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Why We're Here Wednesday: Are Those Pesky Art History Requirements Important?

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

If you ask a group of art students how they feel about the art history classes they’re required to take, you’re likely going to get a response of half excitement and half dread. Art history is a pivotal part of most art programs and a tool many people reflect on for years to come. However, a lot of art students hate the fact they have to do this and just sulk their way through it. It’s an interesting thing that artists have to do because in a lot of ways yes, it’s great for artists to know the history of art, but at the same time it doesn’t necessarily help with the artistic process. So are these art history requirements actually helpful or necessary? I’m going to say yes and no. Now I’m just playing devil’s advocate, but I want to lay out my reasons for why I think art history classes are a great tool and necessity for artists, but also why they might not be. This is all in the hopes to converse with all of you and gather a larger consensus on the topic as well as more points for either side.

So, in the spirit of playing devil’s advocate, let’s talk about why art history isn’t necessary for art students. My primary reason for why it may not be is in the format of most classes, it’s more history than it is art. What I mean by that is that the majority of the class is just creating an art timeline, not how or why art was made, not what changed or inspired things in art, the process is almost totally ignored in my experience. If we’re going to talk about the history of art, let’s talk about mediums, processes, patrons, how things evolved, I could go on, there’s so much to talk about in the grand scheme of art but instead we spend our time memorizing dates that paintings were done. One of the biggest reasons for this, in my opinion, is that a lot of these professors aren’t artists, they’re historians. Now, that’s totally fine in documenting and making timelines but if you’re going to teach art to artists, I’d hope you have some sort of understanding as to why and how things were made. I remember in college taking a class called Making American Art, and what an absolute sham this was. The professor didn’t know a damn thing about actually making art and it showed because we didn’t talk about making one time in a class with the word making in the title. We talked about the Athenaeum Portrait by Gilbert Stuart for 30 seconds like it was totally normal that a painting that’s incomplete but relevant 200 years later, of all times to talk about making wouldn’t it be when talking about a painting that isn’t finished? I’m getting off to a rant here, so I’ll stop myself, but my point is that art history, especially the art history that’s required for artists to take, can’t just be a mindless memorizing of a timeline. We need more out of our art history!

Getting away from that, we can get into why art history is important and I think we’re going to hit a very obvious one for this intro portion. Art history is important because, like with anything, it’s crucial to know the history of our craft. Art has probably the most storied history of any craft in history so it’s super helpful to know how and why art has developed the way it has to help guide you in your own process. How did the masters achieve what they achieved? How did the great innovators get to where they were? Why has art developed the way that it has? Questions like this are constantly going to bounce around in our heads and art history gives us answers and help us understand why current developments are happening. If art history can truly take the deep dives that it should, past just the finish product, to the process, the artists themselves, the environments they were in, then they can really be a key tool in helping us develop.

Once again, this is just an intro to hopefully an ongoing conversation. These are my top two points in why art history classes are relevant or can be totally irrelevant. So I want to hear from you! Do you love art history and want to sing its praises? Let’s hear it! Do you hate art history and dread going to your required classes every day? Air it out, let’s hear it! I want to know why people love it so we can promote the good things and why people hate it so we can hopefully get to eliminate the bad things.

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