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There was, until recently, virtually no art history that ever asked how women or African-Americans, or non-Europeans “influenced” the direction of art, or even traced any kind of links between such artists and the canonised white men.It is the kind of art history practiced in today’s universities, rather than the auction houses, that is asking precisely these bigger questions.
Indeed, the founder of this method was a doctor, Giovanni Morelli.
But unsurprisingly, the discipline has developed somewhat since then.
And over the past century, art history has been enriched by feminist, post-colonial, queer, and trans-national perspectives.
We no longer hunt for connections – we ask questions.
The real problem is that even in the game of source hunting and influence tracing, ideology is already at work.
Influence, linking artists and artworks in a one-way direction, such as family descent, is a dressed-up way of protecting the canon (and the art market), and this machine-aided form of looking for similarity would only reinforce it.
This is what we might call connoisseurial art history, which is what you might have found in the 19th century.
Connoisseurs began to compare works scattered across churches and monasteries, classifying them and trying to discern common authorship.
The works were identified for certain similarities of technique or ways of painting, for instance, hands or ears.
At this point, in the later 19th and early 20th century, the project was somewhat forensic.