Each semester students find themselves enrolled in Art History classes for the first time. Ideally, they enrolled because they wanted to study the history of art and are enthusiastic about the prospect. This isn't always the case, however. Students may take Art History because it is required, or it seems like a good choice for AP credit in high school, or even because it is the only elective that fits into that semester's class schedule. When one of the latter three scenarios apply and a student realizes that Art History is not going to be an easy "A," questions invariably arise: how come I took this class? What's in it for me? Why should I study art history?
Why? Here are five compelling reasons to cheer you.
I would argue that this is the single most fun reason to study Art History, and it doesn't just apply to pictures (that was merely a catchy headline for folks who were Rod Stewart fans back in the day).
You see, every artist operates under a unique set of circumstances and all of them affect his or her work. Pre-literate cultures had to appease their gods, ensure fertility and frighten their enemies through art. Italian Renaissance artists had to please either the Catholic Church, rich patrons, or both. Korean artists had compelling nationalistic reasons to distinguish their art from Chinese art. Modern artists strove to find new ways of seeing even while catastrophic wars and economic depression swirled around them. Contemporary artists are every bit as creative, and also have contemporary rents to pay -- they need to balance creativity with sales.
No matter which piece of art or architecture you see, there were personal, political, sociological and religious factors behind its creation. Untangling them and seeing how they connect to other pieces of art is huge, delicious fun!
This may come as news, but art history is not just about drawing, painting, and sculpture. You will also run across calligraphy, architecture, photography, film, mass media, performance art, installations, animation, video art, landscape design, and decorative arts like arms and armor, furniture, ceramics, woodworking, goldsmithing, and much more. If someone created something worth seeing -- even a particularly fine black velvet Elvis -- art history will offer it to you.
As was mentioned in the introductory paragraph, art history is not an easy "A." There is more to it than memorizing names, dates, and titles.
An art history class also requires you analyze, think critically, and write well. Yes, the five paragraph essay will rear its head with alarming frequency. Grammar and spelling will become your best friends, and you cannot escape citing sources.
Listen, I can practically hear you groaning from here, but don't despair. These are all excellent skills to have, no matter where you want to go in life. Suppose you decide to become an engineer, scientist, or physician -- analysis and critical thinking define these careers. And if you want to be a lawyer, get used to writing now. See? Excellent skills. I promise.
Think, really think about the amount of visual stimulation with which we are bombarded on a daily basis. You are reading this on your computer monitor, smartphone, iPad or tablet. Realistically, you may own all of these. In your spare time, you might watch television or videos on the internet, or play graphic-intensive video games. We ask our brains to process immense amounts of images from the time we wake until we fall asleep -- and even then, some of us are vivid dreamers.
As a species, we are shifting from predominantly verbal thinking to visual thinking. Learning is becoming more visually- and less text-oriented; this requires us to respond not just with analysis or rote memorization, but also with emotional insight.
Art History offers you the tools you need to respond to this cavalcade of imagery. Think of it as a type of language, one that allows the user to successfully navigate new territory. Or, at least, find the location of a public restroom. Either way, you benefit.
Each of us springs from a genetic soup seasoned by innumerable generations of cooks. It is the most human thing imaginable to want to know about our ancestors, the people who made us us. What did they look like? How did they dress? Where did they gather, work, and live? Which gods did they worship, enemies did they fight, and rituals did they observe?
Now consider this: photography has been around less than 200 years, film is even more recent, and digital images are relative newcomers. If we want to see any person that existed prior to these technologies we must rely on an artist. This isn't a problem if you come from a royal family where portraits of every King Tom, Dick, and Harry are hanging on the palace walls, but the other seven-or-so billion of us have to do a little art-historic digging.
The good news is that digging through art history is a fascinating pastime so, please, grab your mental shovel and commence. You will discover visual evidence of who and where you came from -- and gain some insight on that genetic soup recipe. Tasty stuff!