Arts and Culture

Why art history? Students of the major weigh in

“What is art history?” I asked myself a full month after signing up for an art history class for the spring semester.

When I really thought about it, I realized that I did not know. I knew that ARTHive, the art history club, existed on campus and that the arts at Wheaton are a very prominent aspect of the school’s identity, but beyond that, I had almost no conception.

A standard definition of art history states that the study is focused around the history of “traditional” art such as painting and sculpture as well as other art forms. After speaking with art history majors Madi Cook-Comey ’19, Quinn Redmond ’18, Allison Meyette ’18 and Audrey Spina ’17, I realized that such a definition is much too narrow.

Though much of art history is centered on the study of art and art objects, it does not stop there. Art history is about contextualizing objects in order to come out with a better understanding of what they are, why they were created and so on and so forth.

The way art itself is defined is always changing and so are the societal, cultural, political and various other conditions in which that art is produced; thus an artifact can not be considered in isolation of these factors. Of this, Meyette said, “I think a lot of times, you can’t fully understand art history without having a base in some other discipline.”

“Interdisciplinary” is the term used by all four of the majors I spoke with to describe the essence of the subject.

Spina said, “I think that art history is so rooted in the interdisciplinariness [sic] of the humanities, and all the humanities are connected to each other. You can’t get away without it. So philosophy is connected to art history and as is connected to English as to classics, so it is easy to draw those ties once you are enveloped in the literature, and in the course. I think getting people to realize that the humanities are so similar and that the skills you use in all of them are so similar.”

With a definition established, the question now becomes, “Why art history?” whether as a major or just to try something new.

“Art history has helped me in other subjects because when you are looking at a piece, you have to analyze every minute detail, and that really helps in other areas as well. It helps you analyze a poem, look at flora and fauna better and all this other stuff that relates to other disciplines that other students have on campus because it is a liberal arts school. You get the skills from art history,” said Redmond.

In addition, Cook-Comey said, “I think it also really helps you build your analysis and kind of make your creative writing component, but it also is very much based in research, so you can get kind of that two-sided collaboration in a sense. And you really also build your writing skills.”

As with all studies, Cook-Comey, Meyette, Redmond and Spina agree that the vibrancy of the faculty has really helped ground their own enthusiasm for the subject.

The faculty is composed of Professor of Art History R. Tripp Evans, Associate Professor and Chair of Art History Touba Ghadessi, Associate Professor of Art History Ellen McBreen, Associate Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Art History Kim Miller, Professor of Art History Evelyn Staudinger and Assistant Professor of Museum Studies and Art History Curator of the Permanent Collection Leah Niederstadt.

Course offerings include titles like “Picturing New York,” “Modernism and Mass Culture,” “Arts of the Avant-Garde” and “Visualizing Ancient Rome,” among others.
With such a diversity of courses, art history is worth pursuing, even if only for a semester. Art history is much more than what people suspect it to be, so come fall registration, give it a try.