The first art history course I took in college was painfully, frustratingly dull. ARTH 101 was a survey of Ancient to Medieval art- not exactly the coolest subject to begin with, and taught by a professor who seemed to be stuck in the same time period he was teaching about. And besides, being an art history nerd wasn’t exactly the best way to Make Friends and Influence People™ as a freshman in my first term of college, so I focused on more interesting opportunities, like laying in bed until 12:30pm every day and going out for pizza at midnight.
I received a well-earned a C in the class, and vowed to avoid ancient art at all possible future junctures.
The class had reinforced everything I had been taught by society about art history- the past is long gone, boring, and irrelevant. But I could not have been more wrong. Art history is a series of recycled trends, constantly reused and reinvented. It is old and new at the same time, and each new generation of artists is constantly speaking to their forefathers, saying “I can do this better.”
Think about it this way- artists today are working in the Contemporary era. What does that even mean? Contemporary: “Belonging to or occurring in the present.” So not exactly impressionism, or fauvism or cubism. Any art made today (or in since 1960, where some art historians define the beginning of contemporary art as a period) is basically just labeled ‘of the moment.’
But all art ever made was ‘of the moment.’ What came before Contemporary art? Modern art. Which is also just basically saying the art is current. And hundreds of years before that? The renaissance. Renaissance literally means “rebirth.”
What I’m trying to say is that art has always been about here and now, even when here and now was a century ago.
And I know, you stood at the museum and tried to see it. And you read the little tombstone next to the painting or chair or sculpture and said “yeah, okay,” and you went home and promptly forgot all about it.
But guys. Art History is awesome.
It’s all just stories, stories about life at certain points of history, stories that ask Big Questions™. And those questions are the same ones we’re asking today, about Love and Hope and God and Despair. Most of us just aren’t taught how to read them, because they’re written in a language from Then, and we only speak Now. They’re puzzles, full of references we might not know yet or images we aren’t used to seeing anymore. Little mysteries given to us to solve.
I’d like to tell you some stories, if you’ll let me. Stories from the Renaissance, from the Modern era and even stories about Contemporary art. I hope I can do them justice. I hope I can speak your language. I hope they feel new again.
Or at least, I hope I don’t put you to sleep.