Art galleries, museums and even to an extent libraries are the keepers of our knowledge about art. This has been so for quite some time. But what truly is art history. Is is something that we can relax and put faith in? This essay looks into different aspects of it to find out.
Impermanence of media
Some of the earliest examples of art are cave drawings that have remained intact over centuries. These most likely represent only a tiny fraction of the work that our early human ancestors made. Some caves may have collapsed, others may have been flooded such that those masterpieces may never be revealed to us in this lifetime. Similarly, there are artists whose chosen media is one with a very short shelf life. Capturing the history of such things takes a certain amount of effort and access to resources that is not always present. As people interested in the preservation of the history of art we must admit to ourselves that our efforts will often fail.
Revision of history itself
This is perhaps a more controversial aspect of history. Some of what has been passed down to us over the generations about art work is undoubtedly a fabrication. Some pieces that we attribute to one person were in fact created by an understudy on his or her behalf. In other cases, art that has been attributed to one nation or tribe was actually made by another whose name has been lost to us. We fill in the blanks as best we can but once something is no longer in progress, it is difficult to know without a shadow of a doubt what took place.
Modern methods of upkeep
Over the past few decades, the methods of keeping documentation for art have become highly sophisticated. You can know who owned a painting for several years before you purchase it and if that person was famous, that adds value in the form of provenance. There are, however, some people whose choice to remain anonymous while creating highly sought after works confounds these creators of art history. Street artists are in high demand but for many reasons, their identities may remain unrevealed.
Art history is a huge part of history in general. It is still important to recall that not even the best of our scholars are infallible. We must leave room for our eventual correction as new information is revealed.