In Defence of Art Approaches

There is perhaps no module that divides opinion to such an extent as Approaches to History. I would be the first to admit that as a first-year, the prospect of looking at the past from the perspective of other disciplines, when I still really didn’t have a clue how to do a History degree, was daunting to say the least. You can imagine my horror when upon discovering the first text on my Art reading list, the unbeknownst to me, highly influential Ways of Seeing by John Berger, I discovered three of the book’s seven ‘essays’ was comprised only of images. What quite had I got myself in for? However, my initial scepticism was soon reversed and Art Approaches still firmly remains one of the most thought-provoking and enjoyable modules I have studied during my degree. Beforehand, in my mind the study of art was overwhelmingly aesthetic; historic art’s meaning lay only in how “beautiful” it is perceived, it truly hadn’t occurred to me the hidden agendas, meanings, and stories that in fact are hidden beneath the canvas.

I believe there are many strengths to Art Approaches as a module. One of the frequent criticisms of the Oxford History degree is its Eurocentrism and lack of diversity and inclusivity and I’ll admit I feared there’d be a strong emphasis on the likes of Michelangelo and the Medici. However, perhaps the true beauty of the Art approaches module lies not in the images you will encounter but the freedom with which you have to truly tailor your research to your own interests. My tutor really encouraged me to think about ‘Art’ holistically, encompassing everything from ancient cave paintings to modern day graffiti and to think globally, far beyond the Western canon of ‘high’ art. In doing so, I have transplanted Baxandall’s concept of the ‘period eye’ from his study of Quattrocento Italy to Nigerian tribal folk art.

Indeed, the comparative aspect is also one of the Approaches module’s greatest strengths and I found the experience of finding continuities in visual imagery throughout human history particularly fascinating. For example, when studying 14th and 15th century Republican Florentine frescoes, that allegorised evil as an enthroned tyrant ruling without consent that demonised their rivals; the despotic Visconti of Milan and glorified liberty and republicanism, I couldn’t help but see these images as a prefiguration of the propaganda battles of the Cold War.

I’ll admit I feared there’d be a strong emphasis on the likes of Michelangelo and the Medici

The Art and Politics element of the module was personally the most stimulating to me. Since the Romantic movement, the idea of true art has promoted the authenticity of the pursuit of spiritual freedom, individual creativity and the self-expression of the artist’s own unique, inner vision, independent to the demands of some “external” voice such as the church, state, or public opinion. In reality, however distasteful, under many regimes, creative artists worked as agents of the state, using artistic creation as an ideological weapon. It is important to appreciate the often subversive and repressive purposes behind the production of art and in doing so, this increased my own awareness of how I receive contemporary propaganda and my appreciation of the subtlety and layers of hidden meanings. For example, I initially perceived Obama’s decision to use Shepard Fairey’s iconic ‘Hope’ image as his 2008 campaign image as a way to evoke his principle of bottom up politics, having been designed by a graffiti artist and appeal to liberal, younger voters. Whereas in fact the image’s power lies in its ability to appeal to a broad electorate, including those outside of Obama’s key circle of supporters; Obama strongly resembles the many images of Christ that are extremely popular in the homes of conservative, Middle Americans, creating a positive subconscious reaction within those less inclined to vote Democrat.

Furthermore, I found the study of iconoclasm particularly interesting which again lead me to contemplate the efficacy of images in both historical and contemporary society and the intense emotional and even violent responses they illicit. It also helped me comprehend that works of art have an afterlife and their meanings can be shaped and reshaped across different historical contexts. The importance of the legacy of art has helped me comprehend what Leonardo da Vinci implied when stating that “Art is never finished, only abandoned’’ and encouraged me to think more broadly about issues very close to home; the controversy surrounding the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel and the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement is an immediate and real reminder of the weight of meaning works of art can carry.

I would now argue that no study of past societies is complete without some appreciation of the images it produced

The Art Approaches module focuses far more broadly than just individual works of art and material culture. It also encompasses an appreciation of how art is viewed and displayed and the function of the modern- day art gallery. I particularly found Svetlana Alpers’ scholarship surrounding the art museum itself as a way of seeing and how visuality in the art gallery can be constructed to produce a desired effect, even if this means changing the object or image’s true meaning. Napoleon’s systematic gathering of art from other countries and their display in the Louvre as trophies of French conquest for example, demonstrates the creation of a museum collection often depends on the destruction of something else. The forcible alteration of the conditions under which art has been made and understood, to claim art for a new kind of ritual attention lead me to consider my own experience of viewing art in museums and galleries and that their subtle legacies of colonial rule. Even the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is perhaps evocative of a past imperial desire to display the apparent brutality and strangeness of other cultures.

The Louvre sculpture room: a hotspot for art approaches.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

For many first years, Approaches can often feel like a burden, something that is reluctantly crammed in alongside other modules which produces no real value to the pursuit of a history degree. However, I couldn’t disagree more; my appreciation of art and greater visual literacy through the study of art Approaches has enabled me to appreciate the importance of images in studying all of my subsequent modules. I would now argue that no study of past societies is complete without some appreciation of the images it produced and agree with John Ruskin that ‘‘through a nation’s art you understand its history’’ in a far deeper and more meaningful way. Before I discovered art approaches, I would have admitted that, if I may adapt Orson Wells’ quote slightly ‘’I don’t know anything about art, but I know that I don’t like art.” I can now confidently say this couldn’t be further from the truth; I now view images with a very different eye and embed an appreciation of art within a much more holistic view of the past. Art approaches quite literally changed my own way of seeing and for that I am grateful.

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