The Importance of Art History?


Admittedly, art history is probably the weakest area in my teaching.  It is something that I have never had an interest in studying.  It was one of the hardest art courses I took at both colleges I attended.  I have never figured out a way to really make the incorporation into my classes fun, interesting, and worthwhile.

It is an area that I am “supposed” to bring into my classroom.  It is part of the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) I must adhere to when creating my lesson plans.  I have skated around it for the past 7+ years saying that I add in art history by doing this activity or that activity.  At the beginning, every lesson had an art history component.  I don’t think the kids ever really made the connection between what we were doing and the artist or genre we were “studying”.  In fact, I don’t think they really cared.  Over time, I changed the activity about 7 times…that works out to be some new way to bring it in every year.  I was exhausted.

So, just how important is it that we teach our kids about what came before them?  As an artist, I usually don’t go looking into the past when working.  I am concerned about the now.  When I read about who artists were influenced by, they are usually contemporaries of that artist.  Rarely have I read that an artist was influenced by another artist that came 100 years before them.  This is not to say it doesn’t happen.  I am sure it does…I just haven’t read about it that much.  Many of the artists that I like were/are pushing the envelope of what was occurring at their time or maybe a few years before them…but still to them, contemporary.

So, it is more important that we drone on about the past or that we introduce them to what is happening today?  I lean towards the latter.  I am not dead-set in this opinion.  Convince me that I need to continue to rack my brain figuring out how to incorporate art history more that showing images of artwork that illustrates a theme.  Tell me why–beyond because it is important to learn what came before.  Tell me that it is more important to know these things for something more than being able to answer questions on Jeopardy or Trivia Crack.


“Art needs to be socialised, and you need a lot of context to understand that, and that doesn’t mean having read a few art history books.”                                 ~Peter M. Brant

3 responses »

  1. As artists, we learn by looking. To understand the “now,” one must understand where “now” came from. Those who don’t look to the past to understand how our “now” has developed and the possibilities of what is to come might not appreciate the “now.” Many contemporary artists reflect on the past; some works even include infamous artworks from the past–I am certain you can think of many. But, keep in mind, art history is also a study of what has been happening in our current culture too; contemporary works will become historic as well. Do we want our future societies to understand our concepts of today? Will they if we don’t include the importance of history?

  2. As an art historian I will admit up front to my complete and utter bias. I was never taught about art history in school and the first time I entered an art museum at age 25 I was instantly electrified with curiosity! From a purely aesthetic viewpoint, I wanted to know why one artist used globs and slashes of brilliant colors (Van Gogh) while another artist’s canvas had somber fractured images (Picasso). And what was up with all the ancient marble statues? I started checking books out at my local library to learn more, and I was dismayed that I had never been introduced to this world of beauty before!

    Art also makes history come alive and helps me learn about my shared humanity with those from ages past, both the creators and consumers of art. For instance, what can the Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles tell us about the history of female nudity and the male gaze? Art can tell us so much about the society that produces it and consequently about ourselves.

    Without learning about the art of the past, how can we view modern/contemporary art with any sort of discernment? How many times have we heard people who are uneducated in art say some version of “I could have painted that”, but of course they didn’t! Jackson Pollock or whoever painted it at that moment in time in response to a certain creative zeitgeist of the time. Is a Thomas Kincaid painting as good as a Monet? They each paint pastel colored landscapes and to the person ignorant of any art history, a Kincaid looks good!

    Anyway, I’m sure I could go on and on, so forgive me if this is too long.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response. I have enjoyed hearing what others think on the matter. While my mind is not completely changed, I am trying to figuring out how to incorporate the why certain things happenwd into my classroom. I think understanding that can be more beneficial than jus knowing names and recognizing paintings.

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