Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What is Art History?

John Elderfield, senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art has remarked that "the true subject of art history is the narrative and analysis of the succession of innovations that have changed the practice of artists over the course of time."

Do you agree with this statement? If you do, give an example of evidence to support his claim.
If you do not agree, state why.


  1. I believe that this is a true statement. For me, something that is innovative has to be different from that of the current status quo. Art history in turn, tends to highlight on those that are radically different from their predecessors. Look at how most of European based art history is categorized in gradual periods of rebellion.

    Take periods like Impressionism, and Surrealism, for example. Theses styles were also short-lived, however, are considered innovative periods of art history. They also were styles that rebelled against those that are previous. For example, Impressionism, unlike before was considered sketchy and unpolished. Because this style was about capturing light and color, photorealism was not the primary desire. So in turn, art history sometimes emphasizes artists who fight against the standards. These are the artist who are innovative enough to break the standard mode or fashion.

    Then we come to Modern, Post-Modern and Contemporary art history. At these times, it becomes less about the small group’s influence and more about the individual artist’s influence and innovation. The name becomes more contributive than that of the style to some extent. Look at the artists that are considered innovative in these categories such as Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and more recently Takashi Murakami and Damien Hirst. They created something that considerably broke the standards of their time.

    Overall, I agree that art history is the recording of artists who make groundbreaking impacts on the art world. The artists that typically break the standards, therefore creating innovative pieces, are remembered.

  2. I assent to Elderfield’s statement if he is referring to “art history” in general, unelaborate terms – those which are most frequently employed in attempting to relay the principal concepts of “art history” to the general public. To me, this view or approach to art history is manifest in the modern-day Art Appreciation course. A skimming of the surface of art history is conducted, which allows the non-artsy or simply uninterested student to at least attain a sufficient understanding of art history. However, the issue that I believe arises from this approach/perspective is that people begin to assume that the material to which they were exposed or taught is the most important aspects of art history, when in reality it is merely the “succession of innovations that have changed the practice of artists over the course of time.” That is not to dishonor those artists and artworks addressed or spotlighted in such circumstances (as in an art appreciation course). I am simply saying that people all-to-often jump to the conclusion that those artists and artworks are the most fundamental of all of art history, seemingly categorizing them as masters/masterpieces simultaneously. As we have learned from our current course though, significant components of art history such as ‘branding’, marketing, and provenance often play a large role in determining the success of artists and artworks. This interaction of aspects that are not inherent to the artwork itself obviously hold much weight in determining artistic success in terms of fame and financial gain today, but I do not believe this phenomenon is isolated to modern day. Rather, I would say that they also played a large role in the success of artists as far back as the Renaissance. Perhaps, not as large of a role or on the world-wide scale that is the art market today, but still as powerful a role.
    All that being said, I believe Dana Arnold best summarized Elderfield’s wider subject of “the true subject of art history” by stating:
    “…art history is not just about describing images that represent the world we think we see. The subject is far more complex and rich. It is a way of look at the culture and society of different epochs and seeing how we think about these periods and how attitudes have changes across time.” (Art History: A Very Short Introduction, p. 28)