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Why are theories and critical concepts important for art history?

Why are theories and critical concepts important for art history? Watch Maddie Boden explain more.
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Last week, we learned how to articulate our direct encounter with sculpture, using relevant art historical terminology to describe an object. This week, we’ll think about some schools of thought and how they influence more sustained thinking about sculpture beyond our initial encounter. Art history, just like any other discipline, is a shifting set of ideas, rather than a prescriptive set of rules, and the way we discuss art changes along with these ideas. These sets of ideas are often referred to as theories or critical concepts. These theories and critical concepts use complex ideas - which at first might seem quite challenging in order to interpret art. However, theories are meant to stimulate debate and help to explain artworks, especially modern sculpture.
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Every work of art is an expression of its culture, time and place, maker and material a complicated set of issues that theories help us to think through and understand. At the same time, theories are not universal doctrines and art historians frequently challenge and disagree with critical readings. Some critical concepts are well-known and are used in disciplines beyond art history. You might have heard of theories such as Marxism, feminism, or post-colonial studies. In this course, our interest lies with critical discussions surrounding modernism and the concept of modernity. We’ve already placed modern sculpture in its chronological context as a movement that emerged in the early twentieth century that sought to reject the precedents set by sculptors of the past.
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In our earlier discussion, I also raised the differences between terms
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such as: modernism, modernity, Modernist, and modern. However, this was not the only idea that sculptors confronted in their work. If modernism was a reaction against the past, then it also embraced the future and new ideas that hadn’t been considered in discussions of sculpture before. In the next set of articles, we will explore some of the new themes that typified the character of modern sculpture. We’ll use sculpture from York campus to discuss these theories, but they all have broader applications which will help to you to understand a wide range of artworks.

Before we dive into some theoretical contexts for modern sculpture, let’s learn why theory plays an important role in the work of art historians.

Art history, just like any other discipline, is a shifting set of ideas, rather than a prescriptive set of rules, and the way we discuss art changes along with these ideas.

In the next steps, we’re going to learn how modern sculpture influenced important changes in the way artists, critics, art historians and viewers were thinking about modern sculpture.

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Modern Sculpture: An Introduction to Art History

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