Purposes of Art
Art is created and enjoyed by many people for many reasons. However, one of the things that art does is extend and expand our shared common visual language. When new visual ideas are first introduced by the artist, they are often seen as shocking, and perhaps even as incomprehensible. However, with time the best and most effective of these ideas are accepted. There is nothing harder than trying to grasp what was shocking or illuminating about certain images, or ways of making images, once the shock is gone, and we have all absorbed this bit of visual data into our own vocabularies. Artists show us new ways to see familiar things, and how to interpret new situations and events through various kinds of visual shorthand. This creation of visual language may be the artist’s intention, or it may be a side effect of other purposes. So what are some of the purposes that art fulfills?
Probably the oldest purpose of art is as a vehicle for religious ritual. From the prehistoric cave paintings of France to the Sistine Chapel, art has served religion. For centuries the Church was the primary patron of artists. In traditional societies even today, the primary purpose of art is religious or ceremonial.
Art may also serve as a commemoration of an important event. The event may be of major historical importance, such as the coronation of Josephine by Napoleon as recorded by the artist David, or it may be important only to the participants, like the image of a wedding or a baptism.
Art has often served as propaganda or social commentary. Propaganda images are attempts to persuade us toward particular viewpoints or actions promoted by public or private institutions such as political parties, lobbyists, governments, or religious groups. The propaganda purpose may be one we approve of, such as World War II efforts to get women behind the war effort, as epitomized in Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter. It might also be a purpose we disapprove of. In either case, the power of visual images has frequently been used to persuade masses of people to accept beliefs, take action, or follow leaders. The artist as social commentator may simply make us more aware of the human condition as he/she perceives it, without suggesting particular action. All societies engage in propaganda, but here are some links to propaganda art created in China, and by the Allies during World War I and during World War II.
Art may be simply a means of recording of visual data— telling the “truth” about what we see. After the Renaissance, artists became preoccupied with new ways of capturing reality such as the use of linear perspective, and the realism possible through the use of oil painting technique. In time, artists like Courbet and Cezanne (and many who followed them) began in various ways to challenge the basic idea of what it is for an image to be true and real.
Art can also be seen as pleasing the eye- creating beauty. Yet the idea of beauty, like that of truth, has been challenged in the modern era. At one time, the artist was expected to portray perfection– lofty and noble ideals of beauty. Yet as society became more industrialized and democratic, many thoughtful people began to broaden their notions of what could be beautiful. For example, Rembrandt could celebrate the tactile quality of paint and color in his picture of a side of beef, and Courbet and Millet could see beauty in the life of ordinary peasants.
Art is also a powerful means of storytelling. This was a common device of religious art of the Middle ages, for example in the frescoes by Giotto from the Church of San Francesco de Assisi , where sequences of panels were used to tell stories from the Scriptures or lives of saints. It is also the great gift of Norman Rockwell, who had the ability to tell powerful and subtle stories about ordinary people and events, in just one picture. A picture is truly worth a thousand words.
Art can also convey intense emotion.The expressive power of art can be seen in literal ways in the capturing of facial expression and body language. Certain religious art, and the works of expressionists such as Munch or Kirchner are charged with powerful emotions. Picasso, in works such as Guernica (also an example of powerful social commentary and storytelling) is able to communicate intense emotions. This is accomplished variously by use of dramatic or exaggerated color, light, form, and/or other elements.
In any case, one of the primary functions of art is to interpret the subject matter at hand. Subject matter does not change all that much over time. Although new subject matter has evolved, the human condition, nature, and events still continue to capture the attention of artists. The media used have changed relatively little; though new materials have appeared in this century, the conventional media continue to be used. Nor can we say that the quality or artistic merit of art works has increased or lessened with time. However, throughout the course of history as society has changed, so also has the interpretation of specific subject matter. A portrait executed by Matisse in 1907 could not be confused with one done by van Dyck in the 1630s.Even landscape is reinterpreted in the context of a changing world. Each work is an expression of the subject in the context of the values, culture, and events of its specific era.
The Evolution of the Idea of Art
It is helpful to look at early definitions of the term “art” to help us understand how the role of art has changed. In the 11-12th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, art was defined as “Skill at doing anything as a result of knowledge and practice…”
Therefore the Medieval painter who embellished the masterpiece known as the Book of Kells would have been baffled by our notions of himself as artist; to him, artist and craftsman were the same thing.
Little had changed by the end of the 16th century when we are told that “Art or cunning every country nourisheth… [that] is to say, [artists are] cunning men, and such as have any faculty or science, whether so ever they go shall lack no living…” So by the time of Holbein or Rubens art was still seen as a set of skills, valued as mainly a means of livelihood.
By the 18th century and the age of enlightenment, however, we begin to see a change of attitude: Art is described as “A pursuit or occupation in which skill is directed toward the ratification of taste or production of what is beautiful.” Here for the first time we hear that art is associated with taste, and beauty, (though skill is still there). Mme. de Pompadour, portrayed here by Francoise Boucher, participated in the development of new standards of taste and elegance, but also did much to elevate the place of the artist in society. In the eighteenth century artists and writers were frequent guests in aristocratic salons. Fragonard, Gainsborough , Tiepolo are among the leading artists in this period.
In the 19th century Matthew Arnold stated that “We mean by art not merely an aim to please, but also pure and faultless workmanship.” Arnold, who was the foremost establishment arbiter of taste in the later 19th c. was being a little defensive here. He was reaffirming the importance of skill, while acknowledging that art should also aim to please; that is, create something beautiful. The ideals of art as stated by Arnold are exemplified by the painting on the right. But why was he being defensive about this well established idea that artists exhibit skill? Because in the 19th century for the first time we have dissent from this idea, expressed in the idea of the Avant Garde– the notion that the creative powers of the individual artist are at the center of what art is. The artist was now seen as the leading edge, the prophet of new cultural ideas– and this meant that the artist had begun to take more extensive liberties with established ideas of technique, interpretation, and suitable subject matter.
The idea of the Avant Garde developed around 1800 following the revolutions of the late 18th century. In the years following the revolutions in France and America the Romantics venerated the artist’s creative powers; based on their creative talent, they were held up as a special and sublime class, somehow separate from ordinary mortals.
The idea of the Avant Garde role of the artist also introduced the myth that because they are ahead of their time, great artists could not be fully appreciated until they were dead. The Romantic idea that a true artist must also be a “starving artist” also emerges, because the Avant Garde artist could not, by definition, participate in the establishments and institutions of his society; he must remain an outsider to fulfill his critical, prophetic role.
Prior to the 18th century in a mostly preliterate society visual images were the way you got information about the world. Wealthy and powerful patrons knew this, and used art and artists to persuade and teach. They also employed artists to create status objects that would make their own lives comfortable and beautiful.
In the 19th century, the spread of democracy and the rise of the middle class changed the equation. The salon became the important institution which allowed artists to present an immense variety of visions and messages, judged and driven by a rising middle class that could now afford to patronize the arts. Annual exhibitions, or salons were held, and the public avidly followed the latest innovations.
There was still a belief, as there had been in the past, in the power of art to mold human minds. But now the artist controlled his own visions and the artist was seen as a race apart – a prophet. The artist’s duty, according to the Avant Garde ethic, was to provide moral and spiritual leadership and to show beauty and meaning for the dawning industrial age. That is, he was to reinvent and expand the visual language to meet changing times.
These ideals led to the birth of Modernism in the later 19th century through such movements as impressionism, expressionism, and Symbolism. Modernism is a concept born in the industrial revolution. It was the expression of an urge to embrace the new realities and materials of the industrial age, and was expressed through literature, art, decorative arts and design. Underlying most of the modernist movements have been earnest efforts at social engineering- utopianism for the new industrial state that was taking shape.
Yet inevitably, as we shall see, there was also a counter-movement toward nostalgia and tradition, a resistance to the accelerating rate of change. This has often been expressed in visual arts by a taste for decorative detail, realism in painting, and a general preference for the elaborate. This was in contrast with the modernist tendency to simplify forms, reduce decorative detail, and retreat from realism. The emphasis on form also resulted in attention to the materials used, and the visual qualities they offer.
Changes in Content or Subject Matter in the Fine Arts
In an effort to enable themselves and their audience to perceive their messages in a new way, artists seek to find new ways to present their ideas. The intention is to create something fresh and unexpected– to “surprise” the viewer into giving his/her full attention to the work of art. In addition, as the social and political climate shifts, the perspective of the artist must also shift to take new circumstances into account. Thus many of the greatest artists have troubled, confounded, and shocked their publics. Among the artists discussed in class are Michelangelo (use of nudity in religious art), Rembrandt (ordinary every day subject matter), Manet (reinterpretation of classical themes, nudity vs. nakedness), Courbet (Peasant subjects, social protest), Monet (changes of technique), Toulouse Lautrec (prostitutes as subject matter), George Segal (new techniques and materials for sculpture of human figures), Matisse (use of color and form).
The history of art and design does not occur in a vacuum. Artists and designers are only responding to the events of their time. These are some of the issues that motivated changes in subject matter since the mid-19th century:
The Development of Photography
Colonialism and the Influence of Non-European Cultures
The Development of Psychoanalysis
The social and political environment changed drastically during this period. Society moved from the ancient traditional rule of religiously sanctioned autocracies into an era of secular democracies and dictatorships. The industrial revolution also contributed to the restructuring of society. Technology, colonialism, and social change brought about contacts between peoples previously separated by distance, language, and social status. The result has been more than a century of turbulence, social struggle, and warfare, all of which can be seen in the arts of the times.
Change in Content: The Development of Photography
Since the 1840s photography has offered a mechanical means of faithfully recording visual data that surpassed the ability of the painter. The earliest commercially successful form of photography was the daguerrotype. Since photography could record visual data so perfectly, the artist was left to wonder what he could do that the camera could not. This led to many experiments in style, technique, and interpretation. For other examples of early photography, try this link to Edweard Muybridge, an early practitioner of stop-action photography; or this collection of early photographs.
The creation of photographic images has also evolved into an art form in its own right. Early practitioners such as Matthew Brady , Alfred Stieglitz and others brought the possibilities of the camera well beyond that of a mechanical device for copying visual “facts.” There has been an ongoing dialogue between the painter and the photographer, as each has learned from the vision of the other.
The existence of photographic images inspired artists to look for other subject matter. Artists began to concern themselves with issues such as the effects of light, the relationships of color, and the fundamental character of form and mass. Comparisons of photographs with paintings by such artists as Monet and Cezanne show that the artist was selecting, simplifying, flattening, intensifying, even abstracting the view which is before his eyes. One of the first modern movements to emerge was Impressionism . The subject matter of Impressionism was light. These painters were interested in studying how changes in light affected color. They left the studio where artists had traditionally worked even when doing paintings of nature. In natural settings they explored the ways in which changing light conditions altered the appearance of color and form. One of the leading figures in the development of Impressionism was Monet, whose work gave its name to this movement.