In this section, we explain what art history is, why people have created works of art almost without interruption throughout all ages and how a work of art should be contemplated. You will understand why art history deserves to be studied (works of art are like snapshots of human evolution, before and after the camera was invented), and you will know the differences (and the linkages) between history and art history.
Art History Is A Journey Through Time
Why study art history instead of music history, literature history or history of postage stamps? The history of art began around 30000 BC with the oldest known cave paintings and takes 265,000 years of advantage over the first written manifestations. That is even older than history, which begins with the birth of writing around 3500 BC.
Along with archaeology, art history is one of the main sources of information about prehistory (everything that happened before 3500 BC). Rock paintings, prehistoric sculpture, and architecture provide a vivid (though incomplete) image of what life was like in the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. Without the history of art, we would know much less about our first ancestors.
So why do we need art history after starting the historical period around 3500 BC? History is the diary of the past: our ancestors writing about themselves and our interpretation of what they told us. It shows us who we were instead of telling us, as history does. Just like home videos document the history of a family (the clothes you wore when you were five years old, how you laughed and what they gave you on your birthday), is the “home video” of the human family through the centuries.
History is the study of wars and conquests, great migratory movements and political and social experiments. The history of art is a portrait of the inner life of men: their aspirations and inspirations, their hopes and fears, their spirituality and their identity.
Why Delve Into The Past?
If we know how we were 10,000 years ago, we will have a clearer idea of how we are today. Even the study of a few ceramic remains from ancient Greece can tell us a lot about modern society, as long as we know how to examine and interpret them.
Many Greek amphoras show us what the theaters of the time were like, whose direct descendants are modern theaters and cinemas. Greek pottery has representations of musical instruments, dancers and athletes competing in the Olympic Games of Antiquity, precursors of the modern Olympic Games. Some glasses reveal the role assigned to women and men: women wear glasses called hydrias, which men take care of the painting.
Ancient art tells us about the religions of the past (which still influence our modern religions) and about the horrors of war conflicts. The monument commemorating the victory of Ramses II over the Hittites and the Trajan’s Column, which represents the conquest of Dacia (present-day Romania), are testimonies of ancient battles that forged the destiny of entire nations and determined the languages we speak today.
Architecture, another art form, tells us how men and women reacted and survived in their environment, and how they defined and defended themselves. Did they build impenetrable walls around their cities? Did they erect monuments to their own ego like the pharaoh Hatshepsut and the boasting Ramses II? Did they raise temples to honor their gods or celebrate the glory of their civilizations as the Greeks did? Or, like the Romans, they flaunted their power through architecture to intimidate their enemies?