The discipline of art history

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Perceiving works of art aesthetically begins with an objective analysis of their inherent qualities or properties, which can reveal the following features of a work of art.

  • Sensory Properties – qualities that we experience through our senses: shape, line, texture, value, color, space, and scale.
  • Formal Properties – how sensory properties are organized to achieve a sense of unity, balance, movement, and dominance.
  • Technical Properties – appearances of shapes, values, colors, etc., that are due to the use of particular materials and techniques.
  • Expressive Properties – how a work’s subject, for instance, a turbulent seascape or youthful portrait, combined with the other “properties” contribute to evoking: (a) feelings such as fear, loneliness or joy, or a sense of tension or tranquility, and/or (b) ideas and ideals associated with, for example, the power of nature or the innocence of youth.

In addition to these properties, a work of art will reflect the time period and the geographic area in which it was produced, and/or the particular way its creator utilizes and organizes its properties. When a work of art is analyzed in terms of these characteristics, the nature of its “style” is being investigated. The style of a work of art refers to its distinctive features, a family of characteristics that recur in particular works. For example, art forms which are rich in ornamentation and convey a sense of curving, undulating movement and deep space are referred to as “baroque” in style; Rembrandt’s or Picasso’s unique styles are identified by attending to their particular approaches to utilizing dark and light values, orchestrating color, and interpreting space and volume.

In addition to creating works with distinctive formal characteristics, artists of every age employ particular subjects, themes and symbols. Art historians help us to understand works of art by relating individual works to other works and to the ideas, values and events associated with the time and culture in which such works were produced. Identifying the style of works of art and the meanings associated with their subjects, themes and symbols are tasks for the art historian.

The styles that evolve are a reflection of the culture that spawned it. Culture can be defined as the aggregate of folkways, mores, values, institutions, fashions, systems of thought, modes of transportation and communication, etc. that distinguish one group from another. If it is the art historian’s task to investigate how these various facets of culture impact upon particular works of art, the significant challenges confronting the art historian become apparent.

Art forms by designation
The tendency to produce works of art intentionally is a comparatively recent practice over the long history of the human species. Such works constitute forms produced by artists working in their studios primarily in response to commissions for painted or sculpted religious and secular objects. Within the last several hundred years, artists also produced works that reflected their own passions without regard to the interests of a particular patron. Whether commissioned or not, all of these works share one distinction: they were produced as “art forms;” i.e., although their functions might vary, their primary reason for being was and is to involve us in an aesthetic encounter. Examples of such works associated with styles that cut across time, place and culture would include: classical, romantic, baroque, realistic, impressionistic, abstract, surreal, and nonobjective paintings and sculpture.

Art forms by metamorphosis or transformation
In contrast to works of art created as Art, there are a vast array of forms and objects that were and are produced primarily for non-aesthetic reasons. These have been transformed into and classified as works of art because they are perceived as significant stimulants to aesthetic experience regardless of their primary purpose. Examples of these works include the myriad of objects created essentially to give form to beliefs and/or satisfy basic needs associated with food, clothing and shelter. Representatives of styles associated with such works range over time periods (e.g., Paleolithic) and particular regions and/or groups (e.g., pre-colonial Africa and Native Americas)

An example
The description that follow will serve to demonstrate the vital role of art history in broadening and deepening our understanding of the world of art. Our example is an object that we believe was originally made for religious purposes. It also is likely that it served as a status symbol. It has been transformed in 20th-century Western society into a work of art because of its extraordinary formal and expressive properties.

Akan peoples (Ghana), Kuduo (ritual vessel), 18th or 19th century, cast copper alloy. 21.9×16.8 cm. The Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio.

This container, called a kuduo among the Akan peoples of Ghana, was made from an alloy of copper using the lost-wax casting technique. Recent research suggests that they began being produced roughly 500 hundred years ago by Akan artisans. The prototypes for the kuduo were vessels produced in Egypt and Syria 500-700 years ago, and carried across the Sahara Desert by merchants who traded the Middle Eastern containers for gold. One of the richest gold producing areas of the world is found in what is today central and southern Ghana, the home of the Akan peoples. It is likely that these same merchants introduced the technology, lost-wax casting, used to produce kuduo and other important objects used as status markers in Akan society. It is interesting to note that there are no significant deposits of copper located in West Africa. Therefore, copper and its alloys came to be a valued trade commodity, first imported from the north and later from the coast of West Africa where, beginning in the 16th century, European merchants brought copper alloy artifacts to trade for Akan gold.

Dating kuduo is difficult since the tradition, in effect, died out over one hundred years ago. A few kuduo are still in use, found in shrines and the treasuries of Akan chiefs, but no information about the origins of these objects is maintained. Most of the kuduo that are today maintained in museum and private collections, were found by accident while excavating new roads or digging the foundations for buildings. These objects do not carry any inscriptions identifying when or where they were made. Nor has a single kuduo been discovered in an archaeological context. In lieu of hard chronological data, one may hazard an educated guess that those kuduo that stylistically are most similar to the imported Middle Eastern vessels are the earliest examples of the tradition, and those that display Akan innovations, are later. We may tentatively date, based on style, the Toledo Museum of Art kuduoto the 18th or 19th century.

This “casket” kuduo, with its hinged and hasped lid, is embellished with figurative imagery that one would not find on a metal vessel from the Middle East, a leopard attacking an antelope. Such imagery is tied to a verbal/visual mode of communication that is central to Akan culture. Visual images, both figurative and abstract, carry meaning associated with an enormous body of proverbs. There, for instance, are many proverbs associated with leopards and antelopes. In this case, the leopard/antelope is a metaphor for power–the power of a paramount chief over lesser chiefs, or a chief over his subjects.

Kuduo were formerly made to serve as ritual containers used to hold the personal effects of wealthy individuals. They were often buried with their owner when he or she died. Examples like this one, ceased being produced at the end of the 19th century because there was no longer a local demand for such objects. However, by the third decade of the 20th century, kuduo began being produced again, but for the tourist trade. Though there are many fine examples, few “modern” kuduo matches the quality of craftsmanship and elegance of form associated with the former tradition.


The discipline of art history

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