What is the History of Art?

'Art for art's sake' – but not for many historians. The fine and decorative arts, their styles and iconography, have been mined for insight into the politics, religion and social obsessions of the past. Placing key images alongside the views of six contributors we continue the search.

Alex Potts

A 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, probably of less general interest than a history of machinery, or a history of clothing. It would certainly be a history that remained on the fringes of what most people recognise as the central concerns of life. A history of art begins to look a little more interesting where it claims that art has a symbolic value, and that visual artefacts reflect important attitudes and 'realities' of the society in which they were produced.

Such claims were first advanced explicitly during the Enlightenment, most notably in Winckelmann's famous History of the Art of Antiquity, published in 1764. With Winckelmann, art was conceived, not just as a category of visual representations that provoked pleasurable responses, but as a medium for defining ourselves and our engagement with the material world – in Hegel's words, Winckelmann, in characterising art in the way he did, invented a 'new organ of the human spirit'. At the same time, artefacts of the past were interpreted as eloquent signs of the general character of the society that had produced them. In the words of another contemporary, the Comte de Caylus, a collection of antiquities, classified according to place and date of origin, would provide a 'picture of all the centuries'. Similar preoccupations are still active in the study of the history of art, but cast in a much more negative mould.

Ideas of art and the aesthetic have at no time attracted such intense scholarly scrutiny as now; yet arguments for their actual significance rarely ring true. The more convincing studies are concerned with the ideological interests which lie behind traditional mythologies of art, or with questions about why art might have mattered in the past. Similarly, the idea that the meanings of art are anchored in social and political life, that art history should be conceived as an integral part of general history, has rarely been so widely accepted; yet attempts to ascribe definite social and political meanings to visual images usually meet with scepticism. The fruitful art historical analyses, rather than explaining the exact meaning of an image, demonstrate how futile it is to try and fix the varied and often ill-defined meanings it could have for different audiences in different contexts. Interpreted as bits of historical evidence illustrating what a past society was like, visual artefacts tend to function as intriguing images onto which we are all free to project whatever historical fantasies we wish. The central concerns of art historical study have not always been so intensely problematic. But the paradoxes involved can be traced back to the formation of a modern conception of the history of art in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Jacob Burckhardt's definition of the Renaissance as a distinct phase in the history of Western European culture obviously owes a lot to his study of Italian Renaissance art. Yet when he came to write his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, published in 1860, he did not discuss the visual arts, and defined his conception of Italian Renaissance culture entirely from written sources. The Renaissance is still represented most vividly for many people by Italian Renaissance art, just as Modernism seems most clearly exemplified in modern art. But it is only at a highly symbolic level that an abstract painting, say, can be interpreted as symptomatic of tendencies within modern culture as a whole. If the history of art has encouraged a division of general history into phases or periods, specialised studies of art seem to offer few concrete insights into the larger social and political factors, or the prevailing day-to-day attitudes and ways of life, that might characterise such periods.

Yet interest in the past is to a considerable extent formed by responses to visual artefacts, and the study of the visual arts is not as marginal as its ostensible function serving the art market and tourist industry would seem to imply. Art continues to be a focus of debate about definitions of culture – though what matters much more in practical terms is the use of visual imagery in the media and film, even for the minority ' of the rich and powerful who make the art scene their hobby.

Winckelmann's history of Greek and Roman art, the publication that effectively put the modern study of the history of art on the map, was based on artefacts that featured in the day-to-day life of only a tiny circle of antiquarians and collectors of antique sculpture in eighteenth-century Rome. Yet the book seemed to break the bounds of the interests of this exclusive and peripheral social group, largely by virtue of claims about the value of art and its history that seem highly suspect, yet gripping, today.


John House

The history of art is facing a particular problem at the moment: we need to find ways of relating the detailed discussion of works of art to a wide-ranging historical analysis of the conditions, and preconditions, of their making. I am one of many who are dissatisfied with the most traditional forms of object-based art history, which seek as their prime goal to identify the works of a particular hand nr to analyse the development of 'styles' as self-contained, isolated phenomena. In stark reaction against this is an historical analysis which focuses on the institutional frameworks within which works of art have been made and on the presuppositions (the unspoken assumptions as well as the declared systems of belief) which underpin their making. These issues are crucial; but I am worried by the way in which some such discussions find no place for the analysis of the particular characteristics of individual works of art.

I do not want to treat works of art as hallowed objects of reverence, but rather as artefacts which have a specific history, in their making, and in their reception and use from then until now. I am interested in gaining a more wide-ranging view of the art of a place and period by juxtaposing and comparing the diverse works of art from that context, and by relating the appearance of these works and their trajectory through space and time to the circumstances and preconditions of their making and consumption. Necessarily, too, we must acknowledge that the historian's access to the past is indirect, since it is filtered through subsequent events, and that it is partial in both senses of the word: fragmentary, and inseparable from the historian's own values and beliefs.

I am currently beginning a study of realism in nineteenth-century painting. This has been triggered by a frustration with accounts of realism in painting which appeal to 'reality' and 'objectivity' as their base. Realist enterprises took so many forms in the nineteenth century that no unitary base can make sense of them all; but, more significantly, the appeal to 'objectivity' short-circuits the ways in which ideas about the 'real' are encoded in a work of art, and the purposes and interests these serve. In the long term my research will seek to dovetail verbal with visual evidence: it will examine on the one hand the critical debates around the idea of realism and around the very varied types of painting which were taken in under the realist umbrella in the nineteenth century; and on the other hand it will analyse the pictorial devices and techniques by which paintings sought to encode ideas of the real and actual, treating pictorial composition and technique alike as types of rhetoric which were deployed in particular contexts and to particular ends.

Essential to this analysis is a study of art institutions, especially contexts of exhibition and sale; in big public exhibitions like the Paris Salon, particular sets of expectations and frameworks of classification evolved, which conditioned the artists' strategies. The 'realism' of Courbet's and Manet's big exhibition paintings, for instance, can only be understood by examining the contexts in which the paintings were shown – both visual (the other paintings in the Salons of the period) and verbal (the categories and criteria by which they were classified and judged); their most controversial paintings were conceived as deliberate interventions into specific pictorial and critical contexts.

Contemporary art criticism is of central importance to the study of nineteenth-century painting, since it played a fundamental role in mediating between works of art and their public; it is in the dialogue between artists and critic, between presentation and reception, that one must seek evidence for the meanings which a work of art conveyed, or sought to convey, to its first viewers. But criticism cannot give us direct access to the paintings, for it has its own history and rhetoric: it is detailed comparative analysis of the paintings themselves which will allow us to focus most closely on the distinctive characteristics they presented in their original contexts.

The methodological underpinning for this work largely comes from outside art history: from literary theory and from social and intellectual history; it is in these fields that the questions with which I am concerned have been more searchingly asked. The history of art must use the lessons drawn from these other subjects in order to develop its identity as a discipline – I am convinced it is a discipline! The subject needs theoretical base, but this must be harnessed to the detailed specific applications which will enrich our understanding of the functions that art has served in history. Finally, we must never lose sight of the relevance of our analyses of the past to a critical understanding of the uses to which culture is put in our society today.


Charles Hope

In the early years of this century most art historians were principally interested in two types of problem. The first was to establish the authorship and date of works of art, the second to analyse change. of style both in the careers of individual artists and as a more general process. In other words, the focus was very largely on art as an autonomous phenomenon, rather than on the social circumstances surrounding its production; and the skills required were principally those of. the connoisseur and the critic. Recently, the emphasis has shifted. The analysis of style still figures very largely in the teaching of art history, but much more attention is now paid to the study of patronage, taste and iconography. This has led to changes in method, especially to a greater interest in archival research and in the use of literary texts. In terms of the methods employed and the questions that are asked, art history now seems much more like other types of history.

In one major respect, however, it is bound to remain distinctive, since any historical study involving works of art necessarily involves aesthetic judgements. This applies most obviously in questions of attribution and dating, which are fundamental to almost any type of further enquiry in the history of art. Except for some of the art of this century, the documentary evidence about such issues is usually incomplete, and has to be supplemented by old-fashioned connoisseurship. To many people this seems something rather mysterious. In fact, the term covers two quite separate processes. One is to identify, at least approximately, the authors of a very large range of works of art. The other is to make much more subtle differentiations of quality, to decide, for example, between an autograph painting and a product by an assistant or imitator, or to locate a specific work precisely within the context of a particular artist's output as a means of dating it.

These two types of activity require different skills. The first calls above all for an exceptional visual memory, the second for a special sensitivity to an individual artist's style. And anyone who is familiar with, for example, the scholarly literature on Renaissance art will very soon realise that many specialists in the field do not necessarily possess either of these skills to any great degree, and least of all the second. Thus until recently it was believed by several of the foremost authorities on Raphael that a large ceiling fresco by him was actually the work of a painter of very different character, Baldassare Peruzzi, while an altarpiece in the museum at Lille, which was widely assigned to Titian, supposedly working in his latest and most personal style, subsequently turned out to be by an obscure seventeenth-century Spanish artist named Diego Polo. This does not of course mean that connoisseurship is necessarily unreliable, but that anyone who studies the history of art needs to know their own limitations, as well as those of other scholars in the field.

It is quite often supposed, especially by those who specialise in connoisseurship, that other aspects of the subject do not call for the same degree of visual sensitivity. This is extremely questionable. For example, anyone who studies patterns of patronage and taste can hardly avoid considering the quality of works of art which particular patrons might have acquired, or trying to reconstruct that patron's response to such works. In the same way, any investigation of the subject-matter of a work of art, its iconography, is liable to go astray unless it takes account of the fact that artists were seldom required simply to illustrate stories or to represent visual symbols, but were also expected to produce something beautiful.

This is not to say that contracts, letters and contemporary texts, as well as scientific studies of technique and computerised databases, will not provide a vast amount of indispensable information to the art historian. But they will not provide all the answers to the questions that he is likely to ask, whether he studies art for its own sake or as part of a wider historical enquiry. It is because works of art are different from other artefacts of the past, because they demand an aesthetic response before they can be understood, that art history remains a distinctive discipline, which makes special demands not only on those who practice it, but also on anyone who wants to use its conclusions for other purposes. To a certain extent it is bound to be subjective in its methods and unrigorous in its conclusions, but this does not mean that those conclusions are necessarily unreliable.


Tom Gretton

What is art history? What is Art? In the late twentieth-century developed world enormous but ill-defined value is placed on 'art'. We use the word in many senses to many ends. The way in which we respond to what we call works of art is an important way of proclaiming our social status. The distinction we make betv een works of art and other man-made objects is an important way in which we come to accept the alienation implicit in the division of labour. We use 'art' to designate imprecise or traditional skills or bodies of knowledge. Even in History of Art the word embraces a subject matter wider than one might expect. The great paintings of old and new masters and mistresses are there, but so are LP album covers, printed biscuit tins, and other cultural forms not yet enshrined in National Galleries or the vaults of Pension Funds.

The questions which art historians are trained to raise may not be the most fruitful ones to ask of many sort of pictures, and we may not want to assimilate objects such as Trade Union banners to a discipline which tends to explain the importance of images in terms of their transcendental, rather than their historical, value. For better or worse, however, research into the different sorts of jobs which different sorts of images did in the past tends to be done under the aegis of History of Art.

Images in the past, like images in the present, do a variety of different jobs, depending on their forms and their audience. They are part of the history of culture in the broad sense, of the whole range of artefacts, partly moral, partly institutional, and partly material, through which groups of humans deal with their environment. Culture in this wide sense does its work through the combination of all cultural forms, not through any one of them in isolation. Nonetheless, we can ask pertinent questions about the role of individual forms.

I am particularly interested in the popular imagery of England and France during the last century-and-a-half of the form's independent existence. Popular imagery was produced in western Europe from the early seventeenth century until the impact of new technologies and of new forms of social and economic organisation superseded it during the second half of the nineteenth century. Between about 1820 and 1860, there flourished, particularly in London and Paris, a trade in cheap single sheets, printed on one side of the paper only, usually at least as large as an open copy of this magazine, often twice as large, on which texts and images were printed together. The subject-matter of these cheap prints varied, but concentrated on crime and punishment on the one hand, and on cautionary tales and religious subjects on the other. There were important differences between the prints produced in the two countries. These can help us to understand various aspects of the cultures of England and France, for example the different roles played by written and by figurative information systems in the two countries.

Through these prints we can trace the development of an urban culture based on print which was not directly derived from the world of 'high' culture, and of the impact of various technological and commercial changes on the cultural universe inhabited by the rural and the urban poor.

Cheap prints should not automatically be taken to have had an exclusively poor audience. Art historians can very often know who a picture was painted for, who it was first bought by, and what a critic thought of it. Not so with cheap prints. Here we find ourselves forced to argue from the structure and evolution of a form to the structure and evolution of a market and an audience. There is some evidence to support this argument, and we can thus consider how the form and its likely audience formed part of the evolving tangle that historians have come to call popular culture.

Cheap prints permit us to see the sorts of things that could be pictured in certain cultural milieux, and the sorts of things that were absent from them. One can, for example, see in French popular imagery of the Revolutionary period the failure of this form to articulate images of political events and processes which were being successfully turned into images for a slightly richer, rather more metropolitain public.

Cheap prints allow us to examine some of the ways in which 'high' cultural forms, such as ideas about the law and the Divinity, or the conventions of pictorial perspective, trickled down into less privileged milieux, and how they were adapted in these new milieux and forms to meet new needs. Besides this many of them provide us with striking or beautiful images, which make this aspect of the study of popular culture in the modernising world not only constantly intriguing, but often unexpectedly pleasurable.


Marcia Pointon

My earliest response to the history of art was provoked by a reproduction of Renoir's Bal au Moulin de la Galette. It lodged in my brain with such vividness that I think I shall never again experience a picture with such pure unadulterated pleasure. It was as a student of Medieval art, however, that I first became acquainted with the discipline of Art History and learned that the pleasure we derive from art is to be traced in its making as well as in our reception of it, that quality is to be assessed according to the criteria of the society within which an object was produced, that whilst we may acquire knowledge of the pictorial conventions that determine the appearance of a work of art that work is also subject to societal law in the widest possible sense. It was with the rich embroidery of fourteenth-century opus anglicanum and the strange calligraphic illustrations to the Egerton Genesis that I encountered the notion of communication in the sociological, ritual and historical sense that has remained so important to me ever since.

Art history is not the placing of recognised or even unrecognised monuments in a universally accepted map of history. I refer to paintings here because that is mainly my particular concern, but much of what I say also applies to sculpture, architecture and other forms. The art historian is as much engaged in re-drawing the map as any other sort of historian. As with the 1867 Reform Bill or the Lady Chatterley's Lover trial the complex meanings of a given painting do not lie with its author or instigator alone. It would be as misguided to attribute the significance of And when did you last see your father? exclusively to W.F. Yeames' personal convictions and predilections, important though these be, as to attribute the formation and passing of the Reform Bill exclusively to the personality and talents of Gladstone. Research which reveals the precise circumstances within which both these things were produced are all matters of essential importance, matters that the historian/art historian must verify as closely as possible. Yeames, after all, was an artist who applied paint to canvas and Gladstone a statesman who drafted a bill. But we shouldn't stop there. Research of this sort deals in presences, similarities and typicalities; what it tends to neglect is differences, absences, inversions and contradictions.

And when did you last see your father? does not (as it may seem to) reflect the attitudes of late Victorian bourgeois society to the English Civil War; the meanings which the revolutionary conflict of the seventeenth century carry for Victorian imperialism are, on the contrary, generated within this and other cultural manifestations. The picture is not a transparent communicator of something that happens or is thought or felt somewhere out there in history. It is one of those places at which we are able, if we are sufficiently rigorous in our analysis, to recognise ideology under construction. In this case the absences absence of conflict, absence of cruelty, absence of hierarchy – are the means of negotiating a concensus view of the seventeenth century. These absences are not such as we can discover through any archival research: they are the material of criticism. Nor will a study of the artist's life and writings reveal them, for, though we may readily acknowledge and analyse the artist's particular brilliance in formulating a series of visual images in colour, the outcome of any individual artistic act is more than the sum of the artist's conscious intentions.

Like the Reform Bill – which is as significant for what it excluded as for what it included – art functions within the consciousness of society as well as of the individual. Attitudes to art as to parliamentary legislation change according to current concerns and events. New interpretations are offered, parts are forgotten, overlooked or ignored. An audience in 1878 seeing the pair of feet in cavalier slippers (a fragment of a gilt-framed picture) that are visible in the top right corner of Yeames' painting would have mentally completed the partial image. The portrait of the missing father re-presents the absent law of patriarchy which, by its absence, endorses the paternalistic and humane view of commonwealth presented in this conciliatory and nonconflictual rendering of an interrogation. We tend to overlook this detail today because the painting does not immediately convey these meanings to us. It does, however, generate others.

How, we should ask, does a Royal Academy painting become a popular icon or an object of derision? The title, And when did you last see your father? constitutes a rejoinder, a verbal query left hanging in the air. Salvador Dali spent years exploring, examining and documenting the life of Millet's painting The Angelus in popular culture (coffee services, cartoons, tomb stones in French cemeteries) and in his own subconscious, making interesting connections between the two. Art history can no more abandon And when did you last see your father? once the picture is discovered, cleaned, authenticated, documented and contemporary meanings charted, than the historian can abandon the Reform Bill. It lives on, and in manifestations and embodiments that not only may have no evident connection with the original authorship and generation of the image but may actually be in conflict with those things.

At what point then are we doing something different from working with the Reform Bill? A painting after all is a material object with a surface made up of marks in pigment on a canvas. Response to this surface, pleasure in its effect and comprehension through analysis of its formation is, however, also an historically located experience. The colour, handling and other physical characteristics of the work are determined not merely by the predilection of the artist and apprehended through the empathy of the viewer independent of time and place. Thus the colour, scale and surface of And when did you last see your father? conform to a set of constraints and expectations within the exhibition arena of the Royal Academy in 1878. We need to ask not only what colours did Yeames like but also what was likely to be hanging nearby. Were cavaliers in nineteenth-century depictions always dressed in those blues? Equally our own response to the physicality of objects is to an extent determined by current tastes in our own day. We need to be aware of this if we are to attempt an objective analysis. A conspicuous interest in Balthus, Renoir and Bonnard in Paris and London in 1984-5 is not accidental but is related on the one hand to the privileging of certain sorts of subject matter (nubile young girls and 'feminine' women) and on the other hand to painterliness, craftmanship and the pleasure of the surface. This interest is generated, significantly, in an age in which art practice itself embodies a conflict between the conceptual and the instinctual and in a period marked in the West by increasing economic austerity and authoritarianism.

Art history cannot concentrate on the materiality of the object at the expense of its role in cultural history. Artists and public have always known more of art through reproduction, first through engravings and then through photography, than from the original. And when did you last see your father? attained its currency through mass reproduction. Art history addresses the unique existence and the plurality and its effects. It examines and seeks to explain the point at which visual tradition is generated and the intersertion of the particular situation with the general, the individual with the social.


Antony Griffiths

When I was a fresh recruit to the British Museum, I once ventured a rash remark that implied that my job was to be an art historian. This produced an energetic reaction from one of my senior colleagues Museum keepers, I was told, were not art historians, or any other sort of historian. They were primarily officials, of the species civil servant, even if of a slightly peculiar variety. It was true that some of their official duties touched on art and the history of art, but 'writing art history' or 'being an art historian' was a practice indulged in slightly suspect places like the Warburg or Courtauld Institutes. Some years later I was told a possibly apocryphal story that Sir Ernst Gombrich had startled his audience at a Warburg seminar by denying that he was an art historian. It seems perhaps that no-one is willing to answer to the description.

There does however seem to be a basic difference in operation between a museum scholar and a university historian, and one that transcends such obvious distinctions as that the first has all his time taken up in wrestling with problems of finance, administration and organisation, while the other has to spend his days spoon-feeding his students and sitting on interminable committees. The starting point of the museum man's work is always an object, and his task is to find out what it is. The object may be one in his collection, or on offer for potential acquisition, or in the possession of a member of the public. But the process of relating it to other similar objects, and then trying to pin down where it was made and when, and if possible by whom – this process is always the same. In the university world the starting point for research is more likely to be an abstract question, whether about the origins of a style or the career of an artist or the meaning of an iconographical theme.

It follows that the culmination of the museum man's work is the full catalogue of some area of his collection. Such publications are of their nature expensive and rarely consulted by the general public. But the amount of expertise that informs the best of them is enormous. Martin Davies' catalogues of the National Gallery are classics of the genre, and the scholarly reputation of the Department of Prints and Drawings in recent years has been founded on a series of catalogues of its Italian drawings. How long the series will continue is uncertain; a work that covers several hundred items, takes twenty years to produce, and then takes another twenty years to sell out on a print run of 500, may not appear cost-effective in the contemporary climate of museum administration.

My own work has been in a far humbler genre, the exhibition catalogue. These fulfil a role, not as cut-price substitutes for full catalogues, but as intermediaries addressed to a more general public. My particular field, the history of the print, is sufficiently unfamiliar to make it worth mounting a series of survey exhibitions on different periods and countries. The trick here is to try to make a choice that is visually exciting and historically coherent while at the same time writing a catalogue which makes intellectual sense of the choice and includes entries which summarise and, if possible, expand what is already known about the individual objects selected.

In The Print in Germany 1880-1933 I and my co-author, Frances Carey, were faced with a field, with Expressionism at its centre, which is now extremely fashionable. There are a number of invaluable monographs, but the fault, from our point of view, with much of the literature was that for every four chapters on the meaning of Expressionism and its relation to the German psyche, there was only one chapter mentioning names, dates or works. When we came to cataloguing individual prints we found that the dating was frequently uncertain, that the subjects were often unidentified and that the methods by which they were produced were obscure.

That we found many answers I make no claim. In most cases all we could do was identify the problem and marshal what information we had found. To find the answer would need proper research – the sort of research that lies behind a full catalogue. It is when the work has not been done that one realises how carelessly and unthinkingly one usually takes for granted the labours of others.

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