The Logic of Art History Study

Blog post by Dr. Melody Davis

The Logic of Art History Study


I remember my first art history class.  Somewhere between awe and panic for the process, I decided that I had better be very studious, very organized, and develop a method—or drown.  Dr. Kirk Varnedoe was kindly, brilliant, strict, and his expectations, well, I just thought art historians were crazy.  But I never forgot Varnedoe’s class, not a bit.  It was my first step to becoming a historian of photography.   I will never ask my students to commit to memory a whole library cart (2 shelves!) of reserve reading, but I did not dislike Varnedoe for asking it of us.  I understood that being asked to perform at a level beyond anything I’d ever experienced was an honor of sorts.  My professor knew I could do it, even if I did not, and his faith in his students allowed me to have confidence, even pride, in myself.   I had no idea I would become an art historian.  Somehow the method included me in a way I could not foresee at the time by privileging capacities I did not suspect I had.  I did not get an “A” in the class, but neither did I drown.

The vast majority of my students will not become art historians.   Yet, we art historians train students as though they might enter the profession.  This is not misplaced trust.  You see, most of us were exactly like our students at one time, asking why this or that is necessary.   Why do we need to know so many gene sequences in cellular biology, all the muscles in physiology, chords and endless scales in music, the innumerable varieties of grass in botany, or house flies in zoology?  The reason for this taxonomic approach is so one understands the alphabet that forms the terminology, which gives shape to the foundational classes and concepts, and each field has many of these, a crazy large number, in fact.   As for works of art, the historian must be able to locate a new or unfamiliar work against his mental “data base” of forms, which have been studied in comparison with other works in the same age, school, or class.  We call these large containers period styles.  Each is a language of visual form, a script, if you like.   In order to understand the script, an example of each letter must be committed to memory.  It is no good if we skip learning some letters, for how then would we read the forms when we encountered them?  We simply wouldn’t understand, because we could not read.

Every art historian plays this game:  we walk through museums, and as we enter a room we mentally label works of art at a glance, even for periods where we are not specialists.  Then, most of us catch ourselves at this automatic self-quizzing and stop and just enjoy, which is the first and best response to art.   Such games are a pedantic hold-over from necessary training, for in each of our respective fields we are expected to locate, identify, compare, contrast differences, and be able to discourse a bit on what we encounter, even if it has never been studied or written about before.   And this is the really fun part, especially for photo historians like me.  There is no shortage of works that have never been studied or identified, and mysteries are opportunities to unlock great stories, but one must first be able to read some code.  A language, said a famous linguist, is just differences in terms.  But you can’t see the differences until you know the similarities.

It takes a lot of patience, and professors understand that young people are at times short on this.   People want fast results, and here is art history asking you to slow down, absorb details, create categories, pour over your book and learn a whole new foreign language rather quickly.    Tests can be exasperating, for you are being judged, and everybody feels that he is falling short somehow.  If a student can step back from the fear of judgment and the competition, there is a chance to enter the flow.  You’ll know you’re there when you lose yourself in a book and can’t get enough of looking at the illustrations.  They will come alive for you, and a whole culture, which is likely very dead, will breathe for you in the works it created, and nobody ever dies, at least not while their stuff is able to be read by inquisitive minds.  To know a people is to know their forms.

Now imagine all the works of art that have ever been created in the history of woman and man.  A few courses and you can begin to place a healthy number of these works in the right geographic region, round about the right time, perchance with a specific artist, because the forms repeat.  You don’t need to see every Rembrandt self-portrait to recognize one.  Art repeats, and forms follow predecessors with consistency, just  as when you hear Spanish, it sounds Spanish.  This similarity within variation is what we call culture.  You will be amazed at how much you can learn to identify and say something about works of art from all over the world within 2 semesters.  And if you don’t become an art historian?  You will learn how to process information, categorize quantities of data for assimilation, analyze from large concept to small detail and vice versa, observe closely and discuss from concentrated comparison, contrast and compare across groups, show the evolution of an idea over time, apply theory to form as a method of interpretation, and locate in visual markers cultural identity.

I am reminded of J., who started out as a student who simply hated to study, eventually became a good student and landed a great job, where he claimed his art history classes helped him to succeed.  When confronted with a mountain of coding manuals to learn, he pretended it was an art history test.  He claimed he couldn’t have done it without art history training.  I run into people all the time, like my car mechanic, who over greasy hands begin to rhapsodize over Turner’s paintings of locomotives.  Art history does this to people:  it changes them for good and brings out capacities they never expected they had.  That is why we ask students to distinguish between madonnas or churches, rather than showing one madonna, one church.  It is a good start to becoming a professional, whether it’s art history, coding manuals, graphic design, or nursing.  The logic is one of sharpening the mind to make distinctions that shape culture while also preparing the student to forge ahead into regions a bit familiar but mostly unknown.  You can say that through history we make history.