Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988, ceramic, 42” x 70½” x 32½”, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Photo by artgrad, Flickr.

Take Five: Why Bother with Art History?

Last month, philosopher Alva Noë wrote an interesting article about art and neuroscience that the New York Times published in its Opinionator section.  In the article, he took issue with the assumptions and methods of a field called “neuroaesthetics,” which is the study of art using the methods of neuroscience.  In the process of arguing his case, he uncovered a fundamental challenge in doing art history, which is that it is extremely difficult to discover the intentions of artists and the reception of a work of art in its original context.

Noë described the neuroaesthetic approach to art that asks questions such as, “What is art?” and, “What does art reveal about human nature?”  In other words, what can we learn about art when we use neuroscience as a tool?

Neuroscientists such as Samur Zeki (whose research The Art Minute described in an earlier post) would claim that we learn something about human consciousness and perception when we turn to neuroscience to investigate the human reaction to art.  Noë asserts that we don’t learn much from this type of study because it doesn’t come near to describing the richness and complexity of the human experience with art.  Noë points out that neuroscientists measure only the response of the brain to stimulus provided by art; yet, the human reaction and interaction with art depends so much on the human response in the context of his or her environment.

Noë wrote, “Some of us might wonder whether the relevant question is how we perceive works of art, anyway. What we ought to be asking is: Why do we value some works as art? Why do they move us? Why does art matter?”

In a rather articulate section of the article, Noë compares the experience with art to the experience with a joke:

“Engagement with a work of art is a bit like engagement with another person in conversation; and a work of art itself can be usefully compared with a humorous gesture or a joke. Just as getting a joke requires sensitivity to a whole background context, to presuppositions and intended as well as unintended meanings, so ‘getting’ a work of art requires an attunement to problems, questions, attitudes and expectations; it requires an engagement with the context in which the work of art has work to do.”

In the process of making his point, Noë points to one of the more difficult aspects of doing art history, especially the history of art from past eras, which is that without the cultural context, it’s hard to know the artist’s intentions and initial reception of a work of art.

Some theorists believe that we can never know the true meaning of art in its original context.  A simple symbol or sign can mean radically different things to different people at different times.  Take, for example, Jeff Koons’ sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet monkey Bubbles.  Our perception of this sculpture has changed drastically in the relatively short time since Koons created it in 1988.

Jeff Koons creates works of art that look like everyday objects, and in this sense are similar to the readymades by Marcel Duchamp.  This subject is from popular culture in the decadent 1980s just after Michael Jackson enjoyed unprecedented success with his Thriller and Bad albums.  There was no bigger pop star in the world.

The sculpture, done in porcelain and gold, reflects the kind of adulation given to the pop star.  It has a Renaissance-type composition, with a stable, triangular form that many Renaissance artists used to represent Jesus and the Holy Family.  It is a commentary on the cult of celebrity and commercialism in the late 20th century.

Of course, after the accusations of child molestation, after Michael Jackson’s skin actually became porcelain in color, and after the pop star’s untimely death, we see this sculpture quite differently now than we would have in 1988.  Today, it strikes us as being cynical and tragic.  It’s a reminder of the type of adulation that, in the end, was this man’s undoing.

How would someone looking at this sculpture 500 years from now understand all of this?  It will probably be very difficult to know what Koons intended and what we saw, and even how our perception changed during Jackson’s lifetime.

The truth is that we can never really understand art from the past.  So, why bother trying?

We may not be able to know with 100% accuracy the intentions of an artist when we look at art from the past; however, with careful work, we can come up with something – some idea of the work of art’s raison d’etre and a sense of its affective power, especially if we pay careful attention to the original context.

And it’s important to try because when we study art and history, we learn about ourselves and we learn about others.  We learn what it means to be human, living together in this world.



  1. I have nothing intellectual to add here, but I want you to know that this sculpture has been haunting my dreams for days now.

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