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.

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