Art History & the Core

By Prof. Barbara Bushey

This article was originally published in the Hillsdale College Blog.

Why is art history an important part of the core curriculum?

The liberal arts are the foundation of necessary learning required for a humane life. The liberal arts inform our understanding of what is good and beautiful. It is through these areas of study that culture is communicated. Could we live a completely humane life without the visual arts? Anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake has suggested that mankind is hard-wired to make art. Every single human culture engages in behavior that she identifies as “making special.” If we heed the Greek oracle’s entreaty to “know thyself,” then certainly this part of our biological make-up is worthy of study!

One of the ways we understand the past is through the art that was created. What did our ancestors and our ancestors’ ancestors consider beautiful? What objects were among the best things that man has created? Goethe wrote, “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.” Michelangelo’s great masterpiece reveals us to ourselves.

Every picture tells a story. As humans, we are story-telling creatures. Artworks are primary documents, just as the writings in history classes are primary documents. We must learn to read them to understand them. This is why we study the artworks that we study. What did these objects mean to the people who created them? Why do people make things that mean that? How do these images affect our lives?

When we analyze artworks from the past and closely examine their details, we can use those works as a “time machine” to experience what a time different from our own was like. When we look at what has been done before, we gather knowledge and inspiration that contributes to how we speak, feel, and view the marvelous, beautiful, and complex world around us.

I am neither a Buddhist nor from Asia, but when in 2009 the Taliban destroyed the large image of the Buddha in Bamiyan, they stole some of our human history and, perhaps intentionally, diminished our ability to understand others and our collective humanity.

In a conversation with Roger Scruton, an English philosopher, he congratulated me for teaching art history because I was, “giving the students back their heritage.” Sharing the best of the past with my students enables them to more deeply understand what it means to be human — in the past and in the present — and it helps them to create their own future.

Barbara Bushey is the Chairwoman and Associate Professor of Art.