Why I studied art history

I was exposed to art history when I was doing my undergraduate degree in multimedia design. During the foundation year of my design studies, I learnt about drawing, painting, and art history to implement the thought process into my designs.

One of the subjects that caught my attention is art history. It was fascinating for me because it opened my eyes to the deeper meanings behind artists such as the formation of society and the culture that influenced the creation of artworks. I began to observe objects around me and interpreting what I see and found the beauty of different interpretations.

My love for art history increased when I worked with my Senior Art Director. He often brought us out to museums and art galleries and frequently gave us mini assignments to do. He questioned the team’s thoughts about the artworks and explained the meanings behind the artworks.

The art of understanding artworks has opened my eyes to many possibilities and the world around me. Here are the reasons why I took art history.

A visual and read/write learner

Based on the VARK (Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing and Kinaesthetic) model of learning, I am a visual and read/write learner. These models of learning suggest that I learn better through visuals and the text that I read.

Growing up, it was a struggle for me, as most of the educators are not very flexible. Most of the education is catered for the auditory learners as most teachers methods were more auditory than other methods.

I hated history lessons in school, but looking at artworks helped me to understand history better. When I was still in secondary school, the teachers taught history from a biased point of view because of the syllabus. My motivation in school was to pass my examinations, and not to gain an understanding of the world. Hence, I just followed the biased textbooks without questioning bias.

It was only learning art history as part of my undergraduate design course open my eyes to the world. Observing artworks trained me to understand different mediums and the artists’ intentions. While we cannot avoid bias, but studying art history gave opened my eyes to different narratives. Furthermore, piecing these different narratives is highly satisfying because I get a well-rounded view instead of focusing on one lens, which leads to misunderstanding of people and events.

Understanding the different narratives

I live in a multicultural country of many ethnicities. I took diversity for granted until I met people who came from homogeneous countries.

One incident that remained fresh in my mind is my encounter with my Vietnamese colleague who stepped into Malaysia for the first time. I remembered when he heard me talking to my Malaysian colleague in English, and he was confused, and he asked, “Wait a minute, aren’t you both Malaysians? Why are you speaking English to each other?”

While I knew in my head that we have our points of view, and I took it for granted as I lived in a multicultural country. When someone highlighted that I should speak in the national language with my fellow Malaysian, I realised some countries place greater emphasis on the national language. It is not that people do not speak other languages, but in Malaysia, I have to speak three languages to survive.

Art history taught me the nuances of each culture. It is true we can feel collective emotions, such as happiness and sadness. Yes, we have a shared history, but we are also nuanced.

Art describes diverse perspectives and narratives which only certain people will reveal in a certain way. When people do art, it reflects their likes, e.g. the type of mediums they use or media that they consumed. Sometimes it is the influences of their society or countries they have been. Sometimes, art helps us to soul seek. Hence, as much as we try to copy art, but the best works come from the influences of other people, experiences, and honesty.

Balancing hands-on and art history

During my undergraduate days as a multimedia design student, I dealt with was hands-on projects, rather than focusing on the concepts and contextualising. I continued being hands-on as I worked my way up. Moreover, many people could relate to the hands-on aspect of art — as asking them to read or follow a video can be perceived as too theoretical.

However, it is different when I was doing my postgraduate as I was dealing with the historical aspect of art. After understanding art history, it helped me to gain an understanding of why I was making things with my own hands.

Lauren Christine Philips wrote in her article “Nurturing Empathy” about her experiences as an art educator.

Her quote about art education caught my attention:

My success as an art teacher can be assessed not by how many artists my students remember, but by the growth of their appreciation for the creations of other beings and the understanding of the care that was put into that creation.¹

I like how she taught art to school children. She often gives context to the art they are doing, and the school children can see the motivations behind the artworks that they do.

I agree with that point of view of appreciating the creations of other beings. For example, in my research of printing technologies that were brought into Malaysia, I had to differentiate between wood engraving illustrations and lithography printing. There were plenty of resources found online, but I benefited from a rubber carving workshop.

While the wood engravings are not the same as rubber stamp printing, but I had a chance to learn how to cut light and dark areas. This method is similar to wood engravings, as wood engraving focus more on the light and shade of the illustrations. I will write more about this experience in my next post.

These are the few reasons I learnt art history. It was a difficult subject for me, but the perspectives that I have gained is invaluable.

[1] Lauren Christine Phillips, “Nurturing Empathy,” Art Education 56, no. 4 (n.d.): 45–50.

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Elle L

Elle L

I create art to find personal meaning, and I write to understand diverse meanings. This is a place to document my life and its processes.