‘Discuss the potential consequences of de-contextualisation for the art-historical study of a work of art’
The decontextualisation of art can be defined as considering an artwork without its cultural and historical context. Divorcing the work from its context can leave the viewer with an incomplete understanding of what the artist intended to convey through the work, which was often responding to the circumstances of the time. Renaissance art for example serves as a response to civic duty, innovation and patronage. Similarly, the impressionist movement reflects the decision the artists made to blaze a new trail in the art world, enabled by scientific advances in paint-making and fuelled by the political landscape. The driving factor behind these works is an intrinsic part of their story, and the work is incomplete by looking only at the final product of what is a melting pot of social, political and economic factors. There is value in art beyond solely aesthetics: learning about history, reflecting on past ideals or expressing an opinion. However, the decontextualisation of art can have a positive effect when looking at abstract art. Such works have a greater emphasis on colour, form and style, thus prompting consideration of the intrinsic values of the works. The focus on the individual means that the consequences of decontextualisation are not as drastic as they are for works that are more evidently a product of their time.
Historically, much of art has been made to serve a specific purpose. Gombrich comments, ‘…we are not likely to understand the art of the past if we are quite ignorant of the aims it had to serve.’ (Gombrich 1950, p.39). Artwork serving some need in a society makes it intrinsically linked with its context. One great need art has fulfilled in the past is religion, in which it plays an integral role in bridging man and the divine. In Medieval Christianity, the incredibly pious landscape was nurtured by cathedrals adhering to the Gothic tradition. Such colossal structures were incredible feats of engineering and their style optimised the feeling of divine presence. Rose windows and vast expanses of stained glass flooded the interior with coloured light, evoking a sense of other- worldliness, and the glass exhibited vibrant biblical scenes to spread Christian ideals among the people, particularly those who were illiterate. Among the beautiful depictions of religious narratives were also those intended to instil fear; stone sculptures of judgement day and the horrors of hell, as seen on the Autun Tympanum at the Cathedral of Saint-Lazare, would remind people that they were subject to a greater power. Those who visited these cathedrals were sure to be steadfast in their faith upon experiencing such an imposing yet alluring symbol of Christianity. The admiration a viewer has for such works goes hand in hand with the notion that prompted their creation; in this case a demand for assertion of faith. The contextualisation of these cathedrals informs the viewer of the great extent to which religion and its politics influenced so many people to such a great degree.
Art with a worldly purpose fosters a strong connection with its context. In such cases there is value to contextualisation as the lack of it limits the extent of its influence. Looking to 17th century Islam, the popularity of miniature painting in the Mughal empire reflects this notion. The Miniature of a Mughal Prince (c.1610) for example explores social and political bridges between the world of the ruler, the realm of faith and the relationship between different religions. Made during the reign of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, it depicts a gathering around a shrine, in front of which are knelt a Mughal Prince and a holy man. The difference in rank is clear; the Prince wears vibrant colours adorned with gold whereas the dervish’s tunic is simple and earthy red in colour. Perhaps surprisingly, encounters with ascetics were not uncommon and Mughal leaders often visited dervishes to seek guidance, wisdom and piety. Approaching this work unaware of its context risks a misinterpretation of the nature of this meeting, thus undermining the very ideal that the Mughals hoped to evidence through this work. Religious tolerance is evidenced by the presence of a Hindu holy man, lacking a turban, alongside a Muslim ruler. This contextualisation informs us of the significance of this notion at the time and how it may have influenced what is now modern India. Religious and cultural tolerance was a legacy of Genghis Khan (founder of the Mongol Empire) and advocation of this policy by Mughal emperors made them different from other Islamic states, particularly as they ruled over a mostly non-Muslim population. Neil MacGregor talks about the miniature in A History of the World in 100 Objects, “It’s almost impossible to imagine a European ruler at this date, or indeed at any date, being represented so submissively taking instruction in faith. In spite of all the political upheavals in India since the time of Jahangir, this tradition of the state accommodating all religions with equal respect, was to endure, and was to become one of the founding ideals of modern India” (MacGregor 2010). Studying works of art, it is invaluable to consider the work’s function as a snapshot into the past, reflecting on ideals that have shaped future social and political situations.
Alternatively, art that is valued for its intrinsic qualities as ‘art’ rather than responding to a temporal issue is arguably positively affected by decontextualisation. Such works often give a deeper insight into the mind of the artist, focusing on them as an individual. This notion is seen in the work of Mondrian. His later works, made after the first world war, abandon the idea of figurative painting altogether, in favour of a style that is evocative in the way of its own fundamental values. His emphasis on strict lines, geometric shapes and primary colours encourages the viewer to appreciate the beauty of what Mondrian has achieved, rather than attempting to futilely search for purpose. This is not to say that Mondrian’s paintings are devoid of function, but the intent that they do harbour is an intangible one; his paintings deal with beauty within simplicity and the apparent balance created by what is in fact an entirely unbalanced composition. In considering Composition B (No.II) with Red, the self-explanatory title leaves little room for interpretation and the painting offers nothing other than itself. It is composed of black horizontal and vertical lines with one red square in the top left corner. The composition can be considered unbalanced as the vibrant red in one corner is surrounded solely by monochrome and the geometric shapes are all varying dimensions. Despite this, Mondrian achieves a sense of stillness in his composition, thereby fostering an atmosphere of contemplation on the impalpable nature of the work. Mondrian plays with the viewer’s perception using only the physicality of the basic forms he has created on canvas to incite ideas of the ethereal. Consequently, decontextualisation isolates Mondrian’s art from worldly distractions, focusing the viewer on the abstract realm that Mondrian strived to reach.
In art, contextualisation can have both positive and negative consequences. It can be said that there is a fundamental need in art-historical study to use works of art as a window into history. With this approach, contextualisation is key in juxtaposing the work with contemporary factors that led to its creation and informing the viewer as to how such factors influenced the way in which history proceeded. Using such works, viewers are able to approach history from a new perspective, providing a more meaningful insight into past civilisations and cultures. But more recently, art has come to encompass something broader than this. The endeavour to achieve something less explicit in its function requires perseverance in contemplation, rather than solely the knowledge of its context. Overall, the consequences of decontextualisation have decreased significantly in severity over time. At a time when works of art were made by ‘craftsmen’ rather than independent artists, art addressed societal needs, thereby serving art-historical study as an indication of cultural interactions. Such interactions included those between patron and artist, artist and church or political relationships. With the decreasing need for art to serve a specific purpose ensued a decrease in art that tried to fulfil this aim. In its place arose movements that used art as a means of personal expression. The notion of the ‘artist’ fostered this notion, consequently broadening the intent of art to a greater extent than ever before due to the individual freedom to pursue art in any manner. There will always be a motive behind the making of a work, but artists have recently chosen to play with this concept by reaching for a purpose that lies beyond its face-value. This has been successful to the extent that decontextualisation can now have a positive effect on artwork.
Gombrich, E. (1950) Strange Beginnings, The Story of Art, p.39.
MacGregor, I. (2010) A History of the World in 100 Objects, Miniature of a Mughal Prince, episode 82.