On numerous occasions, members of my extended circle of friends have questioned the value of studying art. They say that studying art is easy, is inapplicable to real life and leads to a “soft” profession. I’d like to take this chance to defend art and its history. I posit that art history is intellectually stimulating, aesthetically engaging and challenging. Art itself is vital to the ways in which we understand the past, empathize with the human condition and construct the future.
When you study art history, you do not simply look at a painting from the 16th century and describe the colors you see and the people in the piece. First you synthesize political, social, economic, scientific, architectural, legal, geographic, medical and cultural histories to understand the piece within the context of its time. Then, you take the narrative of the artist and integrate that into your understanding of the piece. Finally you consider the piece and how it influences and connects with artists and artworks of its time and of times to come. You rigorously dissect, translate and synthesize your initial reaction, the artist’s intention, the history that you know and the future that might follow. In studying art and art history, you develop an aesthetic eye and a language that empowers you to understand more of what you see. You learn to look critically. You become an informed global citizen.
In my time studying art history at Duke, I have studied medicine and the use of cadavers during the Italian Renaissance, and theories of immigration, cultural development and urban planning; I have studied the chemistry of art materials and why some are more effective than others; I have studied dictators, peasants, soldiers and teachers; I have studied international trade and economic development, the stock market, the history of food and literature and philosophies of the mirrored self and totemic societies; I have studied languages and the construction of the Latino/a identity and what it means to be from Latin America; I have studied feudalism, socialism, sexism, feminism, racism, communism, capitalism and federalism; I have studied the history of the press and media, the Bible, the Quran and the Torah. I’m sure many other courses of study at Duke incorporate all of these into their syllabi as well, and art history is no exception.
To all aspiring professionals in all fields, art and art history are crucial.
To all who wish to enter the investment-banking world, the art market will be your best frenemy as you start making bank. The art that you buy and display in your various permanent and vacation homes will be a marker of your wealth and sophistication. You must know art to compete with your friends and rivals alike. The artists you fund become an extension of your cultural credibility. The curators, art consultants and gallery owners that you know will help you become an arbiter of what’s hot on the market (read: make more bank) if you respect what they do and have some knowledge about the field.
To those aspiring scientists and engineers, art will be how you understand the past and envision the future of your field. It is how to communicate your ideas to others, how to become a part of society and how to make your field accessible. Art provides great insight into the evolution of medicine and chemistry. Architecture is a reflection of the values of societies and is studied alongside paintings and sculptures, as they are all part of the aesthetic and social landscape of cultures.
To all future politicians and policy makers, art can convey a message and drive a point home. Artists can create the way in which the masses relate to a public figure: Think of Shepard Fairey and his creation of the ever-popular red, white and blue Obama “Hope” poster. I suggest getting on board and understanding aesthetic discourse and how it can be helpful to your project. The Medicis did it—why not you?
To those who want to go into journalism, advertising or marketing, art can be the greatest tool of communication. When you present information, make a website or create a spread in a newspaper or magazine, you use design concepts. Having an “eye” will help your career. When reporting, knowledge of art will help you draw connections to other facets of life that you may not have known otherwise.
To all those who will be educating the next generations, art is a tool to encourage students to be imaginative and creative, analytic and descriptive. Through art—studying it or making it—students learn not only how to think deeply, but also how to express themselves. Students who create art and are comfortable with discussion are more self-aware, inquisitive, curious and reflective about themselves and the world around them.
To those future curators, artists, art advisors, gallery owners and museum educators, I thank you for knowing this already.
To those in doubt, call me when you start collecting.
Molly Superfine is a Trinity senior.