Is art worth studying from an historical perspective? Sir Kenneth Clark certainly thought so. He spent his life in that pursuit. And during that life, he learned an enormous amount, which he shared in his amazing Civilisation TV series.
And Clark is not alone. In Britain, Pevsner and Gombrich were also deeply interested in and famous for their study of art. Before them we have Ruskin and Pater. After Clark, we get John Berger with his “Ways of Seeing” TV series, a sort of anti-Clark study of art and society form a Marxist- feminist perspective.
In France, one needs to mention Andre Malraux. Malraux was Clark’s contemporary and he produced a rather serious book on the history of art called “The Voices of Silence”. It starts off this way
A Romanesque crucifix was not regarded as a work of sculpture. Nor sculpture. Nor Cimabue’s Madonna as a picture. Even Pheidias Pallas Athene was not primarily, a statue.
So vital is the part played by the art museum in our approach to works of art today that we find it difficult to realize that no museums exist, none has ever existed, in lands where the civilization of modern Europe is, or was, unknown; and that even amongst us, they have existed for barely two hundred years. They bulked so large in the nineteenth century and are so much part of our lives today that we forget they have imposed on the spectator a wholly new attitude towards the work of art. For they have tended to estrange the works they bring together from their original functions and to transform even portraits into “pictures”. Though Caesar’s bust and the equestrian Charles V remain for us Caesar and the Emperor Charles, Count-Duke Olivares has become pure Velasquez. What do we care who The Man with the Helmet or The Man with the Glove may have been in real life? For us, their names are Rembrandt and Titian.
This is something that Clark did not emphasize, but I think rings true. Modern appreciation of art is very different than was that of our predecessors. BTW, the same is true for philosophy. The ancient Greeks would have had little clue what Kant was trying to accomplish. They saw the main use of philosophy as a tool for living better – not for exploring cognition itself.