03 December 2005

Art History: Problematic situation #4

I thought those of you out there who like art but haven’t really studied art history would appreciate an overview of art history methodologies. Methodology is a big word, and in this context it means “approach”. These are the most common ways that scholars look at and judge art. They are not all compatible, and some are mutually exclusive. Each will lead you to a very different appraisal of any given work. To illustrate, I’ve chosen Daumier’s Third Class Carriage from 1865. You can refer back to it for each of the methodologies below.

Formalistic—This approach might seems inappropriate unless the art in question is one of total abstraction, but it yields interesting content anyway. The color, line, value, and composition are the only things a formalistic reading concerns itself with. You’d note the heavy outlines, the subdued tones, the crowded composition. All of this would then feed into one of the other approaches, which would help create an interpretation of those formalistic elements.

Psycho-analytic—Typically, this methodology focuses on the artist and how their work illustrates their various psychoses. Using it with the Daumier above, you’d want to also investigate the psychologies of the people he depicts, and if these depictions are in any way autobiographical. Freud’s ideas are usually at the center of these writings. It doesn’t seem to matter that Freud got a lot wrong, so I’m not really fond of this methodology.

Socio-historical—This methodology is concerned with what was it like to be an artist, to be a viewer, and the condition of art at the time it was done. Was it common to depict scenes like this? Who was the intended audience? Is the artist moralizing, glorifying, condemning anyone?

Feminist—The feminist methodology is like the socio-historical, but woman-centric. Relevant questions include, “what was the condition of women at the time the art was done?”, “what was it like to be a woman artist?”, “what was it like to be a woman viewer?”, “whose gaze is it, a man’s or a woman’s?” Daumier wasn’t a woman, but that doesn’t mean his works are outside the scope of this methodology.

Marxism/class—Not too different from the feminist critique, the Marxist approach centers on class, status, money, power, and so on. Relevant questions include, “who were the viewers?”, “who were the artists?”, “what was their status?”, “how is status depicted?” It makes a difference if Daumier was on a level with the occupants of the third class section, or if he depicts them as a voyeur with a better seat.

Iconography—This one is tricky, because there are times when a rock or an apple or a sailboat is only that and nothing more. Other time, depicted objects, placement of people, gestures, and other visual devices carry symbolic weight that is necessary to understand the intended message of a piece. I don’t have any idea if a symbolic reading of Daumier’s work has been done or if anything came of it if it has been.

Semiotics-- This has to do with visual culture and how a piece of it relates to the whole. The fact that we look at Daumier’s heavy black outlines and we think of cartoons is relevant here. This approach is concerned with what images mean and why they mean them. So if you find Daumier’s painting a bit, well, depressing, this approach is all about figuring out why it seems that way.

So why does this qualify as one of Art History's problematic situations? Well, there are at least seven ways to look at any work of art, yielding seven potentially mutually exclusive interpretations. This really only works if you already believe that art is something different for each viewer out there.

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