art history: it's a method, not a subject

Art History : it’s a method, not a subject

Today’s encouragement for all of you artists is a weird one, but a good one if you take a couple of moments to reflect with me on art history and change.

We will compare two quotes—one is a poem and one comes from a philosophical work.

Then in the comments, we’ll reflect on how these two are linked.

First the poem:


“Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.”

― Seamus Heaney “Double Take” from The Cure of Troy

And  now for the philosophy:


“If I experience the David now, along with its remarkable past ties within Florence—and yet experience it as a transaction from the sculptor and his community to me, in my community; if, in addition to the monumental traits that cluster intensively within the piece, I am drawn extensively to participate in the world in a fresh way—and I sense something of heroism, the end of simple happiness, the loneliness of power, so that the shape of the world is more vivd now for me; if I understand in this piece something of what the sculptor understood of existence; then art at that moment is truly historical. The David is renewed in time, and the world is renewed and illumined in our own time.

“The art is truly historical because in and through the act and response, history has moved, unfolded. The same is true of my response to a contemporary artist. “Historical” is not a matter of the past as such, although the past gives it wider perspective; it means reflective participation in the world’s proper horizon, time. Fully historical means a second-order competence recovering the sense of our own first-order foundations, a shifting forward of the world and of us along with it.

“Thus of the four factors typically available within critical theory—the artist, the world, the art object, and the audience—the approach being discussed sees a maximum unity in all four. The art is the necessary focus, while the other three explore the boundaries of the artistic act in its full unity.”

– William Mallard, The Reflection of Theology in Literature

Two questions based on a critique—some say  Occupy Wall Street failed because it created no protest songs.


1.   How do we create historical moments in our art? How is “art history” the actual capital “H” history?

2.   And how do the historical moments we create raise up tidal waves of justice that help hope and history rhyme? 

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cover image from John Frassinet

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