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Art+

History=?
Clarissa J. Ceglio

Art+History. It seems, at first, like simple math. This plus that.


As to what it all equals, we might be inspired by a sense of transformative possibility (and the
temptation of clichés) to predict that the outcome will be more than the sum of its parts.

But is our equation really that simple?

Unlike 1+2, for instance, each of the addends in this formula defies easy, precise definition.
Still, basic definitions offer a starting point. Art, to quote from the Oxford English Dictionary,
is the expression of creative skill and imagination. It, we’re told, results in works, usually vi-
sual, meant to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power. As for history, the same
source informs us that it is a branch of knowledge dealing with past events. We might say
that it results in accounts, usually written, meant to be appreciated for their veracity and
intellectual power.

So, working from these definitions, what might the sum of Art+History look like? Perhaps it
would be a monument that gives eloquent and tangible form to a people’s desire to grant
permanence to memory. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial comes to mind. History
paintings also fit the bill: think George Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze.
Memorials. History paintings. These things bring art and history together, but they are not
all that Art+History can be.

The definitions of art and history that we started with are true enough—but not enough.
They’re too tidy, too impersonal.
And the divide between art as imagination and history as intellect is too sharp.

Both art and history are about process and product, creative acts that transform materials
into something more than they were before the artist or historian set to work. For artists, the
materials might be pencil and paper, video, paint, stone or wood, odds ‘n’ ends found by
the road side, and, quite literally, anything else we can imagine. Historians, too, use a range
of materials in pursuit of their craft: images, objects, all manner of written documents, and
the spoken word, too. Then there’s the X factor: the human mind. This is the transformative
variable, the wild card in the equation. It’s the reason that artists or historians produce a
varied range of works even when employing virtually the same raw materials.

Art and history have other commonalities, too. Both are the work of people with specialized
training—and of those with little, if any, at all. Art, as someone said, is where you find it. It
is the painting hung in a museum and the drawing held by magnets to a refrigerator door.
Art’s form and content are as varied as the human imagination. History, too, is everywhere,
if we look. Forget the drab and somber stereotypes about lists of names, dates, and events
to be memorized. History is the human story. It is drama and drudgery, shameful deeds
and proud acts, cautionary tales and inspiring examples, famous individuals and common
folk. History puts our lives, our here and our now, in perspective. It’s written down in books
by scholars and told round kitchen tables by our elders. And, history is as varied as the
human experience.

Art+History. Two modes of human expression, two ways to seek and make meaning by the
connecting of materials, the joining of events, into patterns. Two creative acts that despite
their differences are more similar than we sometimes suppose.

And then there’s this: +


It is the sign that symbolizes addition in our Art+History equation, obviously.

Or have I misread the notation?


Perhaps the intersecting lines mark a crossroads, a juncture where art and history have
always met and mingled.

In the exhibition Art+History, this crossroads meets at the Nightingale-Brown House, a


historic house museum and the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and
Cultural Heritage. Here, over the past year, artists Jill Slosburg-Ackerman and Carla Her-
rera-Prats worked with the house, taking it as material to be experienced, connected,
and transformed. They examined the contents of its rooms, wandered its gardens and
researched its past lives as a home to five generations of the Brown Family. Through their
alchemy, through their art, the house stands revealed as a site where our sense of the past,
present, and future converge in ways that are both familiar and yet unexpected.

Of course, we always live at this point of convergence,


this place where the moment just lived slides by us and into the past,
where the anticipated future finally breaths for an instant in the present.
This is the flow in which we go about the business and pleasures of our days,
but it takes something special to seize our attention, to hold the worldly clamor at bay. To
hold it all still, as art and history do, so that we can see, feel, and experience ourselves at
the crossroads—if only for a moment.

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