Art History

Busting Myths About Art History

Yesterday, I wrote about what an art historian is. Today, let’s talk about what it isn’t. Below, I’ll debunk some common myths about art history. I hear these all the time when I tell people about what I do.

Chinese bronze dragon myths about art history
He heard some crazy myths about my job, and he wants to know if they’re true. Chinese bronze pouring vessel with dragon-headed lid. Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century BCE). Princeton University Art Museum

Art Historians Are Not (or at least aren’t necessarily)

  • Art historians don’t get paid to look at art all day. I wouldn’t really mind if this were true, but it’s not. Looking at and reading about art is a big part of our jobs, but we do a lot more than just that. In fact, what we do can be really hard work.
  • Art historians are not (necessarily) collectors. Although their abiding appreciation for art might seem to suggest a desire to own it, many art historians (including myself) don’t collect. To me, at least, knowing that most of my favorites have already found their forever homes in museums would take much of the fun out of it. Plus, art collecting is an expensive hobby.
  • Art historian is not another word for artist. This is the misunderstanding I encounter most frequently. “You studied art history? You must be really good at drawing.” Not at all. (I’m actually pretty bad at it.) Art history and art making are two separate fields. Although I know several people who’ve pursued both, many more have chosen one or the other. By taking art classes, I’ve developed a new appreciation for the skill involved in creating works of art, but I don’t actually have that skill.
  • Art historians don’t write about your art so you can become famous. Some artists seem to think I should use my skills to promote their work. They often request that I feature them on my website or submit an article about them to a newspaper. I don’t like being asked this, and I always say no. If I feature someone on my website, it’s exclusively because I enjoy their work and think my readers will find it interesting. Similarly, I don’t submit articles for publication if I have a monetary interest in the subject. However, I’m happy to help an artist with their biography or to write a press release for a gallery, as long as I’m not asked to take a biased or distorted point of view. Other art historians may have different points of view, particularly those working for on the commercial side, but the main point here is that “art historian” does not equal “publicist for artists”.
  • Most art historians aren’t appraisers. Appraisal means assigning market value to an object. Art historians are certainly good candidates to become fine art appraisers, but most don’t pursue this avenue, which requires special training. In fact, many art historians never deal with the art market in their work, so they rarely think about how much an object is worth. While we’re on the subject, appraisal isn’t a party trick. An appraiser won’t spent five seconds looking at the painting above your fireplace and then magically give you a dollar value. Besides the fact that an accurate appraisal takes time, giving any sort of appraisal is a serious thing because it carries legal liability. So, please don’t put an appraiser or other art expert on the spot.

The Value of an Art History Degree

The biggest of all myths about art history is that an art history degree is useless. People rarely say it to my face, but they make it obvious in other ways. I wish they would actually ask me about it, because I would be happy to clear this up for them. Even if you don’t end up pursuing any of the career paths I mentioned last time, an education in art history teaches versatile skills relevant to all different lines of work. How many professionals would benefit from skills like these?

  • Keen attention to visual detail.
  • Fluency in translating visual phenomena into accessible words.
  • Familiarity with cultures not your own.
  • Understanding of how political, social, economic, and religious elements together influence wider culture across time and space.
  • The ability to piece together a cohesive argument from various visual and written sources.
  • Strong analytical, expository, and research-based writing skills.
  • Understanding of how visual components such as color, composition, and symbolism effect human thoughts and emotions.
  • Familiarity with world history, literature, and human achievement.

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