Fear not, my fellow introverts, this post isn’t making a plea to get out there, to start mixing and mingling. Rubbing shoulders, hobnobbing and working rooms aren’t my expert-iest areas of expertise. Recluses have more fun, anyway.

So perhaps to the relief of some, I’m here to briefly bring up the social approach to studying art history, which, like all its methodological brethren, offers some advantages and disadvantages when applied to the task of analysing a given artist’s work.

For starters, a social method acknowledges that art history is bound up tightly in all of History with a capital ‘H’, that it does not occupy its own beauteous vacuum.

Much light can be shed on a painting or sculpture by examining the age in which it was produced. Power structures, proper etiquette, significant events, socio-economics, public health, prevailing ideologies, and even the personal life of an artist can speak volumes about how and why a particular canvas or bust came to be.

Such an ability to lend context can be considered a positive quality. Getting a sense of a specific time period and the people who lived, worshiped, governed and innovated within it extracts more meaning from an artwork than a formalist, purely compositional focus (to be discussed on another occasion, gentle readers).

Multiple perspectives within an era can also be explored through the social art historical method. The aims of ruling classes, the plight of the marginalised, overarching zeitgeists, taboos and idiosyncrasies of a particular artist can and should all be taken into consideration. The big picture comes together only with the grace and singularity of its smallest details. 

Big-time art historian T.J. Clark has stressed that all the forces impacting a work of art are always essentially impacted by other forces, necessitating a need for multiplicity in research. “No art is hermetic,” he’s written, and “…the study of any one ‘factor’ in artistic production leads us very swiftly back to the general problems we hoped to avoid. The study of patronage and sales in the nineteenth century cannot even be conducted without some general theory — admitted or repressed — of the structure of a capitalist economy.” 

Sales and patronage in the nineteenth century is but a narrow slice of the past, but Clark’s point spans space-time. Beneath what we consider to be the basis of something at first glance lie dustier structures more deeply ingrained into the way the world works, with even older layers settled under those.

That gives us a lot of  prime information to work with, if it can all be sorted out.

Social art history can cause trouble because it does require such an extensive knowledge of background information, if not formal education, in order to critically approach and expand upon the most seemingly straightforward of research questions. Such a manner of going about things might be too exhausting, boring or inconclusive, though useful for any future appearances on TV quiz shows.

When a question is left unanswered by a lack of historical documentation, it might be all too easy to make biased assumptions about past circumstances or principles to fill the gaps. It’s human nature to postulate and sadly, or perhaps fortunately, I’ve never been able to decide, time travel isn’t real. The truth might often remain as elusive as years gone by if we’re honest with ourselves.

Delving in deeply from all angles indeed grants a plethora of cultural and historical evidence, but too much information can detract from the artwork itself — the whole reason we began asking around in the first place.

Nevertheless, I encourage the assumption of a social stance. Maybe not an unfaltering, hardcore one, but keep in mind the broad view of things; how all the odd-edged puzzle pieces fit together, whose voices were heard in an era and who was silenced, other notions of normal from once upon a time. Not only will you get more out of the classic paintings you’ve always admired or the contemporary art you’ve never understood, it might just make you a better-rounded, inclusively-thinking person in the present.

Emily Catrice

Source: Timothy J. Clark, Image of the People: Gustav Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, 1999 edition

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