Can Art Be History?

by Todd W. Groce, Ph.D.

In this issue of Georgia History Today, we are exploring the relationship between art and history. Paintings like the Cyclorama of the Battle of Atlanta and the photograph of US Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima are among the most prominent and iconic examples of where art and history intersect.

Perhaps the most contested and misunderstood form of historical art is monuments. Defenders of monuments argue that a statue of Robert E. Lee or Thomas Jefferson is not just a depiction of the historical figure, but is in fact a part of our nation’s history. To remove them is to literally tear down history.

Detractors argue that monuments are not intended to give us a full and balanced history lesson, but to create heroes by focusing on select parts of the story, sanitizing the rest. They see monuments as political statements, as art offering a vision of the past that reinforces a community’s values or the legitimacy of the powers that be.

Who is right? Can art really be history?

Art is a visual interpretation of our physical and emotional world. Regardless of whether it is created from life or years after the subject’s death or an event occurred, it is not firsthand historical evidence, like a letter or diary, but an interpretation by an artist of a subject or an event. It reflects the values, beliefs, and politics of the artist or those who commissioned the work. In that way it is a secondary work similar to a biography (without the breadth and detail).

For example, the most crucial thing we learn from Confederate monuments is not the history of the Confederacy but the history and motivation of those who created this art. Since most Confederate statuary went up between 1890 and 1920, these monuments give us insight into the thinking of the aging Civil War veterans and those who wanted to honor them, what they valued, and how they wanted the future to understand the war from their perspective.

Interestingly enough, removal or destruction of monuments did not really become a flashpoint for most Americans until the recent threat to Confederate iconography. Statues of King George III were toppled across the American colonies during our Revolution; those of Hitler and Saddam Hussein were destroyed by US troops after WWII and the invasion of Iraq. Americans cheered when the statues of Communist leaders in Russia and Eastern Europe were dismantled.

Was this destruction tearing down history, an attempt to erase Lenin and King George from the pages of the past? Or was it about controlling the public narrative by erasing a political message? Was it a question of history, or of heroes and politics?

As a visual interpretation of the past, art can inspire us by its beauty and unite us around a common historical narrative. It offers us an understanding of the artist, how he or she understood the past, and the social milieu in which their art was created. But it is not a scholarly examination and cannot give us a full and critical understanding of the person or event being depicted in the way that a historian can through the written word.

Only when we appreciate art’s unique role and grasp its advantages and limitations can we understand how art can be history—and absorb the true lessons about the past which it seeks to teach us.