Seeing art history: the emergence of the art historical discipline

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see”- Degas

Art history is a historical discipline that focuses on the history and the development of visual art forms.

Art history traditionally focused on painting, sculpture, and architecture. However, with the expansion of new art practices, we now consider a variety of diverse media and forms under the term ‘art’.

To define ‘art’ alone is a challenge and has been hotly debated over the past few years with many art historians now preferring the term ‘visual culture’ instead. Art history concentrates on identifying, analysing, interpreting, and understanding the material products of human culture throughout time. The art of our cultural past gives us a valuable insight into vastly different societies and their practices, providing an alternative route to inform our understanding our world history.

Art is one of the fundamental forms of human self-expression and communication, making the study of art, past and present, essential to our understanding of society.

The discipline of art history has historically been focused on Western tradition. However, recent expansions have seen increased attention given to the study of non-western cultures. This has further complicated the definition of ‘art’ and demands adaptations to art historical practise. But nothing has enabled it to move more easily into the global arena than reception theory, derived in no small part from literary studies, and the social history of art.

This approach places an accent on the shifting meanings and the use of the work of art as it moves through time, and thus opening the art historical discourse to a new level of complexity. It has also turned the spotlight on viewers and users as opposed to producers of works of art, with consideration of the factors of race, class and gender.

This is affected by the extent to which art history is continually informed by the presentation of objects in museums and galleries. These spaces bring together audiences, academics, curators, buyers and connoisseurs. This unique milieu continually alters our understanding of the objects in question making history of art one of the most dynamic of academic disciplines.


Roadworks - Macat Critical Thinking Blog

An illustration of Mona Hatoum’s 1985 performance piece,  ‘Roadworks’

David Summers’ Real Spaces critiques the way art forms interact with their environment, emphasising the way these spaces connect with their social functions. Summers believes that Western tradition fails to provide an accurate account of art, in particular, non-western art. Real Spaces delivers a conceptual framework that attempts to resolve this issue by examining the way humanity displays art throughout time and across tradition. The relationship between a work of art and the space in which it is kept is continuingly adapting. We no longer hang paintings ‘frame to frame’ like the Paris Salons at the end of the 18thcentury, in fact, contemporary art movements have produced the ‘white-box’ context that we are so used to experiencing today.

The discipline of art history emergence is usually attributed to the German neoclassicist, J.J.  Winckelmann. Although ancients, like Pliny and Vitruvius, spoke eloquently about art, we begin to see the origins of the history of art as a discipline in the Renaissance, in the writings of humanists such as Giorgio Vasari. The theme was the return of the golden age – Antiquity—in modern Italy. A later generation of commentators, however, would move style itself to the forefront. Winckelmann published The History of the Art of Antiquity in 1764 connecting the artistic achievement of ancient Greece, defined by the classical style of the mid-fifth century Athens, with the concept of freedom expressed in the institution of democracy.

The discipline of art history was also explicitly changed by E.H. Gombrich in 1950. Gombrich’s The Story of Arthas been translated into over 30 different languages and has been praised by lovers of art, academics, and professionals for its simplistic approach. The Story of Art is considered a pivotal work of criticism that has opened up the study of art history to the world.


Somerset House - Macat Critical Thinking Blog

Art History is unique as a discipline because it informed its own institutionalisation. The Courtauld Institute is the largest art historical institution in Britain. In the early 1930s art history was not considered an acceptable subject for university education, instead of a ‘hobby’ for the rich. The Courtauld Institute’s founding fathers, Viscount Lee of Fareham, Samuel Courtauld, and Sir Robert Witt, succeeded in pushing for the institution’s creation in 1932. Although from diverse backgrounds, all three shared the determination to create a centre for art historical education – providing vital training for professionals seeking a career in the art business.

It is the same founding fathers that invited and enabled the Warburg scholars to come to England in 1933. The Warburg Institute focuses on the study of cultural and intellectual history, with an accent on the role images play in society. The development of the Warburg Institution promoted interdisciplinary studies, laying the foundations for the impact art history was going to have on the humanities.

The Courtauld Institute came under Warburgain influences throughout the years that followed their establishment, creating a continually growing and ambitions discipline eager to help broaden the art historical discipline’s approaches and interpretation of the materials of study. The Courtauld Institute, Somerset House, London

The discipline of art history continued to expand as art history departments were established in universities, polytechnics, and secondary schools in the 1960s. However, the 1960s also brought about ‘institutional criticism’ where artists began to directly respond to the institutes that bought and exhibited their work. Galleries and museums were considered places of cultural restraint and were under constant attack until the 1990s. Institutional criticism seeks to expose the boundaries that humanity has historically and socially inflicted on art through its display in an institute, arguing that the institute itself cultivates an aesthetic judgment that is influenced by class, ethnicity, sex, and gender preference of the institute’s hierarchy.

The history of art has a history itself. The influence and impact that art historical writing has had over the production and direction of the visual arts is immense. It is a past that has been continuingly expanding, as historians weigh in on current developments in greater numbers, making contemporary art history the fastest growing segment of the field. In The Future of the Image, Jacques Rancière explores the concept of the image in contemporary art. Rancière outlines the influence of religious tendencies on the critiques and theoretical thinkers of contemporary art, highlighting the inevitable link between art and politics. Rancière maps the different notions of the image from different regimes; these regimes span across multiple disciples. Rancière draws on the past philosophy of history to argue that the image is not a visual representation of the external form but acts as a function.

Art history continues to inform and support other disciplines, for example, Terri Agins’ The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever is considered one of the most valuable texts in the study of fashion history. Bringing together two separate disciplines, Agins highlights the impact of marketing on the fashion industry, ultimately claiming that the introduction of mass-production destroyed couture. Although a dated text, it gives a clear insight into the relationship between art and commerce, and is foundational for every fashion, and arguably marketing, student.

Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction also challenges mass-production and how it has warped societies perception of art. Benjamin’s assembly of essays collectively explore the relationship between technical developments, artistic production, politics, and the public life. Benjamin’s understanding of the effect film and photography, including their mode of reception, has informed and influenced theorists across the disciplines. The Work of Artunderpins studies into the 20th century, including Susan Sontag’s On Photography.

Sontag’s 1997 texts are rooted in the philosophy of Plato and Feuerbach, she applies their theories and a range of literary and artistic figures and movements to the medium of photography. Sontag’s work is revolutionary for its ability to interrogate society at the time; she exposes the impact of social conditioning on how and what one sees when considering ‘art’.

We all experience art differently, all be it studying, creating, celebrating, or buying and selling, we continue to be visually intrigued by the diverse forms of art influencing our everyday lives. Art history’s ability to let us engage visually with our past remains vital for informing our future.


Macat is expanding the Art History section of the Macat Library to include works by Walter Benjamin, Griselda Pollock, John Berger, and Yasser Tabbaa amongst others.

Keep an eye on the Macat Library catalogue, or sign up to the iLibrary and get access to the entire library!