A common question that any art-history student will hear until his graduation is “what kind of art do you like?”. This is peculiar in two ways. First, it assumes that art can be divided into sub-categories, as history in years. Second, it dangerously connects my passion for art to some narrow and whimsical form of attraction toward certain artefacts. Obviously, such question is quite innocent and I am not going to charge it with unintended meanings. On the other hand though, it is a good occasion to underline what training as an art historian means to me, and how it relates to the way I approach art in its multiple manifestations.
When asked the question in discussion, the Italian art critic Vittorio Sgarbi answered that, in fact, he does not like anything. The claim is as controversial as Sgarbi himself, who probably owes more fame to his bombastic tv appearances than to his oeuvre as an art historian. Yet, it reveals an important idea: the art historian is not supposed to like anything. A scholar is normally asked to research and delve into the profound reasons which led to the creation of an artwork, and possibly understand the reasons behind the veil of facts. Although claiming objectiveness for one’s discoveries is difficult and laborious, the aim of an art historian is not aesthetic appeal, nor the pleasure of dealing with one’s own sensual fantasies. On the contrary, the art historian seeks facts and tries to earn from them an explanation of the same solidity.
A Private View of the Royal Academy – William Powell Frith
Most of the time, people interact with art in an aesthetic way. The reasoning is led by principles such as pleasure, beauty, ugliness. Most of the time, the reaction to a work of art is formulated through impressions, rather than thoughts. Impressions do not produce discourses, study does. The individual can linger on such principles, while he admires a wonderful work of art, but the art historian cannot. Purely aesthetic considerations would hinder his view on the phenomenon. Clearly, it is not possible to judge art without these principles, but it is not possible to understand it in historical terms if they are the only unit. Moreover, I believe it is fundamental to acknowledge the oeuvre of artists and craftsmen throughout human history beyond the concept of appreciation. As Giulio Carlo Argan wrote, art is determined by consideration, but first of all there is the evidence of material cultures produced over the centuries. The fluctuating fame of artists such as Caravaggio shows how the consideration of the same artwork, the same identical object may vary considerably. The scholar should start from the only unavoidable fact: its existence.