Essay On The History Of Art

Guide to Essay Writing - Introduction


1.0 Introduction

  • 1.1 General comments
    One could say that writing an essay consists essentially of two processes:
    (i) writing to find out what one thinks - preliminary drafts
    (ii) writing to communicate one's thoughts to others - further drafts completed and essay.
    It is, in fact, through the process of writing that one tends to discover and to clarify one's ideas.
    Many people start writing with a relatively vague idea of their interpretation, but after having written a draft they can arrive at a clearer statement of what they think (this is often found on the last page or in the last paragraph).
  • 1.2 Writing a preliminary draft or drafts
    (i) Think out the essay question in the light of the images you have studied and of what you have read.
    (ii) Write a plan - this is only a guide and will undoubtedly change as you write.
    Example of such a plan:
    Topic: 'Cubist painting embodied a new way of representing the external world'
    - Intro. para - didn't describe ext. world - used signs - spectator's role.
    - Not a static but a dynamic form of representation (parallels in science, philosophy- Bergson)
    - Cubism and modern life (see Berger)
    - Which images - still life? A portrait?
    - Compare with more realist still-lives and portraits (use Cezanne's?) Compare with earlier Cubist works where more legible-
    - Repres. of space? of volume?
    - Use of signs.
    Quote Apollinaire on Cubism as 'Realist' (where?) Fry's interpretation 'abstract'; compare Golding's emphasis on 'realist' qualities - but Cubist paintings are both 'abstract' and 'real'
    - Conclusion - Cubism, and the dynamic ambiguous repres. of reality.
    (iii) Write a rough draft in these terms. Do not write straight from your notes; this generally results in a patchwork of facts and opinions Its best to leave your notes somewhere else! You will remember what you need. You should return to your notes only when rewriting your draft for the final essay.
    At this stage don't bother too much about how it sounds (above all don't bother about a resounding first paragraph). What you want is a broadly argued interpretation which you can develop and demonstrate as time goes on. If you want a specific fact, contrary idea or quotation, don't interrupt the flow at this stage by searching through notes or books or you may lose the thread of your argument. In such cases you can note: 'Apollinaire said "something about Cubism being realist, etc" - and then you can make this exact later.
  • 1.3 Re-writing the draft
    The rough draft is only a beginning It is the process by which you find your interpretation, but the form in which this is put is rarely the form which communicates well. Re-writing is not just a question of making a fair copy, but of re-organising the material so that the reader can follow the argument.
    A first draft rarely begins with a clear statement of your ideas (which is a natural way of communicating), and you will often find that in your first draft you don't arrive at a clear statement until the end. It therefore often helps to 'swing' your concluding statement to the beginning of the essay. Then you need to consider what evidence will convince your reader.
    Very often that evidence is, of course, that which you have already used to 'find out' your interpretation, but it will have to be re-ordered. When you have finished the draft, try to leave it for a time, then examine it critically. Ask yourself questions like the following:
    (i) What have I said?
    (ii) Is what I have said clearly expressed?
    (iii) Have I used evidence to support my views?
    (iv) Have I dealt with the major issues?
    (v) Have I given my reader a sense that I am aware of the varying interpretations and that I have come to my own conclusions about their validity?
    At this stage you will probably have to clarify these points. You may find that you need to do further reading to demonstrate certain points, or to fill in the gaps in your argument.
    When critically examining your essay, remember that the only facts which are useful are those which serve to demonstrate your reasoning. Irrelevant or unused facts merely obscure your argument. In particular, in the history of art there is a tendency (whatever the question and issue) to give biographies of the artists concerned. This is often quite irrelevant, and unless you can show the relevance of such facts, you should cut them out.
    Remember too that your reader has no need to be told the obvious. For example, if writing an essay on a specific aspect of Monet's style, there is no need to give the entire history of Impressionism, and you can assume that your reader knows about the generally accepted accounts of the subject.
    It is at this stage that you should check notes and facts (good note-taking pays off here) and indicate where you need footnotes or endnotes.
    In re-writing the draft, remember:
    (i) that the essay should begin with a clear statement of your interpretation of the issues
    (ii) that the body of the essay should substantiate and amplify your initial statement
    (iii) that there should be a conclusion summarising your arguments and your interpretation
  • 1.4 Visual material
    It is not adequate to use an image merely as an illustration to an argument. You should be sure that your arguments are drawn from your experience of the images and that you have shown your grounds for developing your interpretation in terms of your chosen visual material.
  • 1.5 Quotations
    Quotations will not do your work for you, any more than illustrations will. Is not enough simply to copy out the quotation in your essay as if it explains itself since others will not necessarily read it in the way in which you do. You will therefore need to show why the quotation is there, what it is doing in your argument, how you interpret it.

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To describe the global origins of humans’ artistic achievement, upon which the succeeding history of art may be laid, is an encyclopedic enterprise. The Metropolitan Museum’s Timeline of Art History, covering the period roughly from 20,000 to 8000 B.C., provides a series of introductory essays about particular archaeological sites and artworks that illustrate some of the earliest endeavors in human creativity. The account of the origins of art is a very long one marked less by change than consistency. The first human artistic representations, markings with ground red ocher, seem to have occurred about 100,000 B.C. in African rock art. This chronology may be more an artifact of the limitations of archaeological evidence than a true picture of when humans first created art. However, with new technologies, research methods, and archaeological discoveries, we are able to view the history of human artistic achievement in a greater focus than ever before.

Art, as the product of human creativity and imagination, includes poetry, music, dance, and the material arts such as painting, sculpture, drawing, pottery, and bodily adornment. The objects and archaeological sites presented in the Museum’s Timeline of Art History for the time period 20,000–8000 B.C. illustrate diverse examples of prehistoric art from across the globe. All were created in the period before the invention of formal writing, and when human populations were migrating and expanding across the world. By 20,000 B.C., humans had settled on every continent except Antarctica. The earliest human occupation occurs in Africa, and it is there that we assume art to have originated. African rock art from the Apollo 11 and Wonderwerk Caves contain examples of geometric and animal representations engraved and painted on stone. In Europe, the record of Paleolithic art is beautifully illustrated with the magnificent painted caves of Lascaux and Chauvet, both in France. Scores of painted caves exist in western Europe, mostly in France and Spain, and hundreds of sculptures and engravings depicting humans, animals, and fantastic creatures have been found across Europe and Asia alike. Rock art in Australia represents the longest continuously practiced artistic tradition in the world. The site of Ubirr in northern Australia contains exceptional examples of Aboriginal rock art repainted for millennia beginning perhaps as early as 40,000 B.C. The earliest known rock art in Australia predates European painted caves by as much as 10,000 years.

In Egypt, millennia before the advent of powerful dynasties and wealth-laden tombs, early settlements are known from modest scatters of stone tools and animal bones at such sites as Wadi Kubbaniya. In western Asia after 8,000 B.C., the earliest known writing, monumental art, cities, and complex social systems emerged. Prior to these far-reaching developments of civilization, this area was inhabited by early hunters and farmers. Eynan/Ain Mallaha, a settlement in the Levant along the Mediterranean, was occupied around 10,000–8000 B.C. by a culture named Natufian. This group of settled hunters and gatherers created a rich artistic record of sculpture made from stone and bodily adornment made from shell and bone.

The earliest art of the continent of South Asia is less well documented than that of Europe and western Asia, and some of the extant examples come from painted and engraved cave sites such as Pachmari Hills in India. The caves depict the region’s fauna and hunting practices of the Mesolithic period. In Central and East Asia, a territory almost twice the size of North America, there are outstanding examples of early artistic achievements, such as the expertly and delicately carved female figurine sculpture from Mal’ta. The superbly preserved bone flutes from the site of Jiahu in China, while dated to slightly later than 8000 B.C., are still playable. The tradition of music making may be among the earliest forms of human artistic endeavor. Because many musical instruments were crafted from easily degradable materials like leather, wood, and sinew, they are often lost to archaeologists, but flutes made of bone dating to the Paleolithic period in Europe (ca. 35,000–10,000 B.C.) are richly documented.

North and South America are the most recent continents to be explored and occupied by humans, who likely arrived from Asia. Blackwater Draw in North America and Fell’s Cave in Patagonia, the southernmost area of South America, are two contemporaneous sites where elegant stone tools that helped sustain the hunters who occupied these regions have been found.

Whether the prehistoric artworks illustrated here constitute demonstrations of a unified artistic idiom shared by humankind or, alternatively, are unique to the environments, cultures, and individuals who created them is a question open for consideration. Nonetheless, each work or site superbly characterizes some of the earliest examples of humans’ creative and artistic capacity.

Laura Anne Tedesco
Independent Scholar

August 2007

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