What is Art History? - Definition & Overview

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  • 0:04 What Is Art History?
  • 0:50 What Do Art Historians Study?
  • 1:55 Goals of Art History
  • 5:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

You may have heard of art history, but what exactly do art historians do? In this lesson, we'll check out the discipline of art history and see how researchers study art to learn about human societies.

What Is Art History?

Do you like art? Sure you do! Who doesn't? Whether it be oil landscapes, marble sculptures, or graffiti in the medium of spray paint, art touches everyone's life in some way or another. Art is one of the most ubiquitous and influential forces in human history, so why not study it?

The study of the history of art is called, unsurprisingly, art history. This discipline focuses on the development and uses of art throughout human history. Art historians seek to translate visual information within the arts into written critiques and analyses. In short, if you really like looking at and analyzing art, or if you just really want to be able to impress people at a museum, this may be the field of study for you.

What Do Art Historians Study?

The first question we need ask about art history is what this discipline actually studies. The obvious answer is art, but that may be harder to define than you'd think. What is art? If we take a piece of grass and tie it into a knot, have we created art? After all, we just manipulated our environment in a way that we found aesthetically pleasing. Does this deserve to be studied? What about buildings? Are they art? What about tattoos, or music, or even mime?

In general, art historians focus on the visual arts, those which are defined by visual qualities and perception. Painting, sculpture, architecture, ceramics, and textiles fall in this category. Generally, art historians do not study performance arts, like music and theater, or literary arts, like poetry. However, the definition of art changes all the time, and as it does art history adapts as well. Once, tattoos were studied only by anthropologists, but they've since become a source of fascination for many art historians.

Goals of Art History

So now that we know that art historians focus on visual arts, what are they looking for specifically? Art history is a discipline that examines trends, movements, and periods in history. As a field of study, it's more concerned with large-scale artistic movements rather than the act of creating any piece of art, which is why our grass-knot is unlikely to be studied, unless it somehow alters the development of Western aesthetics.

While looking at broad artistic movements, art historians seek to explore how this art reflects the society it was created in, as well as how it influenced life in that same society. Does life reflect art, or does art reflect life? There's your first big art history question. Basically, art historians see something like the impressionist movement of 19th-century France, led by Claude Monet, and ask: how and why did this happen? Why was French culture expressing itself in blurred colors? How did the French economy influence this aesthetic? How did this artistic movement impact the French economy? What role did religion play in the artists' choices? How did French ideas about fine art define that culture, and why was Monet rejecting these ideas? Why did he become so popular? What defines this impressionism, and how is it related to other styles? These are just some of the questions an art historian may think about when studying an artistic movement.

Of course, to study broad movements, art historians must spend lots of time looking at individual pieces of art. This is how artistic styles are defined: by common aesthetics, themes, and attributes within actual works of art. There are five things an art historian may look at when studying a piece of art:

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