Update (30th July 2020): This post was previously titled ‘The Case for Studying Fine Arts‘ as I was studying at the University of Hong Kong, and their Department of Art History was named the Department of Fine Arts at the time. Now that HKU’s Department of Art History has updated its name, it’s also time for a change here! My reasons for studying art history hasn’t changed though, so read on to see why art history is worth the study. :)
This illustration was the first image I saw in my first Fine Arts class. Western art history – made simple! Back then, my professor said we would know all about the various artists and their smiley face representations by the end of the class. I hadn’t even heard of almost all of the artists stated here, but I’m happy to say that I’m familiar with most of the artists now, except Rembrandt. My bad.
A lot of my friends, when they find out what I’m studying, like to ask, “So what do you do exactly?” or they exclaim, “Really?! I did art in high school, and I did so badly!” I never have a good response to the first question, I just don’t know what to say, and when I hear the second statement, I always think I wished I had the option to take art in high school, since I wasn’t enjoying math and science much anyway…
So it got me thinking about why I like what I do, or why should people study art history? Everyone has their own reasons, and I wanted to share about mine.
| Cover picture: Donald Seitz, History of Art, 1991, illustration |
I’ve always loved stories. And they come in all shapes and forms, in books, TV, and a good history story. History is interesting that way, when my dad tells me stories of his dad going through the war. It’s just not that fun when you’re reading about the same war in a history textbook. And having to memorize dates and names and titles and places and go to exams to spill it all out. Not for me.
The great thing about art is how history is incorporated into it. Art can be identified by the century, the region, the movement, the style. For example, I could be looking at a painting of a couple in a vast field, but I could tell you that it was painted by the French artist Millet in 1859 during the nineteenth century, in the style of Realism when the reflection of nature in art continued, but new ideas of what constituted beauty emerged. That’s history right there.
Jean-François Millet, The Angelus, 1859, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.
For contemporary art too, one day someone is going to look at an artwork and go, that was painted in 2015 in that style back then. With time, the numerous artworks in the various mediums and styles we see today are going to be neatly categorized by century and movement and a new art term that people come up with to explain the period.
Art is informative and it’s so much easier to absorb history stories when looking at works of art, rather than going through long, dry passages of history text. (Though books of any topic are winners in their own right.) But that’s only the background information. What you see in an artwork itself contains other stories, unique to our own interpretations.
You could argue that fine arts is in the same way made up of the boring bits like memorising titles of artworks, artists’ names, years, centuries and mediums. All that is true but having a picture to go along with it makes all the difference. I really like how we get to somewhat see how things were like back then. The way people looked, dressed, their jobs, their social activities, their interiors, and so on.
One thing that I was curious about was art in wartime. When you learn about wars in the typical history fashion, it’s always about aggressors and victims, people fighting, people suffering and all that. But what about the people left at home? It’s like an entire period of the war solely belongs to the battlefield. And it turns out, art still goes on, though not far from the topic of war.
Unknown artist, Entry of Marshal Oyama, Commander-in-Chief, into Mukden; Mukden Railway Station after the Battle, 1905, color lithograph, collotype and letterpress; ink on card stock (postcard), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
I think that studying Fine Arts has made me look at things differently, too. There is always a conception that art is supposed to be beautiful, show delightful things to viewers. And that was probably the norm in a time long past, but it certainly isn’t now. Art can reveal the bad, ugly stuff, too. And it makes for an interesting way of looking at things, that I can somehow see things in an alternative way, even in real life.
Like when I was in Shanghai at the Free Trade Zone, and large blouts of dark gray fumes were coming out of giant factory buildings, released into the clear blue sky. Yes, pollution and industralization and I’m not discounting any of that, but I was weirdly encaptured by it. Maybe because it was the first time seeing it so close and so clearly, and maybe it was the color contrast, the tubular gray slowly moving into the clear blue and dissipating into thin air. I couldn’t take my eyes off it for a while. It sounds weird, I know. But it was just interesting.
Art is, in a sense, interdisciplinary to me. There are so many topics in art expressed in different ways and approached from different angles. A large part of studying art involves considering the socio-historical context, meaning social issues present in a historical period that influences the art made then. There could be politics involved as well. Paintings of war or battles are definitely political, but artworks could be interpreted as political even if the artist did not have the intention to do so. Not all artworks necessarily contain all of these factors, but there is always more than one thing going on in an artwork.
Technology also brings about new styles and mediums, such as photography. The combination of mediums also creates a new kind of visual. Entry of Marshal Oyama, Commander-in-Chief, into Mukden; Mukden Railway Station after the Battle is a mix of a painting and a photograph of the same Mukden location printed on a postcard, like a before and after of the Russo-Japanese War, but the after is painted instead of photographed to make it seem less real, maybe? And it certainly looks and feels very different from an oil painting made from a different culture though made in the same year.
WIth (oil) paintings, I find it interesting to think how the layers of paint applied can determine the style of the work and how it would look like. When I first learned about Monet’s paintings, I was wondering how the different colors used could manage to make the reflection of sunlight in the water look so natural in a digital image. Seeing his works in real life though, the reflections still look very naturalistic when the artwork is viewed at a distance, but when you go up close, you can see the many almost random dabs of paint in different colors that somehow cohesively form the effect of reflection. Monet totally won me over with that. My favourite Western artist ever!
Claude Monet, Parliament, Reflections on the Thames, 1905, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan, Paris, France.
Monet’s work comes along only a few decades after Millet, and the style has moved on from Realism to Impressionism. What I find so fascinating is that an artwork can be analyzed on its own, or within the historical period it belongs to, or within the entire history of that particular art type (Western art, for example).
I could keep going on, but I guess the idea is that art can be viewed and thought about in so many different directions, and there are many other parts to it that I’m still discovering. Fine Arts, Art History, or anything to do with the word Art, is always discounted as “impractical,” and “not useful for a job” in a school context. It’s sadly underrated, but I strongly believe that art is of value and learning about it is of value, too.
My sister always reminds me that university is the best time to learn whatever you want. The things I learnt in school before university were out of necessity, though still important, but I didn’t have the liberty to choose what I wanted to do. University is great for that reason, and I think that every subject taught matters.
I just hope to let others see why I like Fine Arts so much. Outside of school too, I think everyone can learn about and appreciate art and I’m hoping to do that for a long, long time.