Why Art History Matters: Ruth Collins

Art history is not just the study of famous paintings by old, dead masters, it is a multidisciplinary subject that covers social anthropology, gender studies, theology, architecture, archaeology, palaeography, design, displacement, history, representation etc.

There has been an overwhelming bias against the study of art history in public perception; art history degrees are derided with a “Mickey Mouse qualification” taint that is hard to break. Obviously as someone who has just completed their humanities degree in art history, I am in “the importance of art history camp” but I think the devaluing of the subject stems from a misunderstanding of what art historians actually do.

Art history is not just the study of famous paintings by old, dead masters, it is a multidisciplinary subject that covers social anthropology, gender studies, theology, architecture, archaeology, palaeography, design, displacement, history, representation etc. It is a seemingly endless list of different disciplines because of the very nature of art history as a subject. If I want to learn about a particular artist, the subject teaches me to learn not only about a key work but also prior pieces, influences and associations of the artist, techniques, art periods, other emerging artists of the time, past masters, commerce and trade connections, protest and turmoil, or global events such as the art movements of Surrealism and Dadism in the interwar timeline.

In my own career as a jobbing artist, art history has aided me in learning different techniques to expand my range. Prior to studying for my undergraduate degree I was content to work mainly in charcoal for portraiture, or recreating historically accurate costumes and dress. While learning about art history I have explored technical skills of past masters and discovered a love and new found passion for painting portraits in a new (to me) medium of oils. Now when I recreate an eighteenth-century dress, I have a broader knowledge of the history behind the silk and textile trade but I also have a greater knowledge base of paintings to reference for my dress designs. Because of the confidence I have gained with studying art history through the Open University, I am organising a guided museum tour for a group of children and parents from a home education co-op I am involved with. I intend to try and impart some knowledge and encourage other people to embrace art history as a broad and interesting discipline.

The study of art history allows people to embrace the history of their area, their country, and their place in the world.

My decision to study art history will not be ending with the completion of my humanities degree, I successfully argued myself a place onto a competitive Master’s degree course (conditional upon a 2:1). The Master’s I have been accepted for usually only admits students from a history or archaeology background, but I was able to demonstrate that my education in art history gave me a perfect broad, interdisciplinary knowledge base that was directly applicable to my further studies. Art history does not just teach you about art, it also teaches you how to learn about a range of topics. An example of this multifaceted education can be taken from a look at a single automaton, Tipu’s Tiger. By studying this piece, art historians are able to discuss, British and Indian portrayals in colonial India, the East India Company, other European relationships with Asia, transculturalism, silk production, trade, uprising and revolt or textile design in Paisley, Scotland.

Open Arts Object, Tipu’s Tiger

For my final essay, the examinable component of my degree, the EMA, for A344, Art and its Global Histories, I chose contemporary sculpture and installation and discussed not only two pieces of public art but also the history of the area they were displayed in and in the case of one, the history of the museum’s relationships with Eurocentric viewership. Art history allows the understanding of visual communication methods. For most of human history, we were an illiterate society; art allowed people to share an understanding and break communication barriers opening them up to religious expression or trade. Contemporary art history allows humans to understand social movements and expression through creativity, far from being an individual subject, highly specialised and unattainable to the majority, art history is a leveller. The study of art history allows people to embrace the history of their area, their country, and their place in the world.

-Ruth Collins, artist and OU alumna (BA 2018)

A344, Art and its Global Histories is a new third level module at the Open University. Its textbooks, co-published with Manchester University Press have been widely adopted across the world in the teaching of a global Art History. To learn more about Tipu’s Tiger, watch one of our Open Arts Objects films, or follow its history through the interactive,  Travelling Objects.

One Reply to “Why Art History Matters: Ruth Collins”

  1. I just wanted to say what a great post Ruth, your comment about art history being a ‘leveller’ rather than ‘unattainable to the majority’ is spot on!

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