Talking about Art and Architecture: The 2nd Question. by Gloria Yu YANG

The Second
Question: what is art history, and how is it different from history? To
be honest, I am not able to answer the question as "what is art history"
has been given different answers by thousands of great masters and the
answer of the question fundamentally determines one’s
methodology and theoretical framework.  However, recently some small
related to this topic keep popping up so I thought it might be useful
to sort over my thoughts. These scattered thoughts were inspired by
the classes of Late Renaissance Art
and Chinese Calligraphy before Tang Dynasty.

Historians usually take paintings and images as "pictures" representing a
historical place and time, namely, they are pictorial evidences of
historical, social and political events and visual revelations of thoughts.  They will say: this is a representation of
the XX war, or of the political atmosphere during XX dynasty, or that is an
illustration of a text..etc. And it is also true that even today, many
art historians, especially those in the East Asian Art field, still read
the artworks as text, discovering the MEANING behind it by
contextualizing the work in a historical place and time.  That is also
the training I have received at pitt.  However, that is not Art
History, but rather the history of Art. Another day I asked Chi what is
the most popular methodology to analyze a film, and she told me the general consent among scholars is
the textual approach, which interprets the film as a text.  I think both approaches are fundamentally WRONG.


Because Text and
Image are fundamentally different.  "An image is never, ever an
illustration of the text," a quote from Prof. Hood that I took as a
bible sentence. Take the Sistine Chapel for example, even tourist guildbooks tell you that Michelangelo based fresco of the ceiling on the bible text.  However, when you look at that image depicting God enliven Adam and compare it to the sentence in the bible, you will find the book said the God breathed the life into Adam, but no version said this process of enlivening was realized through the touching of the finger. it was the Artist’s decision, out of his goal of creating a dramatic scene, a mirror-composition between the God and Adam, and a preference of movement and twisted gesture, that leads to such a powerful image.  The same example can be also found in the handscroll of The Tale of Genji, the earliest version of which dates to the 8th Century.  The image that accompanied the text did not merely repeat the text in a visual form, but instead, the artist highlighted the emotional struggling of the characters by visual composition, such as beams diagonally dividing the space and pushing the figures into an compressed block to cause uncomfortable feeling on viewers that similar to the character’s  psychological state. In the end of the day, artists made their own choices for a powerful, pleasuring visual effect.

Not only we should pay attention to how art was made and how artist made decisions, we should also pay attention to how art was received during the time it was made.  Why? because the power of image is not limited to being seen, but it sometimes overpowered/shaped our perception of the world. Namely, what people SEE
dictates what people KNOW.   For example, we view the Ukiyo-e as art works that are beautiful, exotic, as if people made them out of aesthetic function.  However, we have to consider that a commoner in the Edo period, before the invention of photography, how can he/she access to images/paintings?  The chances were very limited, almost only through going on a pilgrimage to temple which holds image of Kannon (!they consider the images of Gods as Avatars! not a beautiful object). Or in the street they could peep through some fan shop to get some exotic themes so called "Chinese" or "Japanese" famous places.  The beautiful handscrolls/screens we saw today were almost exclusively made for the upper class.  However, when printing technology of Ukiyo-e was expanded, with its cheap price, commoners were able to access large visual information: they could see a lot of places they have never been, see a lot of activities they had never done.  Why do you think the meisho-e, the paintings of famous places were so popular among the Ukiyo-e themes?  Because they could see what they couldnot see before. By means of Ukiyo-e, they found that images of the places, even as familiar as Edo or their residence area, take an EXOTIC quality. It is like an urban spectacle.  That is what I think, why Ukiyo-e is revolutionary to the Japanese painting history. It is the same thing with that when Photography was invented and expanded in France and Britain in the early 20th Century.  Most of the Ukiyo-e, are not conceived as paintings, but as visual information in fashion, like a fashion magazine, newspaper today.

I have heard people complaining that their mediocre photographs are because they don’t have a professional camera and if they
have nikon cameras with huge pixels, they could make pictures just like those classical paintings.  I laugh at those people loudly. Hundred years ago, photographers already struggled with this question: how do we value/view a photograph?  Only a photograph that looks like a painting is a good photograph?  And the result of a series of debates and practices is that Photograph established their own value, not based on how real they could reflect the external world or a painting of the same object.  And the set of values has to do with the social change, the rise of mass production and the demand for an art form for mass (Walter Benjamin).  Photography has its own question to solve, one of which is how it shapes our perception in the modern world and how it shakes the foundation of traditional art.  One absolutely classic, wonderful article to read the role of photography in this modern industry world is Walter Benjamin’s "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," and I will not belabor on it here.

Today we live in a world besieged by visual images and benefited
from the information revolution and rapid transportation. 
We take things from google/wikipedia for granted and we take "meanings" directly, say we digest critic’s opinions without questioning their own ideological frameworks. We CHOSE to loose our own judgments for the sake of being cool in front of others.  When talk about a painting, people eagerly search the wall text or recite someone’s opinion, may it be stupid, or stupid but coated with beautiful wording, without actually looking and seeing and thinking about it.  We blind ourselves in such a world saturated with images.  How sad and ironic!!

The reason I chose to be an art historian, not a historian or sociologist,  is that I would like to open my senses, to see, to touch, to smell, to feel about this world, and also do my best to help people open their eyes to see, to establish their own truth about this world.  In that case, I believe the world is beautiful and no longer lonely.


About GloriaYuYANG

art historian, writer


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