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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Why art history is important

To be relevant as an artist, you need to understand your place in history.
The County Election, 1852, George Caleb Bingham, courtesy St. Louis Art Museum.
“If she only knew some art history, she could go from being a good painter to a great painter,” a fellow teacher once mused as we wandered through a show. The artist was a superb technician, but painting in a style that was in vogue 150 years ago.

Art history is an extension of straight-up human history. The little I learned in school, I learned in history class. Most of what I know, however, is self-taught, through reading and visiting museums and galleries. Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at it.

I think it’s possible to understand most of history by just looking at the pictures. Art, after all, is an expression of the cultural values of the society it was created in.

Consider The County Election, by Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham, above. Starting in the late 1840s, he began a series on American democracy. He critiqued the political process as he saw it. That in itself is historically interesting. But looking back on it through almost two centuries of history, we first notice the lack of women or minorities in 19th century democracy. By being true to his time, Bingham is able to talk to us today.

California gold diggers. Mining operations on the western shore of the Sacramento River, undated, Kelloggs & Comstock, New York, courtesy Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. This tells us who the heavy lifters were in the early goldfields.
American public high schools offer no concentration in art history, although it’s possible to take an AP exam in the subject. In Britain, one can do an A-level in art history (the exam was nearly scrapped in 2016). That puts us at a disadvantage to our British cousins, right?

Not entirely. Bendor Grosvenor is an art dealer and BBC presenter who recently guest-lectured to a group of graduating art history majors at an unnamed university.  “[W]hen I put an image of a well-known Titian on the screen, only one of them (of around 40) could identify the artist,” he wrote. “I asked what they had all been doing for the past few years; ‘reading’ came the unenthusiastic answer. I had been invited to discuss art-historical careers, and my advice was therefore simple: stop reading about art, and go and look at some.”

I’ve had an American art history major hanging around for several years now, and I know that she’s been schooled in attribution. She had to take a comprehensive examination in it to get her undergraduate degree. Luckily, we had amazing resources available, including the Met’s online database of 451,685 records. She quizzed herself on attribution until she had the western canon down cold.

Portrait of Margaret Kemble Gage, John Singleton Copley, 1771, courtesy of Timken Museum of Art. Looking at this portrait, can you see the patriot who would whisper her husband's secrets to the Sons of Liberty five years later, sparking the American Revolution?
Her alma mater estimates that the cost of attending is now $62,882 a year, or just about twice the annual real median personal income of $31,099 in the United States. Her education was fantastic, but that is an absurd price tag. It pretty much excludes anyone but the wealthy from pursuing it. (Full disclosure: she attended community college first so that she could breathe the ether for only two years.)

Every large museum now has a database of its collection online—even the notoriously recondite Barnes Foundation has finally caved. These are a priceless resource. Then there’s SmartHistory, which I wrote about here.

On Monday, I said that anyone serious about painting should get their hands on a copy of Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color. I also believe that anyone serious about painting should know art history. The good news is that it won’t cost you a dime, and you can study from your laptop or tablet.

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