, it is vandalism. One way to look at what art consists of is to consider what has visual agency or what captures the interest of the viewer. Over time, this has changed. In a time when fresh fruit was scarce, still, life paintings of bowls of fruit were common.

Using History to Make Sense of Art

Part of the study of the history of art is using the past to make sense of the art of the time. For example, the activities around civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s led to the inclusion of more people of color in visual art and performance art. Women’s rights and activism in the early 1900s and into today lead to more women creating art and being represented in works of art. In 1500 to 1700s Europe, most arts focused on colonialist themes or around conflict and war. Essentially, the art of a particular period creates a narrative of what was going on in society and the life of the artist.

Examination of Culture and Social Conflict in Art

According to Khan Academy, to be inclusive, art history has to draw from all cultures. This means that the days of only focusing on art from Europe are long gone. Studying the history of art must include the art created by all cultures and all peoples from around the world. Many societies or cultures have previously had their art overlooked or simply labeled as rudimentary just because they did not fit into the European standards of what “art” was.

A person who enjoys the humanities and the historical aspects of design, expression, and culture may do well studying the history of art. There are many aspects to the history of art, and a person may even want to specialize in the history of a specific type of art form, such as ceramics, wood carving, needle arts, or drawing. Knowing what art history is could help a person decide on a college major or a career path upon graduation in a related field of expertise.

Related Resource: