Art History: Is It Real?

Leo Segedin   |   December 12, 2018 |   Print this essay

Quite simply, art history consists of the words that art historians write about objects they identify as works of art. All cultures have created objects, but the ones considered by art historians to be art objects are choices they make, according to their assumptions about the nature of art. For example, an African mask in the Field Museum is an ethnographic, not an art object. It was of little interest to art historians, until it became a work of art in the Art Institute. Also, art historians will probably be writing about a cigarette butt, which had been exhibited by Damien Hirst in a British art gallery; in an ashtray, it is garbage. Since we have no doubt that Michelangelo was a great artist, what does his ‘Last Judgment’, an African mask and Hirst’s cigarette butt have in common other than they all are likely to appear in art history texts? Also, consider that, although thousands of painters and sculptors make and exhibit their art every day, only those selected by art historians will become part of art history. The rest disappear. Art historians do not usually determine what is exhibited in art galleries and museums, but it is their words in art history texts which establish which exhibited objects will be considered as works of art by future readers. This paper is about the words they use.


Traditionally, along with investigating the provenance of individual works of art, art historians find, label and analyze similarities between such works. They call such similarities styles. The art historian, James Ackerman wrote:
We can use the concept of style as a way of characterizing relationships among works of art that were made at the same time and/or place by the same person or group.
Style is thus defined as ‘constant form’, as a ‘pattern of relationships’, or formal likenesses. Such notions of style assume that when works of art are arranged in chronological order, they will reveal a basic pattern, reflecting some dynamic, usually autonomous, evolutionary process thought to be beyond the control of the artist. To these art historians, all works of art must fit into some stylistic slot in time and space.


Historically, the dominant paradigm for stylistic change in Western art has been biological. As far back as the sixteenth century, the biographer, Giorgio Vasari, maintained that style, “like human bodies, has, a birth, a growth, an aging, and a death”. Visual characteristics which the paradigm required were seen as existing in the work of art itself. Thus, works of art were perceived as ‘generating’ a new style, of representing its ‘flowering’ or ‘maturation’ or as exhibiting ‘decadent’ qualities. In this paradigm, the art preceding the Renaissance, which was called Gothic, was an ‘’abomination” and the later, non-classical phases of European art appeared to be ‘immature’ or ‘over-ripe’. This biological paradigm seemed to fit the arts of antiquity and the Renaissance quite well. and, as long as one included only such art, the issue of what was art or style was barely raised. As long as this paradigm was unchallenged, its assumptions about and explanations of works of art were accepted as being real and true. Objects which did not fit the paradigm were simply not considered to be ‘art.’ (1)


Art history didn't become the academic discipline it is now until the 19th century, primarily in Germany, with the development of art museums. Until then, there was no thought of national or period styles, no consideration of entities like 'Renaissance' or 'Baroque' art. According to the few Italian historians who wrote about art in the 16th century, to the north were the barbaric abominations of the Gothic cathedrals and from outside Europe, the primitive, heathen sculptures of the Aztecs and Incas. Western art history consisted of occasional, idiosyncratic biographies of early Italian artists and descriptions of the objects they made. Although, by the 18th century, art historians discussed 'Schools' of painting in the many independent, Italian city-states, like Florence and Siena, there was no national, Italian art, since there was no Italian nation.

Although most contemporary art historians identify the 'Renaissance as a period of cultural enlightenment, existing in Italy from 1400 to 1520, no one living during this period was aware of it. Vasari, in his writing about major Italian artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo in the middle of the 16th century, never labeled them 'Renaissance' artists. French and English writers had used the term in the early part of the 19th century, but the idea of 'Renaissance' as an identifiable period did not appear in historical literature until the middle of the 19th century, first, with the French historian, Jules Michelet in 1855, and then in 1860, when the Swiss historian, Jacob Burkhardt, further articulated the concept. Today, however, some art historians challenge this concept. They claim that the ‘dark ages’ previous to the Renaissance were not so dark and, although there were major changes in the arts, that Western society afterwards was not more enlightened. According to British historian, Jeremy Brotton,: “The problem with the approach of both Michelet and Burckhardt to the Renaissance is that it reflected their own 19th-century world, characterized by European imperialism, industrial expansion, the decline of the church, and a romantic vision of the role of the artist in society.” In other words, the assumption of the Renaissance is a myth, reflecting the biases of 19th century art historians. (2) This notion of "style" also had a historical as well as a cultural bias. The Renaissance assumption was that Western art history began with the ancient Greeks. It idealized the assumed superiority of Classical Greek and Roman sculpture, which appeared to art historians to have been originally white, a popular assumption that continues today. In the 18th century, Johann Winckelmann, the German scholar who is often called the father of art history, contended that “the whiter the body, the more beautiful it was”. To establish this myth of Western superiority, art historians ignored the fact that such sculpture was not only originally polychrome, but was also multi-racial. Contradicting this myth, the early Greeks were not ‘Caucasian’ white; dark skin was valued over white. Several Roman emperors were African, as was evident from their portrait sculpture. To maintain this myth, when the remains of previously brightly colored paint were discovered on Classical sculpture, such as the Elgin marbles in the British Museum, it was scrubbed off.

However, as France and England expanded their power into Egypt and the Middle East in the 18th and 19th centuries, Western scholars became aware of how diverse the arts of the ancient, non-Western world were. How explain the radical differences between Michelangelo's sculpture of David, a monumental statue of Ramses III in Egypt or the human-headed, winged bulls at the gates of Assyrian palaces? Art historians concluded that such art works were either failed attempts to achieve Western standards or did not have the same goals. Ultimately, they decided that, while different and inferior to what was produced in the West, these works represented the highest achievements and, therefore, the essence of the great civilizations of the past.

By the 19th century, along with language, art became thought of as an essential aspect of national, cultural and even racial identity. The German art historian, Karl Schnaase in 1848, maintained that: Art is the central activity of peoples. In art, all aspirations and feelings, spiritual, moral and material, come into the most intimate contact and define themselves. Therefore, art provides the means to measure and determine the direction and strength of these individual potentials.

Art was thus seen as representing the fundamental, identifying psychology of entire 'peoples'. The German art historian, Alois Reigl, suggested that each 'people' had its own mode of perception, its own what he called 'will to form', which permeated everything it did. Another German art historian, Wilhelm Worringer, distinguished between 'types of man'. There was, for example, Classical Man, in the southern Greek tradition, who was serene, at peace with nature, concerned with appearances and which presented a harmonious reflection of the world. There was also the Northern Man, who was subjective, empathetic, expressing uneasiness and terror before a hostile environment, who emotionally distorts nature, feels self-contempt, etc. As late as 1960, Werner Haftmann, in his popular art history text, 'Painting in the Twentieth Century', continued this distinction. There is, he wrote, a Mediterranean Mode which includes the French, Italian, Spanish and also Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism and Futurism. This Mode has rationality, harmony and sensitivity. There is also the Germanic or Nordic Mode, which includes Expressionism, the Bauhaus and the Blue Rider. This Mode is subjective, metaphysical and speculative.

This idea that so called 'peoples', 'nations' and 'races' can be identified by their inherent, psychological characteristics, reflected in their art, thus had 'nationalistic' and therefore, political implications. It certainly substantiated the development of 19th century European nationalism, especially among the many independent, German speaking principalities and duchies where efforts were being made to unify them into a single, German nation. Germany in the mid-18th century consisted of 294 states or 2,303 territories and jurisdictions as well as being divided among Lutherans, Calvinists and Catholics. Other than language, what did they all have in common? Art history became a respected, academic discipline in German and Austrian universities, supported by the state, partially as a result of German art historians' efforts to find that commonality in art history. They sought to identify the essential, unifying characteristics of all art produced by German speaking people, determine what distinguished it from the styles of other nationalities and races and, of course, what made it superior. The history of art thus became the story of the art of a 'people' having the same assumed racial and ethnic origins. Such art was described as having developed from tribal beginnings in the dark and misty, primal past into the high, cultural levels achieved in contemporary German painting and sculpture. In this categorization, even the "Gothic' French cathedral was idealized and adopted as German architecture. Such identification probably became a way of compensating for German sense of inferiority in relation to the then internationally famous Impressionism of the French art world. This new 'biological' paradigm also became a rationale for the notion of 'inferior races', a validation for racial stereotyping. It was also used to justify anti-Semitism. To demean Jewish culture, it created the myth that Jews were not permitted to make images because of the Second Commandment.

Western art in the 19th century not only no longer served practical or even educational functions. It had become a search for metaphysical Truth as revealed by great Art. Great art was characterized by its spiritual, religious qualities, meaning, of course, Christian, German Art. Here is the German, Christian philosopher, Georg Hegel, in the 1820s, on Art: In works of art, the nations have deposited their richest inner intuitions and ideas, and art is often the key, and in many nations, the sole key, to understanding their philosophy and religion. Art shares this vocation with religion and philosophy, but in a special way, namely by displaying highest (reality) sensuously, bring it thereby nearer to the senses, to feeling, and to nature's mode of appearance.


Underlying this belief in the superiority of German art was the ‘fine art’ paradigm, the assumption that painting and sculpture formed a unique category of objects, superior to and separate from the crafts. In this paradigm, the fine arts were seen to have unique aesthetic qualities, not evident in other, man-made objects. The concept of beauty, previously a general philosophical concept, was now applied to the arts. The paradigm rejected their previous practical functions. By the 18th century, the fine arts had become an autonomous activity, with its own philosophy and history. It allowed German art historians to use art history as a unique indicator of German superiority, but this notion of the fine art’s autonomy was soon adopted by other Western art historians. As a result of the fine art paradigm, art was distinguished from artifact, the artist, from artisan. Paintings were removed from monasteries, churches and palaces and placed in newly established US and European art museums where they were treated as unique, functionless, almost holy icons. Wall decorations in Roman brothels, Renaissance bedrooms and palaces became “works of art’ in these new museums.

Although artists during this period also worked as architects, stage, costume and military fortification designers, art historians treated painting and painters as of higher, cultural significance. No longer a mere manual laborer, the artist became an inspired genius. The identity of individual artists became important; originality and authenticity became values. As a result, even today, we don’t consider the expression, personality and biography of furniture makers; we do that of painters like Van Gogh and Michelangelo.

The first emphasis of these historians in the 18th century was on the formal aspects of Classical sculpture, but, as painting and sculpture deviated more from Renaissance norms, art history was revised to include the more expressive forms of the Baroque, Romantic and Expressionist periods.

To the first art historians, the term ‘expression’ was applied only to the subjects represented in the paintings, but, by the 19th century, as part of the fine art paradigm, it became identified as the expression of the artist who made the paintings and of the paintings themselves. It still is. In the early 20th century, Freud and Jung intensified this notion by introducing an assumed subconscious content to images, such as stream of consciousness, dreams, frottage, which, they maintained, reflected the subconscious of the artist. And when images made by Chinese and African artists were converted into museum art by Western art historians, the concept of expression was revised to include them. Any deviation from traditional, representational art was considered to be expressive. Picasso, Gaugin and other early 20th century artists were influenced be what they perceived to be the expressive qualities of what was called ‘primitive’ art.


Some academic art historians claim that "art history is a science with definite principles and techniquesÉ." and present their discipline as “an objective study of the development of painting, sculpture and architecture.” Although recognizing that interpretation and judgment may occasionally play a part, these historians did not acknowledge the extent to which such history had been limited to categorizing, labeling and interpreting particular, usually European, works of art in terms of national art styles and periods, relating the works of individual artists within these categories and arranging them in developmental chronologies. Only since the 1960s has the art of the Far East, Africa and Oceana, and during the last 30 years, that the art of women, Australian Aborigine, Hispanic and Black American artists, which did not fit such categorization, qualified as categories for inclusion. Although words can point to aspects of a painting that we would otherwise miss, the words art historians used often demeaned images which didn’t fit them. Since they cannot be verified by observation, words like style, beauty, expression, aesthetic and primitive, are not objective descriptions of images, but rather reflect the perception implicit in art historical paradigms. When such words are applied to works outside these paradigms, they transformed the way they are seen, often distorting and confusing perception. They lead the viewer to look for, see and judge characteristics which were not intended and miss those that were. In the same way, generalizations about style also can become substitutes for vision, as when Impressionism rather than the specific, very different qualities of paintings by Monet and Degas are made. Names like 'Gothic', 'Baroque', and later, 'Impressionism' and 'Cubism', labeled images which did not have traditional representational qualities. In that they often were based on misconceptions and misperceptions, these labels were not only negative judgments. For example, compared to traditional, representational painting, Impressionist paintings were seen by some art critics at the time as incomplete impressions. I n 1863, the French art critic, Albert Wolff, wrote about Impressionist painters in the Salon de Refuse Exhibition: Try to make MonsieurÊPissarroÊunderstand that trees are not violet, that sky is not the color of fresh butter” adding “try to explain to MonsieurÊRenoirÊthat a woman’s torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh with those purplish-green stains”. Of course, Wolf was being judgmental, but his judgement was based on a misperception. He saw the color of light reflected off an object as the color of the object itself.

Such words certainly were not intended to apply to non-Western art objects which were not designed to be to be seen as works of art in art museums. In order to include African masks and Oceanic spears, art historians had to rationalize the fact that these cultures had no concept of art as a separate, fine art activity.

Inappropriate qualities can be projected into paintings, not only distorting the way they were seen, but also misleading their economic value. To illustrate this point: the following is from a popular art textbook, Art and Civilization, by Bernard Meyers, about a painting called “The Man in a Golden Helmet”, formerly attributed to Rembrandt: Rembrandt’s ability to evoke spiritual contemplation, to fathom the depths of the soul and its identification with the universe is felt in such a work as the celebrated “Man in a Golden Helmet”. Unfortunately for Professor Meyers, the painting wasn’t by Rembrandt. Even though some people continue to believe that the painting is beautiful and profound, when it was de-attributed in 1985, its value fell from $8 million to $377 thousand. Also, since the number of paintings attributed to Rembrandt has ranged from 48 to 988, it is obvious that the issue of ‘originality’ and value is of more than academic interest. In 1937, a painting, enthusiastically announced by the art historian, Abraham Bredius, to be a major discovery of a painting by the great Dutch master, Johannes Vermeer, had ‘marvelous qualities’ which it lost in 1947, when it was determined to be a fake by Van Meegeren. Today, nobody sees much similarity between Vermeer’s and Van Meegeren’s paintings and when the forgery was discovered, the painting lost millions of dollars in value. When the words changed, its appearance and value changed. (3)


Art history, thus is not an objective, scientific consideration of objects universally identified as works of art, but consists of objects which reflect the perceptions of art historians. Artists don’t make art history: art historians do. Artists make art.

Art historians must now consider, not only the works of Rembrandt and Michelangelo, but also paleolithic cave painting, Egyptian tomb painting, Assyrian gate sculpture, Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian art, African, Oceanic, Native American artifacts, Pop art. Op art, minimal and conceptual art, neo-realism, land art, body art, video, performance, installation, and so on. (3) The word, ’fine’ has disappeared from the ‘fine arts’. According to the conceptual artist, Bruce Nauman, anything an artist does in his studio is ‘art’. Like religious relics authenticated by church authorities, the high status of objects identified as art by art authorities dominates the art market today. The economic value of such objects is due entirely to their status as art. Since such objects have nothing in common, art historians are having a hard time finding words to describe what makes them all works of art. Of course, as long as university art history departments require scholarly theses for PHDs, I am sure they will find them.


(1) Vasari was the first to label the architecture of preceding centuries “Gothic,” in reference to the Nordic tribes that overran the Roman empire in the sixth century. Vasari implied that this architecture was debased, especially compared to that of his own time.

• He wrote:

Then arose new architects who after the manner of their barbarous nations erected buildings in that style which we call Gothic (dei Gotthi).” The term, Baroque, used to describe European art of the 16th and 17th centuries, originally meant "irregularly shaped”, referring to pearls.)

(2) Although an artistic transformation from Medieval, non-illusionary art to a 15th century renaissance, a rebirth of Classical realism in the arts in Florence did occur, it was not part of a general secular, social transformation. The assumption of ‘Renaissance’ isolates the arts and does not consider the impact of trade, finance, science and the influence of Byzantium and other Eastern cultures on society. And it is also oblivious to the loss of status of women during this period.

(3) Here is Bredius on what he saw in Van Meegeren’s ‘Christ at Emmaus’, with Vermeer’s forged signature:

It is a wonderful moment in the life of a lover of art when he finds himself suddenly confronted with a hitherto unknown painting of a great master, untouched, on the original canvas, and without any restoration, just as it left the painter’s studio! And what a picture! … . The subject is Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus and the colors are magnificent Ð and characteristic: Christ in a splendid blue; the disciple on the left, whose face is barely visible, in a fine grey; the other disciple on the left in yellow — the yellow of the famous Vermeer at Dresden, but subdued so that it remains in perfect harmony with the other colors. The servant is clad in dark brown and dark grey; her expression is wonderful. Expression, indeed, is the most marvelous quality of this unique picture. Outstanding is the head of Christ, serene and sad, as he thinks of all the suffering which He, the Son of God, had to pass through in His life on earth, yet full of goodness…
• In 1965, the Art Institute exhibited near its entrance a large photograph of the body artist, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, mutilating his genitals. Since it was a photograph and not an actual object, the photograph was called ‘documentation art’. Art historians will be writing about a shark preserved in formaldehyde at The Met and rocks in New York City art galleries.

An issue which is ignored by art historians is how we see and know works of art. When I took art history courses at the U of I in the 1940s, I learned to identify artists by their styles, their dates and Influences. I learned to arrange them in historical chronology. I learned to recognized paintings, such as Michelangelo’s Las Judgement’ in the Sistine Chapel, by looking at black and white slide projections in dark classrooms and in small, black and white reproductions in art texts. Those slides and texts were all that were available at the time, but, as a result, I knew great works of art only in black and white. Years later, an art history teacher I knew refused to use available color slides in his courses because he had learned to see, and therefore knew, the art works only in black and white. I remember the pleasure I felt in seeing the original masterpieces in the Jeu De Paume in Paris in 1973 and the disappointment I felt when I later saw them in the Musee’ D’orsay, mixed with mediocre pieces, arranged in chronological order. Their wonderful, individual qualities were subordinated to historical sequence.

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