Art History: Why study it? And what to do with it? AHA tutor Andy MacKay on his own experience.

During my years as an Art History undergraduate (St Andrews, 1998-2002) I frequently encountered a frustrating level of unawareness amongst friends concerning my future employment prospects. The most annoying question was ‘what can you do with an Art History degree?’ and I would furiously list, time and again, all the reasons – aside from the simple pleasure of studying something you love just for the sake of it – why everyone should at some point at least dip their brush into the ever-widening palette that is the history of art.

Burne-Jones, The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon (1881-98)

Art History is a unique subject and as a degree will undoubtedly prepare one for life and work unlike any other.  Essentially it is every subject rolled into one. Of course, the chemical analysis of pigment and stone, and the textural interest in surface and brushstroke provide invaluable information about the techniques employed over the centuries by artists, sculptors and architects. This materialist approach provides the traditional structure of an Art History degree – but it is what lies beyond this face-value approach which is most valuable to students. To understand a work of art one must see it within its cultural context and for this reason the study of Art History necessarily requires students to become cultural historians. Understanding the history of art requires a study of politics, philosophy, anthropology, archaeology, literature and poetry, design, fashion, chemistry, geometry, physiognomy and astronomy – the list could go on. Art historians are necessarily inter-disciplinarians and for this reason Art History is the broadest education one can receive. Ultimately, Art History is the study of civilisation; the preservation of human history, insight and ‘progress’.

Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Statuette (c. 1545)

I have always felt that paintings, sculptures and buildings hold secrets – privileged knowledge and expertise to be sure, but also secret meanings, hopes, desires and fantasies also. Art History is for me the study of meanings and ideologies. The ‘hook’ to draw one into a work of art can be anything which catches the eye or the heart. Once ‘in’, as it were, one can begin to exercise the eye, the heart and the mind. As a student, sitting in a darkened lecture hall or seminar room, the eye begins to re-learn the act of seeing. We live in a world of ever-multiplying images and we are the most visually literate generation to have ever existed on Earth. Yet perversely we often forget how to see – to really look, to really scrutinise the images and spaces which surround us, define us and manipulate us. Looking and seeing are very different actions. Looking is a routine part of everyday visual life; seeing employs not only the eye but also the heart and the mind. Contemplating a work of art is meditative at its best and through this discipline we can experience the primary quality of art – a purely sensual enjoyment of colour, texture, arrangement and form. Thoughtful mediation allows one also to ‘see through’ the work toward deeper meanings not immediately apparent. Here, somewhat ironically, we intellectualise art – a secondary approach often indeed more radical.  Art historians are ultimately critics (in the best sense of that description) for our discipline requires an alert eye, a sympathetic heart and a subtle mind. Without these three qualities, the Holy Trinity of Art History if you like, one is blind to the path of human history.

De Chirico, Hector and Andromache (1917)

Studying Art History gives one the time and space to consider that most perennial of questions: ‘what is art?’ Such a question is rather like asking ‘what is it to be a human?’ – it is almost, joyfully, unanswerable. I offer as a general assertion that the classification ‘art’ simply denotes a creative endeavour; the motivation of all people across centuries and cultures to comprehend life, the act of living, and of course death itself. Although the outcomes are often strikingly different, the desire to explore, create, question and assert is universal. We collectively confront the void, generation after generation. Answers to the questions of life and art may never be forthcoming but the asking is vital; the struggle defines us.

A love of culture in its ‘highest’ capitalised form as well as its ‘lowest’ and most ribald brings to living in the contemporary world an unparalleled clarity. Art historians are some of the most dynamic people I know: intellectuals as well as entrepreneurs. With the quietude to ‘see’, the insight to think and the requirement to act, an Art History graduate can expect much from life. As regards the verifiable outcomes of an Art History degree, they are myriad.

Kandinsky, Composition IV (1911)

The obvious and most well-trodden career paths will take you to auction houses and commercial galleries; here the questions of attribution and authenticity prevail, the ‘facts’ of art providing the necessary ‘figures’ as it were. Several art historian friends have gone into Law – their forensic minds well suited to the minutiae of rhetoric and balanced judgement. Journalism and publishing too attract the Art History graduate as an area in which the intellect must be creatively channelled into easily digestible products for mass consumption. Advertising and branding is in many ways the natural terrain of the art historian in that creative responsibilities require an intimate knowledge of visual signs, symbols and signifiers. Postgraduate study is generally required for curatorial careers where graduates become ‘interpreters’ of complex ideas for the general public – a role similar indeed to that of the teacher.

Dix, Sylvia von Harden (1926)

The heritage and preservation industries are naturally run by a large body of Art History graduates too; the gatekeepers of our collective memory. An international career in restoration would reward those art historians who value painstaking attention of detail and technique. Or there are research roles in documentary television and radio. Therefore, as few would question for example, the validity of the English Literature degree, more should recognise the very real quantifiable value, in life as well as work, of studying Art History.

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