A Brief History of Art History
Joseph Forte has seen different approaches to both learning and teaching in 26 years of teaching art history at the College.
“When I first arrived, the emphasis was much more on the personal styles of artists, the chronologies of their works and the formal qualities of their works,” he said.
“I would say it was a centripetal approach. It would go from the outside in.” Today’s approach, he said, is more centrifugal. “We start there and then try to branch out into three primary branches: the social context of art; the political uses of art; and the contact between art making and critical and philosophical ideas.’’
Art history in the 1930’s, he said, focused on “who did it and when.” By the 1940’s and 50’s, the discipline also considered, “What did ‘when’ mean?…It was not so much a date as a mentality: ‘Botticelli did this in 1489, and how is that representative of 1489?’”
In the 1960’s and 70’s, when the boundaries— and even the very definition—of art (and other media) were being questioned, Forte said, art history saw “very learned, somewhat esoteric approaches from people trained in Europe. Art was high culture inspired by other elements in high culture, like literature and idealist philosophy.
“From the Eighties until the present day, three new elements emerged,” Forte said. “First, the interest in vernacular and popular culture. Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ was not so much a complex allegory of humanist studies as a marriage painting that reflected Florentine fashion and court culture, as well as antique poetry. Second, the canon of art was broadened. Not only did we pay attention to Michelangelo’s David, but to his ephemeral sculpture, made from snow or simply sketched, and his workshop. He was no longer the lone artist, but a bit of an entrepreneur.
“Lastly, new ‘isms’ had their effect. Feminism, structuralism, as well as phenomenology in philosophy, became new interpretive tools. Ideas about objects and artists were not fixed or categorical, but complex and problematic. Today the challenge is to combine the best of the past methods with the innovative contemporary approaches.”