Happy World Art Day!! It was on April 15th. My post arrived with some delay, but it has very interesting content to discuss! Have you ever wondered what is art? Is there any universal definition of this troublesome concept? In this post, we are going to explore some of those questions.
In this post, we will have two main objectives. One is seeing a general overview of art history for understanding the concept of “art” art as we know it nowadays. As it is a very long journey to make in a single post, I am going to focus on the four main changes in the concept of art throughout western history. Don’t miss the graphics I posted on Instagram on how to analyse a painting!
As a second objective, and not less relevant, at the end of this post, we are going to reflect on why we cannot simply apply and limit to use of ideas from western art history for analyzing and appreciating the beauty of non-western “art” as Indigenous, African, Pre-Columbian, among others.
𝑾𝒉𝒂𝒕 𝒊𝒔 𝑨𝒓𝒕?
Art is a hard concept to define. Collins Dictionary defines art as:
“𝖠𝗋𝗍 𝖼𝗈𝗇𝗌𝗂𝗌𝗍𝗌 𝗈𝖿 𝗉𝖺𝗂𝗇𝗍𝗂𝗇𝗀𝗌, 𝗌𝖼𝗎𝗅𝗉𝗍𝗎𝗋𝖾, 𝖺𝗇𝖽 𝗈𝗍𝗁𝖾𝗋 𝗉𝗂𝖼𝗍𝗎𝗋𝖾𝗌 𝗈𝗋 𝗈𝖻𝗃𝖾𝖼𝗍𝗌 𝗐𝗁𝗂𝖼𝗁 𝖺𝗋𝖾 𝖼𝗋𝖾𝖺𝗍𝖾𝖽 𝖿𝗈𝗋 𝗉𝖾𝗈𝗉𝗅𝖾 𝗍𝗈 𝗅𝗈𝗈𝗄 𝖺𝗍 𝖺𝗇𝖽 𝖺𝖽𝗆𝗂𝗋𝖾 𝗈𝗋 𝗍𝗁𝗂𝗇𝗄 𝖽𝖾𝖾𝗉𝗅𝗒 𝖺𝖻𝗈𝗎𝗍”.
This definition gives us the idea that art is associated with materiality and an effect that is produced in people.
Now, the Oxford Dictionary provides another explanation:
“𝘈𝘳𝘵 𝘪𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘶𝘴𝘦 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘪𝘮𝘢𝘨𝘪𝘯𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘵𝘰 𝘦𝘹𝘱𝘳𝘦𝘴𝘴 𝘪𝘥𝘦𝘢𝘴 𝘰𝘳 𝘧𝘦𝘦𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘴, 𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘶𝘭𝘢𝘳𝘭𝘺 𝘪𝘯 𝘱𝘢𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘯𝘨, 𝘥𝘳𝘢𝘸𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘰𝘳 𝘴𝘤𝘶𝘭𝘱𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦”.
This definition doesn’t centre on the object, but rather on the human beings that produce them, as it can be associated with an action that is rooted in imagination.
Now, those two definitions of art, one associated with materiality that is there two be admired, and the other that involves feelings and ways of expression, mostly serve to describe and understand the western conception of art. By no means I am saying that non-western productions don’t have aesthetics or are mediums of expressions, but, as José Alcina Franch in chapter 2, “Western art’, ‘primitive art’ and ‘prehistoric art’ in his book Art and Anthropology:
“𝘈𝘳𝘵 𝘪𝘴 𝘢𝘯 𝘦𝘴𝘴𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘢𝘭 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘱𝘰𝘯𝘦𝘯𝘵, 𝘣𝘶𝘵 𝘢 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘱𝘰𝘯𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘣𝘦𝘭𝘰𝘯𝘨𝘴 𝘵𝘰 𝘤𝘶𝘭𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦, 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘴𝘰𝘯, 𝘪𝘵 𝘤𝘢𝘯𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘣𝘦 𝘶𝘯𝘥𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘰𝘶𝘵𝘴𝘪𝘥𝘦 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘤𝘶𝘭𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦 𝘪𝘯 𝘸𝘩𝘪𝘤𝘩 𝘪𝘵 𝘸𝘢𝘴 𝘱𝘳𝘰𝘥𝘶𝘤𝘦𝘥” (pp. 30).
For this very reason, it is not possible to apply all conceptions and ways of seeing the world that is part of the western canon to non-western. Generalizing is problematic because it limits the usage, understanding, meaning and relevance that “art” might have in cultures with history and beliefs different from western.
𝐌𝐚𝐢𝐧 𝐏𝐨𝐢𝐧𝐭𝐬 𝐟𝐨𝐫 𝐔𝐧𝐝𝐞𝐫𝐬𝐭𝐚𝐧𝐝𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐖𝐞𝐬𝐭𝐞𝐫𝐧 𝐂𝐨𝐧𝐜𝐞𝐩𝐭 𝐨𝐟 𝐀𝐫𝐭
I. 𝑨𝒏𝒄𝒊𝒆𝒏𝒕 𝑮𝒓𝒆𝒆𝒌 𝑨𝒓𝒕 – 𝑇ℎ𝑒 𝑐𝑜𝑛𝑐𝑒𝑝𝑡𝑖𝑜𝑛 𝑜𝑓 𝑏𝑒𝑎𝑢𝑡𝑦
Ancient Greek art has been notably influential through time, especially during the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, and the Neoclacisms. Greek Art, most specifically, sculptures have shaped the Wester conception and understanding of beauty and perfect bodies. Kenneth Clark discusses in Chapter 2, “Apolo” from his book The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form how:
“Step by step, in less than a century they [the Greek artists/artisans] successfully developed models able to satisfy our western conception of beauty that remains nowadays” (p. 41).
Now, despite all that admiration that Ancient Greek Art has caused through time, it might be surprising and shocking to know that at the times when those sculptures, like Venus de Milo, were considered deceiving and inferior to poetry by one of the greatest western philosophist: Plato.
In book X of The Republic, Plato justifies philosophy above art and poetry. According to Plato, art is an imitator, an image that resembles falsely to something in the real world, and it deceives:
“Which is the art of painting designed to be – an imitator of things as they are, or as they appear – of appearance or reality? ‘Appearance’ he said. ‘Then the imitator [the artists and art] is a long way off the truth, and can reproduce all things because he highly touches on a small part of them“. (pp. 23).
Then, artists and art are not true and nor real as they only imitate. Now, this conception of art might also be explained because art in Ancient Greek was associated with techne, that is, a technic. Following the example of the sculptures, the Greeks considered that their realization involved techniques and labour of the body and mathematics. As Gombrich notices in chapter 3 of his book The Story of Art:
“There is no living body as symmetrical, as well built and beautiful as those of the Greek statues. It is often believed that artists looked at many models and eliminate the aspects that they did not like; the artwork started as a careful reproduction of a real man and then they started beautifying it, omitting all irregularity or any feature that did not conform to the idea of a perfect body”. (pp. 104).
Modifying the body in terms of an established canon or rules to understand beauty, adjusts to Plato’s criticisms of art as lacking truth.
Additionally to this conception of art, it is worth noticing that the concept of “artists” as we know it nowadays was almost inexistent in Ancient Greek and Rome, there were some exceptions as Miron and Policleto. But as Peter Stewart in The Social History of Roman Art:
“At the same time we have to remember that neither in Greece nor in Rome was there a cut distinction between an ‘art’ and ‘craft’, or between ‘artists’ and ‘craftsmen’, and there is no reason to believe that the activities for most ‘artists’ in the Roman world would have been accorded particular respect as an elevated occupation” (pp. 19).
For this reason, despite the Ancient Greeks and Romans shaping the classical conception of beauty, especially idealized bodies, and what is understood as “high arts”, the term ‘art’ and ‘artists’ was not really seen the same way as we do nowadays.
II. 𝑨𝒓𝒕 𝒊𝒏 𝑴𝒊𝒅𝒅𝒍𝒆 𝑨𝒈𝒆𝒔 – 𝑇ℎ𝑒 𝑅𝑒𝑙𝑒𝑣𝑎𝑛𝑐𝑒 𝑜𝑓 𝑆𝑦𝑚𝑏𝑜𝑙𝑖𝑠𝑚
Traditionally speaking, Middle Ages is seen as a dark period, but unlike this wrong conception, Middle Ages provided great knowledge in humanities and art. As a matter of fact, cultures in Europe like Celts, Norse, and Anglosaxon with Christianity created one of the most complex and rich contents ‘art works’ in western history, that continue influencing even nowadays.
During Middle Ages, images and artworks were directly associated with Christianity. As Georges Duby in his book Art and Society in Middle Ages notices:
“The majority of them were offerings made to God, to praise him and thank him, and to obtain in return his indulgence and favour; or else they were offered to patrons and saints… For the most part too, these monuments served as meditators, facilitating communication with the other world…They were intended to render it present and visible here below, where it be the person of Christ or the heavenly Jerusalem” (pp. 2).
Art was straightly related to architecture, which made the cathedrals possible, as a way of connecting people with God. The images would be a medium for building a connection with God and human beings. These images were influenced and inspired directly by the bible.
Images and art were not passive elements that were there just for contemplation and admiring. They were actually “texts” that had to be decoded and understood visually by their viewers. These included numerous symbols that were adapted from the Roman empire, like the Chrismon, fish, angels, etc…, as well as Celts, Norse, and Anglosaxon like trees, the sea, nature, fruits, etc… Light, darkness, and colours were fundamental as well, as John Gage mentions in chapter 3 of his book Color and Culture, light inside the cathedrals was a symbol of divine light, and colours like red, gold and yellow equated to the presence of God, and blue of heaven.
During the Gothic period from the Middle Ages, art acquired a relevant role in cathedrals and evangelization, for they were like texts, but easier to read, that instructed the population on the Catholic faith. In fact, images in a Medieval cathedral should be always read from the bottom to the top, in ascension to the sky, which for the people, it meant closeness to God.
In the Middle Ages, manuscripts acquired also a detailed and artistically treatment, they were not only mere documents but rather, expressed religious and popular beliefs, as well as, the predominant iconography of the time.
Many symbols we understand and use nowadays in western art originated in Middle Ages, like trees, apples, and stars. As well as the uses of colours.
III. 𝑹𝒆𝒏𝒂𝒊𝒔𝒔𝒂𝒏𝒄𝒆 – 𝑇ℎ𝑒 𝐶𝑜𝑛𝑐𝑒𝑝𝑡𝑖𝑜𝑛 𝑜𝑓 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝐴𝑟𝑡𝑖𝑠𝑡
One of the main contributions of the Renaissance to the concept of art that can be understood nowadays is the introduction of the concept of “artist”. Unlike in Middle Ages, where artists were not individual persons but comrades, during the Renaissance, appears the concept of genius, the individual, and the creators might receive commissioned works under a contract, and they even sign most of their artworks. Notable examples are Michelangelo, Albrecht Dürer, and Leonardo da Vinci. As Kim Woods mentions in her book The Changing Status of the Artist, Michelangelo and Dürer were lauded both in their lifetime and death, which evidences a notorious increase in individuality and conception of artists as an individual. Georges Didi Huberman goes further in his book The Surviving Images by stating that:
“There [in the Renaissance] exactly is where art history had begun or had commenced again”. (p.64).
Because, as we noticed above, in the Renaissance the concept of the artists was born, as well as the understanding of art as an object for contemplation associated with creativity and the individual mind of the maker.
We could extend the contributions of the Renaissance to art if we focus on mathematics, the introduction of perspective, that is the origin of paintings as windows. As Anthony Blunt mentions in his book Artistic Theory in Italy 1450 – 1600:
“It was employing perspective that they [artists] got beyond the naíve and tentative imitation of the natural world and were able to reconstruct it with the sureness which comes from rebates on absolute rules”. (pp. 30).
This feature in art, especially in painting, will be predominant until Modernism, although in the Romanticism, some works from William Turner clearly do not follow this notion his style did not become popular until Modernism.
IV. 𝑴𝒐𝒅𝒆𝒓𝒏𝒊𝒔𝒎 – 𝑇ℎ𝑒 𝐷𝑒𝑎𝑑 𝑜𝑓 𝐵𝑒𝑎𝑢𝑡𝑦
Despite there were many innovations between the Renaissance and Modernism in art, it is impossible to focus on all of them for understanding the conception of art we have nowadays. But, I decided to choose Modernism because it influenced directly our own era, Postmodernism.
In Modernism (XIX century) many art movements took place, known as historical Avant-garde. Among these were: Futurism, Cubism, Dadaism, and Impressionism, among others. After these, other movements came but with less structured ideas or manifestos, like Conceptual Art, Post Impressionism, Abstract Painting, and Action Painting, among others.
The Avant-garde movements were revolutionary in understanding and conceiving art, because as Mario De Micheli notices in his book The Artistic Avant-garde from the XX century, before them:
“The artists had to paint according to the scientific laws of simultaneous contrasts, and for this reason, they could not mix up the colours but approximate them as pure as possible. The eye at stare at the painting would perceive the colours as realistic as possible. The result would be a vibrant light and tones that only exist in nature”. (pp. 200).
But this notion and importance of realism and painting as being closer to nature changes. drastically. For example, for Expressionism, real colours do not matter, a horse can perfectly be blue in a painting. Similarly, shapes and perspectives will no longer be relevant in art compositions.
Now, the event that reinvented the concept of art was the introduction of the ready-made. Some historians recognize Marcel Duchamp being the creator of this new way of seeing and understanding art. Robert Smith in his book Concepts of Modern Art mentions that:
“The gesture made by Duchamp implicated that art could exist outside the conventional mediums, the ‘hand made ones’ like the painting and the sculpture, and beyond the considerations of beauty and refining; his argument was that art is more related with the intentions of the artist rather than his skills for doing something considered as beautiful” (pp. 212).
From Modernism to nowadays, art is no longer truly judged and appreciated for its beauty, being a subjective concept, but rather, for its intention, historical context, and the aims the artists had by producing artwork, as well, as for how we are supposed to look it and interact with it.
𝑺𝒐 𝒕𝒉𝒆𝒏, 𝑾𝒉𝒂𝒕 𝒊𝒔 𝑨𝒓𝒕?
I have omitted numerous historical periods to create a comprehensive definition, but as we can see so far, in western art history, art has had different definitions through time depending on its historical context. We can say that it is something that you can contemplate, that it might have a meaning, or an aim depending on its context.
Now, one of the problems is that nowadays images and artworks are constantly changing according to their context, and some works from the past are being reused and modified. John Berger in his book Ways of Seeing offers a solution for this problem:
“The art of the past does not exist anymore as it existed in another time. It has lost its authority. A language of images has occupied its place and authority. What matters and concerns now is who uses that language and for what” (pp.21).
Again, for this reason, it is fundamental to consider the context of the images and artworks, why they were produced, and when and by whom, to understand their function, originality and main source.
But why we cannot apply these conceptions of art to non-western creations? The answer is simple. It does not have to do with beauty, aesthetics or taste, because, for someone like me, those creations can be sublime. The answer relies on the fact that non-western wasn’t dominated by the same history. There was no influence of Ancient Greek art in the Maya’s production, for example. For these reasons, its own history, conception and understanding of art should be revised. Now, of course, we can consider their artworks, but we cannot just limit to use of western ideas to appreciate them.
𝐒𝐨𝐦𝐞 𝐏𝐨𝐢𝐧𝐭𝐬 𝐟𝐨𝐫 𝐔𝐧𝐝𝐞𝐫𝐬𝐭𝐚𝐧𝐝𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐍𝐨𝐧-𝐖𝐞𝐬𝐭𝐞𝐫𝐧 𝐀𝐫𝐭
I. 𝑰𝒅𝒆𝒏𝒕𝒊𝒇𝒚 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝑹𝒆𝒄𝒐𝒈𝒏𝒊𝒛𝒆 𝒅𝒆 𝑪𝒖𝒍𝒕𝒖𝒓𝒆
One of the main starting points we must consider is doing research on the culture associated with the artwork we are seeing and appreciating. Are there any established materials, patterns and materialities that are used by the culture? What is the context of the object we are seeing?
Some artefacts that we might call ‘art’ might have a religious function. For understanding this religious function we cannot think straightly of Middle Ages art, because the ways of perceiving and being in the world differ, for this reason, it is fundamental to give credit, autonomy and appreciation to the different contexts. For example, some artworks might be associated with shamanism and alike (we must notice that the word ‘shaman’ is not applied to all cultures, as they have their own terms). As Peter T. Furst in his article “The roots and continuities of shamanism” published in Artscanada magazine mentions:
“the overt manifestation of shamanism can differ even within one more or less homogeneous culture area or closely related population” (pp. 38).
For this reason, despite an artwork that might suggest a religious usage or representation, it is fundamental to locate it in its cultural context.
II. 𝑰𝒅𝒆𝒏𝒕𝒊𝒇𝒚 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒖𝒔𝒂𝒈𝒆𝒔 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒄𝒐𝒏𝒄𝒆𝒑𝒕𝒖𝒂𝒍𝒊𝒛𝒂𝒕𝒊𝒐𝒏𝒔
Once you have identified and researched the culture, it is important to focus on the context of the object itself. Does that culture understand ‘art’ as Westerners do? What was the aim of that creation? Usually, these explanations on conceptualization and usage are studied by archaeologists and anthropologists, but, it is fundamental to recognise that cultures like First Nations and Indigenous people continue to exist today and they produce, use and signify art in their own ways, and sometimes, it is not even open to Westerns as it is an essential component of their culture that must be respected.
But following the anthropological conceptualization of non-western art, a prominent author in this area of study is Alfred Gell. In his book Art and Agency: An Anthropological theory he suggests that instead of art history, there could be an anthropology of art which instead of focussing on the ‘ways of seeing a historical period, should be a cultural system. He insists that:
“an ‘anthropology of art’ focuses on the social context of art production, circulation and reception, rather than the evaluation of particular works of art, which to my mind, is the function of the critic” (pp. 3).
He leaves aesthetical concerns aside as he insists that it is not necessarily a concept or term that really matters in the productions, because to him:
“The desire to see the art of other cultures aesthetically tells us more about our own ideology and its quasi-religious veneration of art objects as aesthetics talismans than it does about other cultures” (pp. 3).
To Gell, using the western aesthetics principle in non-western art is not valuable, if the aesthetical principle is used, it must be under the specific context of the culture that produced the artwork.
III. 𝑨𝒑𝒑𝒓𝒆𝒄𝒊𝒂𝒕𝒆 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝑨𝒅𝒎𝒊𝒓𝒆
I don’t think that there is something wrong with being moved and loving non-western art for its aesthetics. Of course, it is fundamental to consider the two points mentioned above: culture and context recognition. But non-western artefacts can be seen and appreciated as art, for they can be considered artistically beautiful. In fact, some museums around the world, like Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino in Chile, focus on the indigenous artefacts as art but consider the contexts and cultures that are associated with them.
We can be perfectly moved by an image or artwork that is different from our culture without seeing it as an exotic artefact. In fact, David Morgan in his book Images at work: The material culture on enchantment, demonstrates that artefacts, specifically images, that might not be artworks can enchant us, producing an effect on us, the viewers, because images:
“are devices or instruments that interfere with human beings in a very powerful way because images answer ti some deeply held perceptual behaviours among humans” (pp. 54).
Now, Morgan is also aware that cultural conditions affect and interfere with how we respond to and interact with images, but, that doesn’t mean that we cannot be enchanted by artworks that are different from our own culture, because, after all, they are human creations.
IV. 𝑹𝒆𝒄𝒐𝒈𝒏𝒊𝒛𝒆 𝒊𝒕𝒔 𝑪𝒐𝒏𝒕𝒆𝒎𝒑𝒐𝒓𝒂𝒓𝒚 𝑪𝒐𝒏𝒕𝒊𝒏𝒈𝒆𝒏𝒄𝒚
It is fundamental to recognize that non-western art is not something about the past, but also about the present. There are modern and contemporary indigenous artists that produce art based on their own cultures. Also, many indigenous people continue producing artefacts we might call art, despite they are also consumers of western artwork. The world of art is in constant flow for both sides, both western and non-western. In the case of non-western influences in western art, there are numerous examples, being the most obvious, the artworks by Pablo Picasso.
Now, it is relevant that we must respect the creations of non-western artists. They should be admired, recognized, preserved, and respected. Being in an art museum that features non-western artworks should not bethink as artefacts from the past. As Francisco Gallardo in Patrimony and Indigenous People concludes:
“The artefacts and Precolumbian collections have ceased being a testimony of cultures and lifestyles different from ours. They are currently active instruments in our own interpretation, allies of ever-changing aspirations in different groups of interest” (pp.119).
But, straightly related to that, we should also wonder and question ourselves (especially western museums and collectors): do those ‘artworks’ truly belong to the museum or they are artefacts that are fundamental for cultures that still exist nowadays? Many of them were robbed and stolen by Westerners, and cultures are recalling them back. Maybe, we should reconsider these petitions and their importance nowadays. See the British Museum issue with the Moai from Rapa Nui (Easter Island as an example).
𝑺𝒐 𝒕𝒉𝒆𝒏, 𝑾𝒉𝒂𝒕 𝒊𝒔 𝑨𝒓𝒕?
As we have seen so far, for understanding art, then it is absolutely relevant to recognize its culture and context. This will give us an idea of its possible function, usage, conception, and relevance, and how we might ‘understand’ it. Now, of course, we can admire and appreciate it, be moved by it. Because after all, those ‘artworks are produced by humans, who can move and be moved, who can also possess a concept of aesthetics, beauty and the sublime. But it is relevant not to try adapting non-western art into wester art because, that would erase its own history, relevance and culture. By no means I’m saying to exoticism, see those beautiful productions as ‘others’, ‘different’, ‘primitive’; no, my aim by making this distinctive approach is the necessity of recognizing non-western art on its own, not as dependent on western conceptions and history.
I hope you have enjoyed this post. It is only a general insight into the art and how it can be admired, appreciate and understood. I’m sure that in the future we can discuss these matters and topics with a deeper and more specific approach,
What is your favourite art movement or art type? You can comment here or on Instagram!