Friday, May 25, 2012

how art history ruined how we think about art

I have had some ideas swirling around in my mind recently about art and art history and how art is presented. Consider this a rant of sorts, or how I wish that art wasn't introduced to most young minds as a timeline, a history. There's got to be a better way to teach art.

Art doesn't have to snobbish by nature. It is for the people. Cave paintings weren't done to appeal to the Neanderthal cognoscenti. Of course, there's always a critic, so I'm sure even the artists of Lascauax had their bad reviews. Michelangelo wasn't an elitist. He had a vision and a drive to create. He also had a need to support himself. It is only in more recent times, when writing and thinking about art became almost equal to art-making that it became such an elitist activity, and art a commodity.

Art became expensive, and was commissioned for pharaohs, kings and popes, before the idle rich were able to afford it for their drawing rooms. It was also spiritual, attached to temples, cathedrals, the modern versions of cave walls. It had a bit of magic about it. But when art detached itself from the sacred and became art for art's sake, the historians and artists had to justify their art-making, to try to keep it exalted somehow. Art theory was born. And soon art history, presented as an implied progression, began to be taught in art schools.

Janson and Gardner are still the chosen texts designed to promote the concept of a progressive timeline of creativity:
Gardner's Art Through the Ages:
"The first edition published in 1926 ... It, like all following editions, was organized chronologically beginning with "The Birth of Art" in the Upper Paleolithic and progressing in a mainly chronological sequence to the contemporary period. ... It continues to be a required text for introductory classes in art history for American students to this day." — Wikipedia

We are sill arguing about how the Great Pyramid of Giza was constructed. Egyptian temples and world museums are full of amazing Egyptian artifacts, but art students were taught that Egyptian artists couldn't depict a figure in three dimensions in a painting, but instead created a stylized presentation of the human body, including a face in profile with the torso in a frontal position. This concept of how Egyptians "saw" in 2D never quite matched other Egyptian artistic achievements, like their architecture and realistic-looking three-dimensional sculpture.

There's is nothing wrong with guiding young minds to look at great art. Or to give them the language to discuss it and to think about it. It's OK to present it chronologically, I suppose, but not as one age inheriting and bettering the next. Artists should also be free to make their own connections; connect to art from any era, and not be made to believe that the Temple of Hatshepsut leads to Greek sculpture, which progresses to Michelangelo, Impressionism, Pollock, and so on.

Artists are definitely influenced by their predecessors, but we shouldn't assume that Degas wouldn't or couldn't exist without classical painting. He would have found his way, even if all he had ever seen were Japanese prints. Why do we tend to believe that we know more now than those that came before us? People have traveled the world for eons. We may do it faster now, and have iPhones and McDonalds and all sorts of other nifty toys and advances, but that doesn't automatically make us smarter or more talented.

We are all creatures of our time. Art in the ancient era may be about different ideas, and come from different a impetus to create, but it is not more primitive.
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