Art History Inquiry Methods: Three Options for Art Education Practice

By Chanda, Jacqueline | Art Education, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Art History Inquiry Methods: Three Options for Art Education Practice


Chanda, Jacqueline, Art Education


The field of art education has progressively moved towards a more inquiry-based approach to teaching, learning, and thinking about art Each discipline connected with the study of the visual arts-production, criticism, aesthetics, and history of art-offers different modes of inquiry. The history of art, in particular, provides a number of diverse modes of inquiry that enable historians to question traditional assumptions and mind sets, and open understandings to new issues and problems. These same modes of inquiry can offer art educators new ways of thinking about, looking at, and analyzing pictorial phenomena.

Art historical modes of inquiry have not remained the same over time. Each generation's view of art and history determines the prevailing outlook on, and problems and interests in the visual arts (Antal, 1949; Bryson, Holly, & Moxey, 1994). The mode of inquiry in the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, emphasized the artist biography. This approach was initiated by Giorgio Vasari, an Italian-born artist and writer. In his book, The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, first published in 1550, he wrote biographies of wellknown artists from the 14th to the 16th centuries (Vasari, 1963). The 18th century saw the development of cultural art history in Germany with the works of Johann Winckelmann. Winckelmann was the first to put the words art and history together, and thus formulated a historical process which examined the origin, process, change, and downfall of art within a cultural context. The 19th century saw the emergence of aesthetic and formalist approaches. Formalist art history followed an art-for-art's-sake doctrine and emphasized gathering data from the close examination of the work of art to the exclusion of contextual or extrinsic information. The goal of this approach was to determine the chronology of style cycles (Antal, 1949) . The early 20th century saw an emphasis on formalism, style, and psychoanalysis as primary modes of inquiry. Formal and stylistic analysis excluded naturalistic standards, the cycle, and cultural context (Fernie, 1995) . Once again, lives of individual artists became important, as well as their contributions to styles and movements, determined by psychoanalysis which studied the unconscious mental processes of the artist.

By the mid-20th century, a variety of methods such as iconography, iconology, and social art history had been developed. Iconography, the systematic study and identification of subject matter as oppose to style, had always been used in the history of art (Fernie, 1995). However, Erwin Panofsky, a German-born art historian, brought a new dimension to iconography by analyzing it theoretically and correlating it with humanist ideas which postulate that works of art communicate meaning about cultures, artists, and societies. This combination produced iconology, the interpretation of subject-matter via the study of the broad cultural and historical context. Social art history, an approach which emphasized the relationship of the work of art to social and economic histories, developed from theories of Karl Marx prominent in the 19th century. It was the seminal work of Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art (1951), that brought the ideas of the sociology of art to the forefront.

In the latter part of the 20th century, "new art histories" began to develop (Rees & Borzello, 1986). The new art histories emphasize a stronger commitment to studying the broader cultural context of works of art from a more theoretical position. A number of different approaches have developed as reactions to formalism, connoisseurship, and a simplistic view of iconography. These include: (a) deconstructionism or poststructuralism, an approach that challenges fixed interpretations and denies the genius and contribution of the individual artist; (b) semiotics, the study of how sign systems produce meaning and serve particular social functions; (c) structuralism, meaning derived from the structure or anatomy of an object as opposed to its content; and (d) feminsm, meaning derived from a female perspective Minor, 1994) . …

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