5 things You’ll Learn in an Art History Class

Fall is here and all across the US, school is officially back in session. Some of my fondest memories from college were from the times spent in Art History classrooms. We might be biased, but whether it’s your first semester or you graduated a while ago, we highly recommend that you take an art history class as soon as possible. While you will certainly learn the who, what, and wheres of specific works of art, there are so many other important skills to be gained in Art History classes and translated to your everyday life long after that class ends. Here’s just five of them. 

1. Microanalysis: Pulling the Art Apart

Also called formal analysis, this is simply stating what you see. The questions you might answer when conducting formal analysis include the medium of the object, how big or small it is, material, region of origin, and creator (if known). 

In the beginning, I thought that this step a little odd. Why on Earth should I have to explain to a reader that a small golden statue that they can see a picture of is, in fact, small and golden? And why on Earth does it take such a high proportion of my essays? In the introductory courses, you are instructed to really sit with a piece and consider it carefully for hours, days, even months (which is such an anomaly in this fast-paced digital world). Being forced to confront this work with a fine-tooth comb, you might find a detail that can really change the trajectory of an entire 20 page paper. And without building a solid foundation and grounding the reader, they can’t possibly decide if they agree with what you are saying. Formal analysis is the springboard to some more important and arguably interesting questions and taking time to ruminate about an interesting and/or beautiful piece of art is the most underrated gift you can gives yourself.

2. Macroanalysis: Contextualization and Big Picture Thinking

Once you’ve built a firm foundational knowledge of a time period, you can delve into the meatier questions surrounding the societies and cultures from which the work came in the context of our society. Ultimately, this means asking a lot of “Why?” questions and trying to determine an answer through further research. For example, why was Disney’s animated film Aladdin released one year following the Gulf War which ended in 1991? And what does that say about portrayals of the Middle East in American popular media? Or, why would architect Phillip Johnson go through the trouble of TWO houses, a fully glass house and a brick house with no windows, right next to each other? Why did Andy Warhol paint soup so much? 

This is arguably the most important skill to have in your pocket, and the one that I believe is uniquely cultivated in the art history context. Objects say something important about the time and place they were made and how we view them says something important about ours. This type of analysis is what people typically enjoy working on, the thing that ropes people in. It’s flexible and can accommodate whatever you find interesting from critiquing social structures to psychology or tracing how a medium changed over time. 

3. Being Open to Multiple Interpretations

One of the great things about the field is that there can be multiple “right” answers.This generally comes into play once you have moved past the introductory classes. The format of my other Art History classes is a small roundtable setting (typically with no more than 15 people). These classes often felt more like conversations than lectures and it is definitely the case that you will learn a lot more about the other people sitting around the table.We often will talk about the artist’s intent and bring in our own perspective, which is equally as valid as someone else’s. Because of this, Art History classrooms have actually been the closest thing I can think of to a academic “safe space”. 

4. Learning what is NOT actually up to interpretation

Although Art History has a reputation for being a laissez-faire subject compared to say, a STEM class, there are still a few absolutes.Generally, this includes the parameters tackled in formal analysis. You can’t really argue about whether or not the Mona Lisa is an oil painting by Da Vinci from Italy 1503 AD…because you would simply be incorrect to suggest otherwise. Parsing out what is and is not up for debate is certainly a learned skill but an essential one to cultivate early. I once saw someone try to argue with the professor, a decorated scholar of antiquities, about what the Egyptian ka was (spoiler alert: they didn’t win). 

5. Keeping an open mind and conflict resolution

One of the greatest things about the academic area is that people can interpret the same thing differently based on the life experiences and other background knowledge they are drawing from. 

This could refute a theory that you posed moments before. I don’t think there is any other types of classes where I have been directly challenged as in my Art History classes. It can feel really uncomfortable, like you are being called out. But the more often that this happens, the easier it is to accept it. In the long run, it will likely strengthen your ability to argue a point later in a paper because you will need to defend your position and address other points that run counter to your thesis. 

Art History gets the reputation of being a bit frou frou and removed from the so called Real World. But this misconception takes a narrow view on what is considered to be art in the first place and the skills you will use often in other classes and in the working world. For my job, I need to deconstruct charts and figures quickly to glean meaning on a daily basis in a way that I do not need to remember the anatomy of a squid everyday. My Art History classes were fun (I got to take a whole class on Disney!) but they were also a pragmatic choice. Honing these analytical skills will serve you well no matter what industry or sector you end up settling in. Having to quickly interpret visual information and pass judgement about it could not be MORE useful today. More importantly, we hope that carefully considering art will open your eyes and inspire you in some way, whether to create on your own, visit museums, or read more books on a topic you fall in love with. 


4 comments on “5 things You’ll Learn in an Art History Class

  1. This is a very thoughtful and fantastic assessment of what art history can be! As an art history professor, I’d like to say: “thanks for this!”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the conciseness of your post. I agree that these are the five most important learning objectives and skills that art history teaches us. There are so many habits of mind that get strengthened through engaging with art history. One thing in particular that I am happy to see being focused on more within AP and survey courses is making global art historical connections. I believe that making these connections outside of the canon will ultimately lead students to be more critical in addressing bias and making insightful inferences about cultures and traditions that might differ from their own.


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