The History of Art History

The History of Art History

The History of Art History

The History of Art History


The Greeks chattered about painters quite as much as people do nowadays, and had their salons, and shilling exhibitions, and Arts and Crafts guilds, and Pre-Raphaelite movements, and movements towards realism, and lectures about art, and wrote essays on art, and produced their art-historians, and their archaeologists, and all the rest of it.

Oscar Wilde

Of course, Oscar Wilde's words have little to do with historical fact. Discussion about art and art history arose extremely late in Greece, and until then major Greek thinkers had scant respect for artists themselves. Surviving texts show that well into the fifth century and later the artist was simply considered a banausos — literally, an artisan, a man whose work was much admired but who himself stood far below the philosopher, orator, or tragedian in social rank — on a level, in fact, with barbers, cooks, and smiths. The very necessity of manual labor robbed the artist of spirituality. The work of art was viewed not as a product of human creativity, but as something god-inspired: its execution was considered a lowly task, like that of any other trade. Art historian Bernhard Schweitzer has convincingly documented this basic attitude, and only recently has Hanna Philipp made some alterations.

The extant fragments of the writings of Democritus (ca. 460-370 b.c.) offer a surprisingly early exception to the rule, however, historically classifying and ranking individual works of all sorts, from the very primitive to the very complex, and thus challenging the notion that the statues, temples, and palaces of his homeland were strictly "acts of God."

Socrates (469/470-399 b.c.), who once worked as a sculptor but abandoned the profession out of disdain for it, on the whole found art insignificant; yet in Xenophon's versions of his dialogues with the painter Parrhasius and the sculptor. Kleiton, Socrates also lays claim to being a competent art critic.


Plato (427-347 b.c.) figures quite prominently in the shaping of Greek attitudes towards art, as he was directly concerned with the art of his age. While he certainly left us no comprehensive theory of art, Plato nevertheless at various times in his life was deeply involved with contemporary art as well as with art of the immediate past. In the Laws he establishes three tasks for the critic: to identify subject matter, to decide the justness of the representation at hand, and to judge quality of execution.

Yet in his old age Plato grew increasingly intolerant of art, especially of the new illusionism of his contemporaries' such as Scopas and Praxiteles, and he went so far as to label . . .

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