Art History: The Key Concepts
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Art History: The Key Concepts

Jonathan Harris

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eBook - ePub

Art History: The Key Concepts

Jonathan Harris

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About This Book

Art History: The Key Concepts is a systematic, reliable and accessible reference guide to the disciplines of art history and visual culture. Containing entries on over 200 terms integral to the historical and theoretical study of art, design and culture in general, it is an indispensable source of knowledge for all students, scholars and teachers.

Covering the development, present status and future direction of art history, entries span a wide variety of terms and concepts such as abstract expressionism, epoch, hybridity, semiology and zeitgeist.

Key features include:

  • a user-friendly A-Z format
  • fully cross-referenced entries
  • suggestions for further reading.

Engaging and insightful, as well as easy to follow and use, Art History: The Key Concepts builds a radical intellectual synthesis for understanding and teaching art, art history and visual culture.

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ART HISTORY: The Key Concepts


This composite term was one of several coined to identify the work of a number of fairly loosely-associated artists based in the US and active from the late 1940s. It is important to note, however, that this, the most successful – that is, used – name (coined by the critic Robert Coates in 1946) was not the invention of any of the artists themselves, nor did they endorse it as an accurate description of their activities and interests. Five of the key artists identified as American abstract^ expressionists – Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, and Willem de Kooning – were resident in New York, a metropolitan centre that had become home to many European modernist artists in the 1930s who had gone there to escape the nazis and coming war in Europe. Surrealist artists in particular, such as Joan Miró and André Masson, are credited with influencing in a number of important ways the chief ideas, technical procedures, and stylistic concerns of some of the abstract expressionists, though a very much wider range of artistic and socio^-cultural sources may be detected in the development of these artists’ work, including psychoanalytic^ theories, Greek and Roman myths, Jewish theology, anthropological discourse, Native American totemic sculpture and religion, as well as art by ‘the European Greats’ of the inter-war period – particularly Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and the aforementioned abstract (that is, non-figurative) surrealist painters.
Most artists identified as abstract expressionists after 1945 had been committed to forms of social^ realism or socialist realism in the 1930s during the Depression and New Deal period in the US, having then embraced liberal-left or communist political beliefs associated with varying degrees of support for the USSR. With the revelations of Joseph Stalin’s purges of his opposition there in the later 1930s, the rise of anti-communism in the US, and the ending of the New Deal’s radical economic and social reform programme in the early 1940s, artists generally became disillusioned and individualistic, seeking to find modes of expression that they thought could transcend the horrors of world war, the failure of radical political beliefs, and the growing alienation they felt in 1950s American consumer^-capitalist society. As the two elements of the term suggest, paintings by these artists brought together abstract (and non-narrative) pictorial^ conventions with expressive, non-illusionistic devices for conveying feeling, though there was a wide variety of both, and the extent of contrast can be seen by comparing, for instance, a Pollock ‘drip-painting’, such as Number One 1948 (1948), with the ‘colour-field’ effect of Rothko’s Light Red over Black (1957). Works by other abstract expressionists, such as Adolph Gottlieb and Clyfford Still clearly fall between the ‘drip’ and the ‘field’ categories, combining elements of both in various ways.
Since the 1970s art critics and historians have reappraised the movement in a number of ways: for instance, looking at the manipulation of abstract expressionism ‘as a weapon of the cold war’ during the 1950s and 1960s – the main interest of social historians of art. In a different direction, more recent scholarship has examined how the ‘Americanness’ of this art actually concerned much more than simply the US government’s post-1945 cold war political-ideological agenda. Questions of gender, feminism, and the relationship between expressiveness, action, aesthetics, and sexuality have been raised, though the phase ‘women abstract expressionist’ still seems an unlikely combination (like ‘women surrealist’), despite the fact that, for instance, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, and Helen Frankenthaler have long been identified as – marginal – members of the overall grouping. Recent research has stressed the importance of African-American abstract expressionists, such as Norman Lewis, and investigated the reasons why, despite accusations of its Cold War imperialist character, some Latin American critics and artists positively embraced abstract expressionism as a model of artistic freedom.

Further Reading

Craven, David Abstract Expressionism as Cultural Critique: Dissent during the McCarthy Period (Cambridge University Press: 1999).
Frascina, Francis (ed.) Pollock and After: The Critical Debate (Routledge: 2000).
Guilbaut, Serge How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War (University of Chicago Press: 1983).
Leja, Michael Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s (Yale University Press: 1993).


In perhaps its two most familiar uses – that is, as a noun (abstraction) and an adjective (abstract) – this term denotes artworks that appear not to depict or include reference to objects (and figures) or events in the real world. Recognising this definition as negative is important because it indicates how theories and histories of abstraction in modern^ art^ developed in the early twentieth century partly as critiques of traditional^ naturalistic or realist representational^ pictorial^ conventions. Wassily Kandinsky is often credited with the title of being the first abstract painter, with works such as With the Black Arch (1913). However, in western^ art history concerned with pre-modern painting and sculpture (in this epochal sense modern is opposed to the general category of ancient art, that is, works produced before the birth of Christ), abstraction and naturalism are concepts used to identify a range of stylistic characteristics seen as at either ends of a continuum of representational forms, with the more abstract examples considered to be highly stylised. Such works include, for example, the marble Kouros, a sculpture of a man, dedicated to Poseidon at Sunium (about 590 BCE).
In relation to twentieth-century art, architecture, and design, however, theories and practices of abstraction are modernist in origin, and relate to the development of avant-garde painting and sculpture in particular. In whatever context of usage, though, the term abstraction has important art historical and philosophical dimensions, the latter particularly connected to accounts of the kind of knowledge or insights that art has been claimed to produce. In one of its simplest art historical uses the term functions descriptively: for example, ‘Morris Louis was an abstract painter’. That is, Louis’s painting, such as Blue Veil (1958–59), expresses – that is, communicates ideas and feelings – through the use of colour, pattern, and facture (the character of the painted surface) alone. Louis’s paintings have been closely related to the work of earlier, abstract expressionist, artists. On the other hand, Piet Mondrian’s paintings, such as Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue (1921), have sometimes been described as examples of geometric, or ‘cool’ (suggesting highly controlled), abstraction. Many other twentieth-century modernist movements have been associated with abstraction, or the ‘abstracting of content’, including futurism, cubism, and some aspects of surrealism. In architecture, Le Corbusier, and in design those associated with De Stijl and the Bauhaus have also been seen as particularly interested in abstraction and its use in the creation of objects for practical rather than for aesthetic contemplation.
These factual examples, however, entail a wide range of theoretical complexities and problems that attend on the notion of abstraction. While a contrast with naturalistic conventions in nineteenth-century academic painting (e.g.: William Frith’s Derby Day (1858)) emphasises that abstraction in modernist art avoids depicting the literal appearance of the world, all so-called abstract paintings and sculptures necessarily communicate meanings through some kind of formal compositional means and in that process create symbols referring to the world (including the ‘world’ of subjective feelings and experiences).

Further Reading

Art & Language ‘Abstract Expression’ (1982), in Charles Harrison and Fred Orton (eds.) Modernism, Criticism, Realism: Alternative Contexts for Art (Harper and Row: 1994).
Cheetham, Mark A. The Rhetoric of Purity: Essentialist Theory and the Advent of Abstract Painting (Cambridge University Press: 1991).
Greenberg, Clement ‘Abstract, Representational, and So Forth’ (1974), in Robert C. Morgan (ed.) Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (University of Minnesota Press: 2003).
Osborne, Harold Abstraction and Artifice in Twentieth-Century Art (Oxford University Press: 1979).


The inauguration of artistic education within officially recognised academies was one of the most significant institutional^ developments in the social^ history of renaissance^ art. Academic qualification and subsequent life-membership – for instance, being able to use the initials R.A. (Royal Academician) after one’s name – led to the professionalisation of artists and the elevation of their status to a category far beyond that of contemporary^ artisans and craft-workers. Though western artists had been trained and accredited with technical and social standing in some earlier kinds of organisation, such as monasteries, workshops, and guilds, the opening of the first academies, or art schools, for painters and sculptors in the city-states of southern Europe (Vatican, 1531; Florence, 1563; Rome 1593; Bologna, 1598), and in France (1648), and England (1768), generated a wholly new understanding of the meaning and value of art and the role of artists in those societies. The academies also importantly contributed to, and were themselves part product of, a newly-forged social order in western and southern Europe based on mercantile capitalism and the rise to power of a wealthy new middle class. In addition, however, these first academies were usually also closely related to, and in some cases dependent upon, the support of monarchies – particularly in France and Britain – and to that extent they were the institutional creatures of emerging^ nation^-states, reflecting in their organisation and activities the complex political forces attempting to lead these rapidly transforming societies.
Academies sought to select, train, educate, commission, and accredit artists and in doing so produced an elite group of workers whose skills and intellectual abilities were put to work making paintings and sculptures to adorn and embellish public buildings of many kinds, including palaces, parliaments, churches, and the newly created state art museums, such as the Louvre in Paris which became an art gallery after the French Revolution of 1789. Accredited artists (known as ‘Royal Academicians’ in England) also worked for private patrons in many countries throughout the world by the nineteenth century. Contemporary art schools, colleges, and departments of art in universities in Europe and North America owe their existence, via a complicated history, to the founding of academies in the renaissance and enlightenment epochs (c. 1500–1800) and the processes of qualification and professional accreditation have their roots in the social division of labour developing in the societies that inaugurated the first academies.
By the mid to late nineteenth century ...

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