1 Themes and issues in the history of art
This course introduces you to a number of themes and issues in the history of art, taking as its pretext a visit to the Louvre in Paris. It asks three kinds of question:
How did the Grand Louvre (as the modernised Louvre is called) – its buildings, paintings and sculptures – come to be as it is?
How should we respond to the claim that the collections in the Louvre constitute a significant part of the canon of Western European art?
What can we, as art historians, do with a museum of this kind? (What are appropriate questions to ask of any museum and its collections?)
The Louvre is structured as a series of activities, each associated with a video clip taken from the original TV programme. In addition to watching the clips, you’ll be asked to tackle a number of questions that should help you clarify your thoughts and understanding of the material presented on the clips.
Think of an art museum you have visited recently. Ask yourself how aware you were of the building and the history of the collection when viewing the works. Do you think that the context of works of art and the types of decision which went into their acquisition are relevant to an understanding of their meaning?
Here are some thoughts of my own:
Some would argue that confronting works of art requires little more than close attention, some imagination and patience. These are indeed indispensable requirements. On the other hand, few people feel completely at ease in a public place as august, authoritative (literally ‘palatial’) and imposing as the Louvre. Whether this environment provokes awe, respect, a sense of inferiority or annoyance will depend on you. Do you feel comfortable in a museum? Do you talk in hushed tones or can you chat freely about a painting? Do you feel guilty looking at the labels, as if you ought to know who painted the pictures?
If part of the message we get from going to a museum is that important, knowledgeable and well-educated people have selected these things because they believe them to be ‘good’, it must be of interest to find out why they thought they were of value. If it turns out that the original reasons for commissioning or acquiring works of art were of a kind unlikely to be shared by modern viewers, we can ask ourselves questions about how our ‘taste’ is formed.
Of course, it may be that whatever we find out about the value of works of art to those in authority will not influence our perception of them and may have nothing to do with why we ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ them. This will probably depend on how closely we’ve looked at the works and how much we know about them – in modern parlance, how much ‘ownership’ we feel for them.