There's this theory that I've been spouting for years - since college. I used to go on about it in study groups, in quiet conversations over lunch, in critiques, in the studio. But my favorite place to go on and on, was gathered around my friends when the libations flowed freely. One time, at my friends' house, I went as far as to draw a visual aide on the wall and convinced everyone in that particular well liquored circle that I was a philosopher of sorts. Oh! The passions of youth. I think it stayed there until they moved out.
I give my students this theory now. I call it Standing on the Shoulders of Giants. It's my way of explaining the importance of knowing art history.
In a nutshell, it's like this: We are beholden to a past that is responsible for the creation of our current situation. We cannot know all that we do, without those who came before us. Their hard-fought battles and tough lessons don't need to be relearned. We just need to understand their story. And by paying homage to those who came before us and by learning the lessons of the past, we create an opportunity for us to understand more. We can build on those past lessons. It is the way it's been for thousands of years.
Artistically speaking, this means that the Roman aesthetic could never have emerged without the ideals of the Greeks. The rebirth that was the Renaissance could never have come about without the engineering breakthroughs established during the Gothic period.
Ultimately, it's like building a tower. It's made of stones, or boxes, or whatever. Each stone is the knowledge of an era. The next era comes along and climbs the first stone, thereby coming to know all of the things that the previous era learned. And each time a stone is added, the new generation can climb higher, and see farther - having learned more about artistic expression, the human condition, and all that has come before.
To be an artist today is to understand the 30,000 years of history behind humankind. It is to know the pains and struggles. It is to climb upon the shoulders of giants, and see how far one can see.