Art History for Smartasses: Looking Beyond Forms


In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…and ten minutes ago, I just created a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But this isn’t just any p.b. and j. …this has slices of fresh strawberries fit to snug in the middle like sweet little discoveries. It beats my brother’s sloppy peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich any day (a horrific creation that was probably mistakenly invented by a blind man). So what does any of this have to do with the grand pillars of art history? More than one could imagine.

What does peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich have to do with art  history?

What does peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich have to do with art history?

Why is there even a discipline called Art History? Why do people look at and study objects from so many different time spans and geographical regions? (Believe me, I asked the same thing after writing the millionth paper on some dead artist I will never meet). In this piece, I will attempt to partly answer (because someone will always think of some other point I didn’t mention) this question in a simplified manner. Simplifying may be considered “tricky” and “undisciplined” to “real” scholars. I know there will be people reading this that will want to make the point that the act of looking at art is an art form in itself (hello Professor Rigby, how’s the semester going?)…that its analysis of form and meaning are meant for the few. That you have to know and apply other disciplines like psychoanalysis, philosophy, semiotics, cosmetology (uh, well in rare cases if hair is involved), bowling (no, wait, sorry wrong article), and other far-reaching psycho-Babel.

Can you tell if this painting is a fake Vermeer? Answer: Si amigo!

Can you tell if this painting is a fake Vermeer? Answer: Si amigo!

That you have to wear a French beret and know how to pick out a fake Vermeer (Vermeer is the name of a dead Dutch painter, not the name of a major  Scandinavian appliance).  But screw that. You don’t have to be Einstein to talk about math…well, in my case, maybe you do…but you get my point. Art is of the people, by the people, and for the people …or was that something  we used to have called liberty?. Enough said.

Fooled again! As a kid, I thought all art historians lead the life of Indiana Jones.

Fooled again! As a kid, I thought all art historians lead the life of Indiana Jones.

So what propelled Art History from being just some curious knucklehead looking at an object to a whole field that involves experts and time lines and classifications (and dark lecture rooms where you can nap)? Back to my peanut butter and jelly sandwich example.  Just as my brother seems to enjoy one type of sandwich,  and I another, people study more than one type of object or one type of aesthetic because humans like having a variety of tastes to choose from.  It’s not that my brother only likes peanut butter and mayo. He would go for my p.b.and j. in a heartbeat (that and the rest of the fridge too). It’s not any one sandwich type itself. It is the fact that people like knowing there will always be something else we have yet to discover to sink our teeth (and eyes, and hands and..) into. Picture Indiana Jones looking for the Holy Grail just to find that he has to fight off Nazis for it. It’s that hunger, curiosity, and search for a new experience that drove Capitalist societies to thrive on this “consuming”. Thus, it makes sense that the art historical discipline and the art market was born in the Western World and grew bigger with the widening of education, tastes, nationalities,  and  cultural as well as economic backgrounds.

"Olympia" by Edouard Manet (1863)

“Olympia” by Edouard Manet (1863)

"Le dejeuner sur l'herbe" by Edouard Manet (1863)

“Le dejeuner sur l’herbe” by Edouard Manet (1863)

Still, that fails to answer the question “What the hell is the point of studying art?” Does art history serve any purpose other than requiring its students to memorize what Manet painted in 1863 (no, not Monet…Manet!) and how art patron Peggy Guggenheim wanted to lay some of the great artists she praised (Duchamp and Pollock to name a couple).  Believe me, there were days sitting in darken lecture rooms where my professor would go on for 20 minutes about the meaning behind the shape of a square when I wanted to quit art history and study nursing where I thought I could be of better service in this world. Thankfully for the sake of humanity,  I did not get an R.N. degree, otherwise I would just crawl in bed next to my patients hoping to get pampered too.

So here is my very simplified list. Leave a comment and add to it if you’d like.

WARNING! BIAS ALERT! BIAS ALERT! It’s crucial to consider from whose perspective all this art analysing stems from. Now dig in.

1) Studying art historical objects tells us about a certain time, place, and people (at least this is the aim).

How scary is this thought? When art historians in the year 3030 dig up Happy Meal toys, what will they think we were like? That we lived in a world of plastic? (well we kinda do)  That we were tiny people? (some of us are for a while anyway) That we must have carried them around as good luck charms? Oh no. Goes to prove, art historians aren’t always right.

Future art relics?

Future art relics?

2) Art history also widens our appreciation for differing forms, varying aesthetics, and sometimes the cultures that created them.

It’s nice to be able to appreciate graffiti, at least some of it. This wasn’t always the case. The same could be said of Islamic calligraphy which in some places many years ago was considered blasphemous, esp. to Catholic crusaders. Two totally differing manners of communication for totally differing purposes  (or not?). Art appreciation encourages tolerance. In some ways its been more successful in its aim in that category than some religious folk have, I am sorry to say.

A London work by graffiti artist Bansky

A London work by graffiti artist Bansky

3) Art historians attempt to give meaning to the meaningless. They attempt to decode what most people would overlook in a painting, an old piece of pottery, or a strange object that may not be easily classifiable or identifiable.

You could say this is a form of professional bullshitting. Like a good salesman, scholars are there. But then I think of a humbling image like Van Gogh’s painting “A Pair of Shoes”. At first, it is what it seems:  just a painting of a pair of beaten down, scruffy old boots in drab grays. As you might have guessed it, this painting never sold in the painter’s lifetime. No one would think to see something in such a mundane object at the time, except the visionary (Sir Vincent) himself. The work finally falls upon the luck of someone to decode it, to better promote what the image could be about. One doesn’t have to like the painting. The art historian’s main aim is to help others understand it, to better experience it.

"A Pair of Shoes" by Vincent Van Gogh (1886)

“A Pair of Shoes” by Vincent Van Gogh (1886)

4) Lastly, but what I think is the most important and empowering reason for engaging in the art historical discipline is its ability to cultivate one’s imagination (the crucial faculty to initiate manifestation).

It wasn’t til a couple of months after I graduated with my fu-fu (and career challenging) degree that I realized something (no, not my student debt). I started really looking at things differently…literally. A table wasnt just a table anymore. An otherwise disregarded piece of trash randomly laying on the street began to form itself into an abstract design in my head. It pleased me. It entertained me. Even looking at the shapes and lines in my hands held some sort of fascination (ok, lock her up now…we are losing her).  Years of looking at so much art trained my eye to see and analyze the world around me, to consider what shaped it, and how it is always in flux. It made me realize the power of the imagination and the incredible potential man has in creating something that at one point ceased to exist. This creative potential is something that can be applied beyond the plastic arts…into all areas and genres of life:  from the way we style our hair, to the way we design our blog, to the way we make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Art History forever gives you the permission to THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX, THE CIRCLE, THE TRIANGLE, even beyond forms.

Just don’t ask me to sketch it out for you! I will leave that to the artists.


4 responses

  1. You have a great voice in your blog. You’re funny and you make several points everything I drop in to read what you have. One question: Peanut Butter and Mayo? Your brother must have the stomach of iron.
    One more thing. When you wrote about seeing the potential in everything once you finished the class, I totally got that. That’s how I feel when I see something on the street. There’s an instant story behind it. Such potential.

  2. Thanks Atiya for the feedback. Im glad I dont sound like the only one who sees beyond the obvious.

  3. […] Art History for Smartasses: Looking Beyond Forms ( […]

  4. very Nice Collection of paintings… too good

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