I have been teaching art history for almost four decades. It is my profession. But, ironically, I don't believe what I profess is art history.

Art history, in my view, is a misnomer. What I profess is study of art. More accurately still, what I study is works of art, and what I profess is, therefore, how to study and understand works of art in our cultural heritage.

Art historians organize works of art through the centuries historically, era by era, culture by culture. But when we study them chronologically, we have a chronicle of artists and their works rather than history of art. History of art, or art history, suggests that art has a history. Though this idea has been taken for granted since the dawn of the discipline, it is decidedly an imprecise idea. Art is not an organism; it doesn't evolve developmentally. Art is a concept encompassing a range of works of art. We can study changing concepts of art, that is to say, changing notions as to what artifacts in a given culture constitute art. We are then dealing with history of ideas, not of works of art. To become an art historian, we were schooled in art history. But what we were schooled in was, strictly speaking, stilentwicklungsgeschichte, that is to say, history of evolving styles of art rather than history of art; the focus of such a study is collective trends rather than individual works.

Hans Belting, pondering the state of art history, questioned if we have come to the end of the history of art (Das Ende der Kunstgeschichte?, Munich, 1983), but in so doing he also recognized the existence of the history of art. So, perhaps there is, but I've lost sight of it.

More recently, art historians' interest shifted from style to historical contexts of art. To be sure, historical contexts of works of art are by no means irrelevant. But the effort to affirm the importance of historical contexts quickly erodes into viewing contextuality as causality in the creation of works of art, and thereby the role of the artist -- named or anonymous -- in the production of the artifacts comes to be neglected.

Reflecting on my own art history, I realize that the focus of my interest has always been first and foremost the genesis of works of art in the creative minds of their makers as revealed in the works themselves, and only secondarily the social circumstances surrounding them.

Every work of art is unique, as an individual is unique, and the work's singularity owes to the artist's unique personality. Society certainly takes part in forming that personality, but the creative act is her or his own, not of the class of which the artist happened to be a member. Even in collective efforts, like quilting and manufacture, a series of decisions are individual contributions.

The most fundamental question I ask is, therefore, why a particular work looks the way it does and how it differs from its kin. Critical acumen, which I am intent on cultivating in my students, starts with the training of the eye to discriminate, that is, to see differences where they were not evident before, and only then they begin to understand that all works are not equal. Some works are greater than others -- more moving, more exciting, more refined, more perfect, more profound, more inspiring, and even more beautiful, perhaps. Historical context of a given work is relevant in so far as it contributes to this process of critical discrimination.

Every artifact is a product of human work. It is shaped by the hand and the mind guided by the judicious eye. This is true not only of works of art but of all artifactual objects -- handcrafted objects as well as machine-made objects. None of them could have come into existence without first having been conceived and then realized in physical form by some individual or individuals; and this is accomplished by way of drawings, mental and physical. In my courses, whether dealing with Michelangelo, Rembrandt, or American architecture, or with cinema, townscape, cities, gardens, and everyday things, I am essentially concerned with the single issue of form and signification, that is to say, the matter of visual semiotics.

Study of art sharpens and deepens our awareness of the visual world, or it should. Life is then so much the richer.

As I often tell my students, I may appear to deal with a wide variety of subjects but the truth is that I put on the same play in all my courses -- just with different characters. History in the service of Art -- that's my art history. Not vice versa.


T. Kaori Kitao, 06.01.00


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Art History Without Slides

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