What can Art History do for you?
There are lots of weird flavour combinations out there – peanut butter and jam, bacon and maple syrup, beetroot and chocolate, strawberries and cheese, but my favourite pairing has to be Art History and art practice.
Art Historians are often asked: what is the use or relevance of studying Art History? Why does it matter? All those works of art and images! All those foreign-sounding names and terms! All that reading! Art History can seem unusually daunting but it’s really all about asking what you see, how you interpret it (there are no right or wrong answers!), and equipping you with the skills you need to confidently analyse, critique and write about art.
Although the approaches may differ, and the emphases fall in differing places, the concern with visual, material, performative and other forms of cultural practice is central to both Art History and practice-based art courses. It is important that students in practical disciplines study the works of other practitioners past and present to locate their practice in an evolving historical context, just as it is important for Art History students to gain insight into the processes and practices that result in the artefacts, buildings, environments and other objects of study.
Art History aims to develop your ‘visual literacy’ and encourages you to explore both the traditional arts – painting, drawing, sculpture, architecture and print-making – and a wide spectrum of other media: photography, video art, installation etc. Thinking about the relationship between art and society, you might be asked to consider how a work of art was made, who it was made for and why, how people understood it originally, and how interpretations of the work have changed over time. Art History also enables you to investigate current issues in the visual arts (touching on a wide range of theoretical and methodological perspectives and debates), and the ways in which specific trends can be understood, evaluated and presented.
By harnessing your new knowledge of a variety of artistic techniques and styles to feed and improve your own material, you will not only be able to better appreciate who is important to you in your practice but you will have a more astute awareness of the interpretations your work can induce. In other words, Art History can give you an invaluable set of mental tools to navigate your own ideas and discuss, conceptualise and reflect on your own emerging practice more effectively.
When it comes to employing Art History to feed and nurture independent artistic activity, the experiences of a couple of former students really stick out for me. The first student, enrolled on the OCA’s photography degree, used the flexible nature of the Art History course to focus on the work of Andy Goldsworthy. By meaningfully engaging with the artist’s technical cleverness (including ‘bracketing’ of exposures), and referencing their own practical experiments, they showed how a photograph can become both a performance space and an art object itself. The second student, working towards a degree in textiles, produced an extremely perceptive and thoughtful set of responses to Klimt’s use of pattern, texture and ornament, by carefully relating the composition of works such as the famous Kiss to the weaving together of threads to create complex, unified designs.
Drawing from the domains of practice and theory, you can delve into new areas of interest, structure your understanding of art and contemporary discourse, develop your own artistic language, as well as question accepted patterns and processes of thought. By recognising the importance of being critically aware of your subject position and broader social and cultural contexts, as well as what it means to be creative, you can become more intellectually and creatively ambitious in your art practice.
Whether you are studying Art History as a discrete unit or fully integrating it within the main practice-based subjects that form part of the Creative Arts pathway, paying attention to Art History can pay off. OK, so I’m not sure about the peanut butter and jam mixture, but Art History and photography, drawing, textiles, or painting? They are combinations that work every time.
Images: Michelangelo, David (detail), 1501-4, Gustav Klimt, The Kiss (detail), c. 1907