WHAT IS ART?
Art is extremely difficult to define. The immediate reaction from some members of the Manchester Humanists to this question was that art is now sadly only measured by its commercial auction value, Most art is beyond our wallet-reach, and visible only in galleries and reproductions. A genuine work of art secreted away in a private, largely inaccessible collection is valuable only to those able and permitted to view it. If art isn't just an economic asset, what is it? Is art 'art for itself?' or for it's own sake? No, as much art is created by the artist with an intention to get us to look at it, admire it and think about it. Art is a challenge to our moral perception. It is daring us to think subjectively. Aestheticism is an alternative view to pragmatic instrumentalism. The artist should always carry the burden of responsibility.
Some Manchester Humanists felt that art lost all its value in the late twentieth century. With galleries like The Tate showing heaps of bricks and cows frozen and sliced in half, there was a sense that the talent and artistic skills required of high have perished, but one member brought along a modern painting of comedian Max Wall portraying a scene in Beckett's Waiting For Godot, and held it up alongside Botticelli's Birth Of Venus. It seemed that the two belonged side by side, equal contenders for the status of works of art. There is still clearly much worthy material coming out of the human race as yet.
Some artist say that a complete aesthetic attitude is a distancing state of pure detachment, but this is unconvincing. Art cries out to be noticed, and rightly so. We see an attitude of indifference when we see people unmoved by film of distant remote tragedies, wars, earthquakes, etc. Art has the ability to play on our emotions and our feelings. Aestheticism is an alternative view to pragmatic instrumentalism, in that art is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. Morality & ethics try to teach us something but art stands aloof from such responsibility. This view is nonsense.
What follows is a crude chronology of the history of art which tries to highlight some of the major periods of change and transformation in the way art developed, especially with regard to depiction of god, gods and human beings.
1/. DEFINITIONS - Derived from 'Artificial' (man made,), but what is art for? Decoration? For it's own sake? To depict beauty? Conveyed meaning, symbolic language, (hardly, look at Piccasso's Guernica, or Munch's The Scream), Aristotle gave us the word, Mimesis, (imitation, saying art holds a mirror up to reality, but does life imitate art too? The word 'art' Derives from 'Artificial' (man made,), but what is art for? Decoration? For it's own sake? Conveyed meaning, symbolic language/ Does art exist purely to depict beauty? (hardly always beauty; look at Piccasso's Guernica, or Munch's The Scream)
Aristotle gave us the word, Mimesis, (imitation, saying art holds a mirror up to reality, but does life imitate art too?
When a child draws a picture of his/her parents as coloured blobs with barely recognizable arms or legs and smiles, and calls them Mummy/Daddy is s/he aware that the pictures in no way resemble the real people depicted? How can we make the jump from seeing a pictorial symbolic image to thinking of said image in relation to the real object itself? Does the child know that the picture is not Mummy and Daddy, but the best that s/he can do to portray them in crayon on paper?
2/. PREHISTORIC ART - a means of marking a flint or other tools with a distinctive signature to depict ownership, art as a status and power symbol, denoting class differences, age, respect for wisdom, etc. Early cemeteries artistically decorated, a means of sprucing up special places & mementos, commemorative purposes, religious and fertility totemism, huge cave paintings, often in difficult inaccessible places, early finds are doodles, people playing with lines in a seam of ochre, experimentation, gradual move towards realism, omens and wards against theft, damage, illness, death, etc. Practical & pragmatic art.
3/. GREEK ART - The Dipylon Vase (c. 800 BCE) depicts mourners around a corpse, but no signs of afterlife images. It is exclusively commemorative art. Move to archaic art, dropping earlier Greek bordering lines making for greater emphasis on character & definition. Secular themes. One laments the death of a female vase artist. Early use of artists signing their own work. Highly individualized, competitive, professional, and decadent. Sculptor was realistic and animate. Complex poses, clothes that respond realistically to breezes, etc. Almost like stone photographs, or the people trapped in stone by the eruption of Pompeii, or victims of Gorgons.
4/. ROMAN ART - Derivative of Greek styles, more emphasis on practical artisan skills, i.e., road building, aqueducts, bath-houses, etc. Function rather than form mattered. Strong, stoic, secular influences here.
5/. JEWISH ART - Laws against idolatry kept depiction of God, angels, etc, to minimum. Persecution destroyed much of it too.
6/. EARLY CHRISTIAN ART - Nothing survives pre-200 CE. Early Roman catacomb art involved painted ceilings, often disguised to look like roman art, both to evade persecutors and to aid conversion of Roman citizens. Earliest churches had unadorned exterior shells, but richly decorated interiors. Broke with pagans by making temples where congregations could enter, rather than wonder at the mysteries within, where only priests could previously go. Roman domed bath houses served as a model for early church baptisteries, giving them sacred, rather than a profane status. As Christians became more open and secure, their art flourished. Bible served as a rich source of inspiration. Strong early emphasis on depth & perspective. Roman walls gave no illusion as to thickness of materials used. Christian churches used colour to deceive the eye. Encountering Saxons, & Vikings, Christians again took on pagan elements & influences but ultimately made them their own again.
7/. DEPICTION OF CHRIST - Whilst dominated by Jewish converts, and under persecution by Romans, Christ-art depicted him symbolically, as a lamb, or a fish. The cross appeared in cryptic images, (i.e., a crossed mast on a sailing ship), No Biblical clues to his appearance. Earliest paintings of him depict him beardless, a common image of a shepherd (like Hermes, with whom such work is often indistinguishable), with Greek/Roman haloes, an old art trick to denote rank and highlight important individuals. In some he is indistinguishable from Helios, the Sun God. Later, the Greek image of the stern philosophical teacher took over, long hair, ragged beard, piercing eyes. This image still dominates. Christian art is squeamish about depicting Jesus naked on the cross, as it opens the thorny question as to whether or not he was circumcised.
8/. EARLY ISLAMIC ART - Mosques modelled on Roman, Byzantine art styles, with emphasis on marking the Qibla, (direction of prayer towards Mecca) with strategically places pillars and entrances. By 7th Muslims embarked on massive building programme to emphasise their power & presence & status. Christian Church building would quickly start catching up. Islamic art won't use human figures so there is much geometrical abstraction, colour etc.
9/. ROMANESQUE -(10th Century onwards) Crusades cross-fertilised western & oriental art styles. Growing populations needed more churches, and more art to put in them. (jealousy of Islamic scale too). Many built of local stone by local labour force, and many pointed towards Jerusalem at first. 1Roman arches were common, but local skills & materials often meant churches looked original, and unique. No two alike.. Sculptures elongated, & distorted, to give sense of fear & torment. Use of small windows to limit light on gloomy images. Early use of stained glass. Detailed tapestries, i.e., Bayeaux; we know that Harold's ranks were pressed so tightly that the dead couldn't fall over properly)
10/. 12th CENTURY GOTHIC - Renascence artists called this period gothic abusively, as barbaric. It has nothing to do with the race called the Goths. Specifically dates to an origin in 1140 when Abbot Suger extended the church at Saint-Denis (Paris) to accommodate visiting pilgrims passing through the chapel, so they wouldn't distract from or disturb regular local masses, etc. Wealthy & decadent, Suger wanted lots of gold & material splendour. "Only the best, most beautiful things in the service of God", he said. Extension work meant supports & pillars replacing walls. Gothic art was the best use of knocking two rooms into one ever. Emphasise too on exterior ornamentation. Many churches & abbeys took generations to complete, and often departed radically from the original schematic planned work. Height was sought with dangerously competitive ambition. Notre Dame is period's crowning achievement Artists, decorators, & architect's often given free hand in design, so Wells Cathedral has a gargoyle complaining of toothache. Gothic art humanised churches, depicting animals & grapes, to make a congregation feel more at home. Less emphasis on mystery & awe, other than in scale that often made the church-goer feel dwarfed and insignificant. Gargoyles were believed to capture the spiritual pain of the parish, so that their faith & prayer would hold despair in check. If they lost faith, the demonic gargoyles (remarkably pagan in concept) would unleash all their anxieties again.
11/. RENNAISCANCE - 1550 onwards Christians destroyed most pagan Roman art on site as a source of paganism & bad memories of persecution. The architecture was still there though. Excavation work uncovered many statues & vases, sparking a revival of mythical influence, many major artists arose at this time. The golden age of painting had begun. Artists wanted recognizing for imaginative creativity rather than technical craftsmanship. Strong humanistic influence. Freidrich Heer wrote of renaissance anthropomorphism - "There was no sense of philosophizing over God & nature unless man himself was also in the picture." Turbulent period in history, with much warfare and revolutions brewing. As Harry Lime observed in Graham Greene's The Third man, "In Italy, for thirty years, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed. They produced Michaelangelo, Leanardo Da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock." Does art succeed best under tyranny as a medium of protest, or in peaceful, static times?
12/. REFORMATION - COUNTER REFORMATION Luther was appalled by Renaissance Roman spending & decadence, and protested fiercely, much art lost in the reformation conflicts.
13/. NEOCLASSICISM -& MANNERISM - Napoleon's post-revolution new-renascence started in line with his love of Roman empire builders. Napoleon opened the Louvre to the public, starting age of art for the masses. Nationalized art industry started. Return to simplicity. Straight lines preferred to elaborate convoluted spirals. Severe style restrictions, no frills allowed. Influential in America too. I.e., Washington's Capital Hill buildings. Jacks Louis David (1748-1825) designed Napoleonic uniforms. Refused to allow his students to show brush strokes or fancy work in their art.
14/. ROMANTICISM - (GOTHIC REVIVAL) Basically a way of saying get stuffed to Neoclassical mannerism. Emphasis on depiction of classical heroes, mythical, and even make belief beings, emotive art, passion and love strong in depiction. Many paintings of uncharted countries, the exotic East, Africa, etc. This was a time of individualism against the intellect, the one against the many, rebellion against the academies, Wordsworth, Beethoven, etc were Romantics, in art there was Blake, Goya, Turner. Architecture was anything but strict classical form; Brighton Pavilion, & Parliament are Romantic architecture designs. The first still life studies of bowls of fruit (often symbolic of human lust or greed at first( appeared at this time in Holland.
15/. REALISM, History was past, imagination was for dreamers. Realism was about direct experience, what can be seen here & now. Angels couldn't be painted as no one ever sees them. Glorified in working with ordinary working classes. Some painted prostitutes. Paris academy refused to accept realism as true art, so realists started their own exhibition of 'refused art' in a tent in 1863. Photography made art easier to do. It was cheaper to take a photo than pay a model to sit or stand posing for hours. Other artists saw the camera as the end of the world.
16/. IMPRESSIONISM, 1860's) Realistic subject matter but with increasingly imaginative use of lighting, for mood & effect. Moonlight reflected on water, dew-drops on leaves, etc. Major artists of the period were Degas, Renoir, Manet & Monet.
17/. PRE-RAPHAELITE BROTHERHOOD, Artists like Rossetti, Manchester linked artist Ford-Madox Brown, and William Morris, formed a school of art dedicated to rejecting everything that had happened since the time of Raphael, Short lived due to rivalries and colliding egos, but produced some of the most passionate, and beautiful portraits of all. 20th CENTURY
18/. EXPRESSIONISM - Emphasis on inner world of feeling, as opposed to realism, with a focus on exaggeration, especially in Van Gogh's vibrant, violent colour usage, sense of a captured fleeting moment that will never come again. Expressionists painted with hurried desperation for fear of losing the moment or the inspiration.
19/. CUBISM, Most associated with Picasso, fragmented, jagged pictures, capturing emotional intensity in mask like facial features, discordant images, violent angles.
20/. DADA, emphasis on shock and horror, in graphic use of mutilated form, or intensely graphic sexual images, which gave way to
21/. SURREALISM, symbolic, often impossible dream like images, influenced by Freudian psychiatry & psychology, about stripping to underlying influences in the mind. Dali's melting clock's depict the fluidity and also the persistence of time. Some of Surrealism probably is just meaningless though.
22/. ABSTRACTION, colour and art without form, garish colour hurled on canvas for stark images, sometimes geometric, other times dispensing even with that, i.e., Jackson Pollock's work. Sometimes it gets silly with people just throwing paint on canvas in buckets or rolling on the paint themselves.
23/. POP ART, Andy Warhol related school arguing that every day consumerisms are worthy of the name of art. Warhol designed the Campbell's Soup tin labels still used today, but pop artists depicted everything from coca cola cans to film posters, both directly and in details on other art. School that calls everything art. Warhol also painted mass produced images of Marylyn Monroe, and others to depict the sense of mass production of art; so everyone has an original, which ultimately makes all art empty and shallow in form for pop-art advocates.
24/. MODERNISM, accused of dehumanizing, in its focus on form & structure as opposed to meaning & narrative.
25/. FUTURISM, Mechanized advancement, destructuction of the symbols of the past. Figures depicted in flux as if walking & standing still in several poses at once. Sense of meltdown, and dissolution of form.
26/. SUPREMATISM - non-objectional painting, i.e., Malevich's plain white canvas with a tiny black square representing nothing at all.
27/. FANTASY ART - Literally whatever you think of that isn't real.
28/. POST MODERNISM, Slightly deliberately off-key approach to traditional artistic styles as an antidote to the sterility of modernism.
Could art be whatever any of us wish to see in it? I think so.
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