Monday, June 8, 2009

Can Artists be Historians?

Although artists work with materials and tools that are usually unfamiliar to the traditional historian - canvas and paints, or clay and chisel, instead of the word processor or pens and paper - they too can have their works interpret people, places, and events of the past. And, I believe there are times when the artist's medium can more effectively tell a story than the words of the best writing historian.

Walt Whitman once said something to the effect that "the real war would never end up in the history books." I would say to some extent this is true. Reading about war, no matter how gruesome the details, cannot capture the true destruction that it is capable of producing. Civil War photographs give us a better visual clue of the aftermath of war, but since there were no moving pictures or pictures of active combat, the student of the Civil War is often left to guess what a battle would have looked like. Artists help fill that void. Period artists risked life and limb to bring accurate portrayals of the war to the public. And today, a number of modern artists spare no expense to research and illustrate in color and on canvas what Civil War battles must have looked like.

Probably the most recognized and well respected modern Civil War artist is Don Troiani. I believe part of the reason he is so well recognized and respected is the level of research he puts into his works. Troiani not only researches the people and events he portrays by reading, he has an impressive personal collection of uniforms, and soldiers' equipment that would make many museums jealous. He uses these material culture items to document the last little detail in his paintings.

On the flip-side, there are those artists that produce prints only with the seeming intent to sell, and forgo the careful research and historical correctness of what they create. They often depict images that probably never happened or throw in so much romanticism and hero worship that one loses the sense of the personality or event being illustrated. Other than being aesthetically pleasing and many times dreamy, these artists are not what I would call historian artists.

Just as in written history, the historian artist should be aware of bias and anachronisms that lessen the creditability of their work, and seek to avoid them. Americans take much of what they know about history from popular culture. And, although they are probably more influenced by, say movies than historical prints, what they see in a painting could certainly impact their view of an event or person of history. Paintings that are inaccurate do not bring a greater understanding of the period in my opinion.

The next time you are in a print store look at the various images and styles and try to make some judgements on whether you think the images being portrayed are shown accurately and honestly; those that do deserve to be considered artistic historians, those that don't...well they are just artists.

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