This word was brought up in one of my classes this week. I didn’t know what it meant until we began discussing it and now I can’t stop thinking about it!! Honestly, discussing this word helped me understand why I love art history so much. (Wow!) This was too cool of a discovery not to share with you all!
Historiography according to Wikipedia means “the study of the methods of historians in developing history as an academic discipline, and by extension is any body of historical work on a particular subject,” (Wiki) but in short, it means how history is told.
This is beyond fascinating to me. Something very fundamental to who I am as a person is that I love hearing and telling stories. I think that’s why I love art so much! In every form of artistic expression, there’s a story being told. Whether that’s through the embodiment of a character in acting, the unfolding of a complicated plot in writing, the brushstrokes that turn a canvas into a portrait, or in the display of light in a photograph that lets the emotions of the scene be captured so naturally, I am certain that there is an avenue created for storytelling.
Stories are important! Think about the way you introduce yourself to someone. When you’re asked to tell a little bit about yourself, you tell your name, where you grew up, your likes, dislikes, an amusing anecdote about your past that shaped you into who you are, and there it is! A story! Even though it’s a pretty surface level story, that doesn’t mean it isn’t radically important. Now, that new person has a story about you that they know you by. That story means a lot when you put it that way!
Stories don’t just tell others about us, but they also make up who we are. One person may have a deep passion for catching lightning bugs in the summer and keeping them in mason jars – that story is a part of who that person is. Another person may have traveled to another country at a young age to live there with their family – that story is a part of who that person is. When we tell someone parts of our life story, we’re revealing who we are to someone. This is vulnerable and beautiful!!
Therefore, if stories are so important, and the goal of stories is to open up to others and define yourself through what you tell, then the way that stories are told is of the utmost importance. Historiography is just that. It is our responsibility as tellers of history to ensure that it is told with complete awareness of how the information will be received.
I think this is why I love art history so much. Art history isn’t just telling the story of the piece of art and attempting to explain what it means through formal elements, but it is telling those things in conjunction with the bigger story – how this piece of art fits into history. Where was the work made? When was it made? What was happening in that area at the time when it was made? What was the public’s response to it? Did it align with other art at the time? Did it cause a scene? What was its use? If we don’t know much about the society at the time this work was made, what can it tell us about the world at that time? The formal elements and historical significance are intertwined, both asking and answering questions about the other in each work of art. There are so many layers of storytelling at play! When you bring in how all of this is written down and preserved, you bring in the concept of historiography, and this gives us, the storytellers, the biggest question of all. How do I tell about the historical significance and formal elements of this work of art in a way that does both history and the work itself justice?
In class, we were discussing a time when art historians didn’t do the best job of this! In Latin American art history, the usage of the terms “pre-Columbian” and “colonial” by art historians actually had the impact of homogenizing and diminishing the cultures and art of those societies prior to the 20th century. What a devastating impact!! It’s so important to learn and re-learn and then re-learn again through a different lens. If we’re dealing with something as important as a culture’s history and how that history is portrayed through art (and also through the portrayal of their art and history to the rest of the world) the stakes are pretty high. The passion and care that’s needed to be able to tell a story that big is something that I feel comes to me all too easily. I think this is why I am so content with this major that I have chosen.
Thanks for reading and I hope you have a great week!!