Why I Think That Art, and Art History, Are Important

For my final full post today, I want to write about why I study art history and why I engage in the art world.

I probably get more shit for my art history major than my philosophy major; there’s either a snort, a roll of the eyes, or at best, a “do you want to teach?” type of question. It’s a discipline that’s seen as old fashioned, from that Walter Pater era of lace cuffs and learned white dudes with whigs who hung out in salones. And, to a degree, that’s fairly accurate even now; the history of art, like its practitioners, has been made out in a canonical sense, so that the artists that are well known and celebrated are the reflections of those who write art history: white, male, conservative. Think: who do you think when you think art? You think Leonardo, Michelangelo, Monet, van Gogh, Pollock. White dudes. The classic essay on this topic, by Linda Nochlin, is a great starting point to understanding why.

It makes sense, in a certain way, given that, with certain exceptions, societal constraints meant that anyone who didn’t fit that description could not become artists, much less make work or be noticed by patrons. Similarly, those in power were white and male; why do I point all this out? Because of my belief that art matters because it reflects the political circumstances of when it was made. Art was used to back up the regimes of kings, to subvert the power of others, to give voice to marginalized groups. Visual culture, meaning everything from paintings to manuscripts to movies, has always been primary in society, for good and for ill. The history of art is the history of human civilization.

And, if history is doomed to repeat itself, I want to know what’s coming. Because, if art history has taught me one thing, it’s that human’s tastes for the gaudy and shameless never really change.

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