Find Enrichment in the Art History Major

Dec 8, 2017

by Dr. Alexander Rich
Assistant Professor and Program Director of Art History

Art History is one of those rare disciplines that taps into virtually every other field of study. Visual culture is part of every other discipline, from the humanities to the sciences to economics.

Having the ability to talk in a sophisticated manner about visual imagery and about those who have created that visual imagery over time is a key element of not only being a well versed human being but also being a well-rounded professional in any field.

Works of art are the primary-source creative artifacts of human history. Each new generation of art historians — that is Art History majors — becomes the keeper of that history, and they the future educators about it. Art — be it visual, literary, theatrical, performative, etc. — is the key to understanding human culture, so Art History majors are central to the interpretation and dissemination of that information to the public and to future generations.

More immediately: It’s also really fun to be able to astound your friends and family with your easy ability to explain why, say, Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907 is the most important painting of the 20th century.

Art is often a scary subject for people to feel comfortable approaching, and this is the case for many students. I strive in all my classes and for all students to make them realize from the very beginning of a survey course that Art History is both fun, engaging, and demanding of a skill-set that we each have inside of us already.

It is not just looking at paintings and how their painters painted them (say that a few times fast), but also why they were painted that way and what the rationale was behind their creation.

There is no way to separate how we represent the world or our reactions to that world visually from the concepts or thoughts we hold about it. No matter one’s background with art or sense of personal skill in looking at art, we are all art historians in one way or another.

Dr. Rich leading a discussion in the Melvin Art Gallery with artist Richard Haas (far left) and gallerist William Meek ‘72 (middle).

Think about the images and pieces of art or photographs we all encounter all day every day and then make judgments and observations about. We may not realize it when we are doing it, but we already spend our lives looking at and deciphering the visual world around us. We are always wittingly and unwittingly analyzing the ways in which images affect our lives, but the study of Art History refines, intellectualizes, and contextualizes the ability to do so.

Accordingly, like writing or religion or the development of political and economic systems, art is a reflection of human experience. Becoming well-versed in the History of Art and the way that art has impacted human beings from the earliest cave paintings to the most modern of contemporary art is one of the central skill-sets Art History students and majors develop over the course of their studies.

As Art History majors, students hone the craft of thinking critically about art and the way any given work art has been made purposefully by its artist. Artworks begin to be seen as artifacts inextricable from the times and eras during which they were made. After all, artists are inevitably of their eras, and whatever they create is a product impacted by and reflective of the world in which it was made. This is why Art History majors are wonderfully specialized historians. They are trained to see history through the lens of creative human production.

Art History majors are thus prepared specifically for countless possible career paths, from museum work to conservation to teaching and beyond. Many Art History majors also go on to work in other fields and find that their undergraduate training in Art History offers them alternative approaches to careers in business or psychology or can enhance everything from their future medical careers to the study of art law. Understanding art on a deeper level is a plus no matter what you do in life.

For those majors interested in a career in the world of art, our program offers many opportunities to test the waters in the field. Especially with our new affiliation with the Polk Museum of Art, the undergraduate Art History experience will be much more museum-intensive. In addition to using the Museum galleries, exhibitions, and collections more actively in coursework, majors will more readily obtain academic year and summer internships at the Polk Museum and other area museums, galleries, and arts institutions. We offer full course credit for internships in the art field.

With the affiliation we will also be building up courses and programming related to museum studies, to provide interested students with the background and training to prepare them for and to gain greater insight into working in the art world. Those new courses of studies are in the works, with new museum-training-oriented class offerings ideally rolled out as soon as Fall 2018.