Study of Art

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Art history is the study of works of art in their historical context. Styles change through time and artists introduce new materials, techniques, subject matter, and purposes for art. Art historians study such changes and use them to determine the chronological periods and approximate dates of art works. A work of art can reflect the historical period or context in which it was made by representing society's assumptions about people, by depicting customs or rituals, or by showing us what was thought beautiful, ornamental, or fashionable. In addition to these aspects of art, art historians study the lives of artists, including their training and practices. Art historians answer fundamental questions about art objects, such as: Who made the work? When was it made? How was it made? What was its purpose? What did it mean?

Information about famous artists and their works exists from the time of the ancient Romans. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder, for example, includes notes on important Greek sculptors in his Natural History, written in the 1st century AD. In the 16th century Italian writer and painter Giorgio Vasari wrote his Lives of the Artists, which consisted of biographies of Italian artists from the 14th through the 16th century. Vasari provided a historical framework for his biographies, in which Italian art developed from Byzantine patterns toward greater naturalism and then to greater liveliness. But he rarely tied this development to broader cultural phenomena. This step was taken in the 18th century by German archaeologist and art historian Johann Winckelmann. In The History of Ancient Art (1764), Winckelmann tried to explain the serenity and noble grandeur of Greek art by looking at many aspects of Greek life, from the weather to the political situation, and especially at the development of democracy in Athens. He described Greek art vividly for an audience who had seen little of it.

Winckelmann began a tradition within art history of explaining changes in style by looking to other political, historical, or cultural trends. Later art historians have carried out the meticulous work of identifying and dating works of art by means of careful visual comparisons and the study of historical documents. This type of work, called connoisseurship, still is a basic part of the study of art.

Art historians are often faced with deciphering unfamiliar symbols in works of art. Any object in a painting can serve as a symbol. In paintings of the Madonna and Child, for example, a goldfinch, which builds its nest in thorns, can refer to Christ's suffering and the crown of thorns he was forced to wear. Iconography is the study and explanation of the meaning of symbols in art and the meaning of the painting or sculpture as a whole. Iconographic studies always involve some degree of interpretation; that is, art historians determine not only what a symbol means but also speculate on why an artist used it and what it might suggest about an artist's ideas, a patron's wishes, or a society's customs.

From the 1970s on, several new methods of interpretation have become popular. Social historians use methods derived from the theories of German political philosopher Karl Marx to look for indications of class distinctions and social conflict in art. Feminist methods of interpretation are concerned with what images convey about women, either as artists or as the subjects of art works. Semiotics and deconstruction are methods that focus on how images function as signs that transmit different meanings at different times, or on how internal structures or contradictions reveal meaning.

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