An accurate understanding of traditional culture and its context is essential to the study of art history. In one’s chosen area of study, one must achieve a great depth of cultural knowledge before making assumptions on a piece of art. It’s all too common for contemporary, sometimes uneducated, ideals to disregard the history behind a piece of art and jump to modernized conclusions, wrecking the piece’s origin of voice. This is largely based on a Western idealized superiority.
In “Race-ing Art History,” chapter one, titled Just Like Us, by John R. Clarke, it speaks in depth on the placement of artwork in a traditional Roman home and how the location of the art in an ancient household speaks deeply of its meaning. This seemingly insignificant context within an art piece and its origin is often ignored or lackadaisically unstudied, leaving the uneducated modernists to create their own conclusions on an artwork’s meaning without qualification to do so. The dangers of such a practice include concluding incorrect ideals of race, gender, the purpose of an art, and a diminutive view of a culture.
Within the study of art, a subject is rarely clear cut. Intentions, culture, and placement within time, date, and original location of a piece all link together to create a complex area of scholarship. In order to keep art accessible and the enjoyment of aesthetics limitless to all viewers, whether educated or uneducated on a piece’s historical context, it is critical to avoid jumping to premature conclusions about an Other’s culture. The comparison from primitive society to contemporary society is a dangerous practice without proper, historical study.
Although it is impossible, and likely unwanted, to understand all of history (in general and specifically within an artistic context,) it is critical as a viewer to be aware that history is still alive within the artwork that is being viewed. Having a high sensitivity to the reality of a culture the viewer is interacting with by looking at a piece of art, (its religion, politics, demographics, and geography,) is one first step to avoiding misinterpretation of ancient artwork. Even if the viewer knows nothing about the culture they’re interacting with, understanding the depth and reality of lives that came before will raise the standards of respect between the Self and Other.
Michaela Stock, Hope College 2020.
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