Art history is an established academic discipline and you can do degrees at all levels in it.

Why is this the case?

Why isn't it considered a sub-discipline of history? It seems to stand separately as its own subject.

Why don't you get a BA in Music History, for example? I am sure people study music history, but its much less well known as a discipline than art history.

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    Statistics is a sub-discipline of mathematics but you can get degrees at any level in it. There is no real answer to your question.
    – Shion
    Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 18:23
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    Statistics is not a sub-discipline of mathematics. That statement is incorrect. Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 20:20
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    It's important to keep in mind that academic disciplines are largely political constructs, not natural phenomena. They form a bizarre patchwork full of ambiguity, overlap, gaps, and contested areas. Anyone can declare something its own field or discipline, and there are lots of small disciplines with tens, hundreds, or thousands of adherents. Sometimes these disciplines compete fruitlessly with each other and have little influence, but if one gets enough backing it can start to reshape universities. (But I don't know the history of art history, so I can't really answer this question.) Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 20:28
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    @AnonymousMathematician: Gee, if only you could have taken a degree in art history history! Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 20:55
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    The example you choose is interesting. From my limited personal experience, Art History has (other than the name) very little overlap with actual History. I think my friends who studied Art History would be really confused why you would ever consider their field as part of History.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 14:26

6 Answers 6


Coming at this far after the OP, but as an art historian I felt compelled to reply.

The reasons for the Art History's separation from History are myriad (political, pedagogical, philosophical, etc. etc. etc.). In general, art history is rooted in objects/visual materials, and requires training in the methodologies and historiography of visual analysis. Many of the tools of art historical work overlap with those of historians––we are informed by broader methodological shifts (psychoanalytical theory, feminism, postcolonial debates, etc.) and have our own set of theoretical paradigms that have extended beyond the realm of art history (Bildwissenshaft, formalism, iconology, etc.). It's a vast field that in recent decades has splintered into related disciplines (visual culture, visual studies). Depending on his or her methodology, an art historian could likely be as well-versed in the "historical" literature as the "art historical" literature in any particular area. Art historians are, I believe, departmentally separate (or often groups with studio art programs) due to the emphasis on object-based research and teaching. That said, art historical research requires the same level of rigor and sophistication as any other form of historical research.

While many art historians choose to go the curatorial route, many who pursue advanced degrees stay in academia. Working in a cultural institution like an art museum requires a distinct set of skills from that of an academic. Some graduate programs in art history gear themselves more toward the curatorial route, while others are more focused on academic research.

One element of art history that can, I think, be a bit confusing to the outsider is the interpretative element. Any strong analysis will be rooted in historical "facts," but when examining a work of art, there's always going to be some measure of interpretation or speculation. Again, if a conclusion is not borne out by strong research, it will generally not be widely accepted. But the extent to which art historians think creatively about their objects of inquiry is one of the many reasons the field can, to me, be so invigorating.

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    Welcome to AC.SE. It is always nice to see a non scientist.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 22:17

It is interesting that you assume Art History as a sub-discipline of History. I am aware of many joint Art and Art History departments (either formally in the name or where the courses are taught) and also joint Art History and Anthropology departments, but I am not aware of any universities where Art Hisotry is taught as a sub-discipline of History. This is probably rooted in the fact that the visual analysis techiques used by Art Historians is essentially completely unrelated to the techniques used by Historians.

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    I didn't assume that @StrongBad... it was one of my questions Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 19:17
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    My mother studied Art History, that at the time was an specialisation of History, as Theoretical Physics is of Physics. Now it is a degree on its own, but belonging to History.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 17:14

Music History as an area of study certainly exists. Whether under that name or not will depend on how a particular school arranges its departments. Your not having heard of it says more about your areas of interest than about academia.

Other than that: as @StrongBad said, different tools and different techniques and different priorities, hence different departments. History of science, if someone specialized in that, would probably also be different from a normal History degree.

  • It's hard to make the case for "music history" as a discipline equivalent to "music." There are very few places outside of conservatories where you'd find "music history" (or musicology) departments.
    – aeismail
    Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 19:55
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    None the less, musicology exists -- the fact that it's less common doesn't make the "I've never heard of it" objection valid.
    – keshlam
    Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 20:04
  • @keshlam A quick search at UK universities reveals dozens of BA degrees in art history that are available. There are none in music history; its obviously a much more specialist or less well known discipline. Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 13:50
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    @aeismail The discipline of Musikwissenschaft was founded by Guido Adler in Vienna in the late 19th century, and pioneered as "musicology" in the US by Charles Seeger in the early 20th century. At many institutions, musicologists are simply part of the department or faculty of music (Yale, Harvard, Chicago, Oxford); others have a specified musicology department (Princeton, UCLA, Indiana). The main professional societies are the American Musicological Society (www.ams-net.org), the Society for Music Theory, and the Society for Ethnomusicology, each of which publishes its own journal. Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 16:32
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    "Music history" is AKA "historical musicology" and is a subfield of musicology. It's rare to find a Bachelor degree in Music History, but they do exist.
    – shoover
    Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 18:48

As a complete outsider to this field, I might be completeley wrong, but I can guess one compelling reason: art history is the field one has to study to become a museum curator (other related jobs certainly exist): if one wants well curated collections in museums, then one needs to form curators and for this, specific research is certainly also needed.

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    This was my suspicion as well—there's a "cottage industry" that demands it.
    – aeismail
    Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 20:13
  • A science museum probably will prefer a science history degree, and other specialized museums will have corresponding preferences, but most museums indeed are art museums.
    – MSalters
    Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 8:26

As someone who is studying for a MA in History, but also taking classes and having a minor in Museum and Curatorial Studies (mainly focused on critical theory and art history), there is a difference in the two disciplines. As one of the above commenters said, there are many overlapping methods in research. But the historiography is very different. In the discipline of history, there is more of a focus on the social, cultural, political impacts. Visual art can be used to help understand and dissect the event more closely, but history is a study of causes that led up to the event. Art history is very different in the sense that art history can get very specific to the artist and the art movement. Art history also has a focus on aestheticism. Just as history can use visuals such as art works and the artist's life as a tool to understanding the period, an art historian can use the historical event and time period, the historical facts to understanding the piece as well as the artist or the art movement. In a way it's flipped. I believe that these two disciplines are very important in the field of humanities, but in a sense, it is important to distinguish between the two disciplines. But I am also a firm believer in learning both fields in order to enrich the study of history.


Art history is about art and its history, just like Musicology is about music and its history. The only difference is that one has history in its name and the other doesn't.

(As another example of the same thing, for a long time in my country biology ran under the name of "natural history". Nobody considered it a subfield of history.)

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