“Swan, my mother said, sensing my excitement. It pattered the bright water, flapping its great wings, and
lifted into the sky.
The word alone hardly attested to its magnificence nor conveyed the emotion it produced. The sight of it
generated an urge I had no words for, a desire to speak of the swan, to say something of its whiteness, the
explosive nature of its movement, and the slow beating of its wings.
The swan became one with the sky. I struggled to find words to describe my own sense of it. Swan, I
repeated, not entirely satisfied, and I felt a twinge, a curious yearning, imperceptible to passersby, my
mother, the trees, or the clouds.”
-Just Kids by Patti Smith
This is more of an explanation than a definition, but it gets at the intent of art, which tells you something about what art really is. For Patti Smith, art is the attempt to describe her experience in a deeper way than can be offered by a simple word or description. There is something sublime about the world that is difficult to describe, and the mission of art is to express that essence. This is the definition of Art that I most agree with.
“Works produced by human creative skill and imagination.” – Oxford Living Dictionaries
I disagree with this definition because I think that more is required for Art than just skill and imagination. Something can be technically impressive, but without impact and meaning it is not Art. Of course, it is probably impossible for an Artist to put much skill and effort into something without finding meaning in it, so a showcase of creative skill and imagination will almost certainly be Art, however those qualities alone are not reason why it is art. An unskillful amateur can produce a piece poorly imagined and bereft of technical skill, however because of what it means to them and the impact it has, it is still very firmly Art.
Art History is the gathering of Human Artwork from across time and space. This Artwork is organized so that one can say ‘These people over here made this while those people over there made that, and then after that some more people over there made that too.’ This provides you with a story of who made what where when, and this story tells you a lot about who those people were, what they were doing, who they knew, and what they cared about.
We study the Art History because it is one of the most interesting things that exists! Art History can give us a perspective into, not just what other humans did, but what they cared about and were inspired by. Personally one of my interests is Jungian Psychology and Carl Jung’s theory of psychological archetypes. Art History is where one goes to find these archetypes, or universal human themes, and see these themes expressed in manifold ways through human history.
The understanding that we gain from this study comes in the form of answers to fundamental questions of human psychology and motivation. Humans are inspired by the stories and images which are conveyed in their art. When a universal human theme, such as the Hero’s Journey, is discovered and (to the best of our ability) understood, then we can see how that theme is being actively lived by people we know, and also actually by ourselves. ‘Why do I do what I do?’ ‘How do I find meaning in what I do?’ These are difficult questions that Art History won’t necessarily answer, but the study of Artwork and Art History will give understanding of the efforts other humans have made to approach these issues.