Understanding Art

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Introduction and Overview

Art is one of humanity's oldest inventions. It existed long before a single farm was planted, before the first villages were built. Art was already thousands of years old when writing appeared; in fact, the letters of the first alphabets were pictures. People were probably shaping objects and scratching out images even as they turned their grunts and cries into the first systematic spoken languages.

People are still making art; they have never stopped. Just about every society, from the oldest to the youngest and from the most primitive to the most advanced, has created works of art. No wonder that the sum of all this creation is called "the world of art." Art is a world in itself, a world as round and full and changeable as the world we live in and, like the earth, a whole of many distinct parts. Removing a wedge from the whole and studying it is like touring a country or visiting an era in the past. One wedge describes the ideals of the ancient Greeks. Another defines the interests of the French in the Middle Ages. Still another demonstrates the ideas that shaped the Renaissance in Italy. Another reflects the traditions that had meaning in Japan in the 1700's, or China in the 900's, or India in the 1600's. But seen as a whole, the world of art reveals a broad picture of all of humanity; it summarizes the ideals, interests, and ideas of all people in all eras. It tells us what has been on people's minds in generation after generation, from the dawn of humanity to the present day.

Art, then, is a product of the human mind and a mirror of that mind—a record of human progress. And like the mind, and like the societies that progress has created, art is rich, complicated, and sometimes quite mysterious.

The Meanings of Art

Actually, most people do know what art is. The trouble comes when they try to define it. No one definition satisfies everyone's idea. No one definition seems broad enough to cover every object in an art museum. And some definitions are too broad--they may apply to everything in the museum, but they also apply to many things that clearly are not art.

Despite the difficulty of defining art, we can make certain observations that help us to understand what art is. Art is a product made by people that expresses the uniqueness of the maker, of the society to which the maker belongs, of all humanity, or of all of these. The product appeals to the intellect and to the senses, especially to the sense of beauty. The product can assume a variety of forms—a musical composition, a ballet, a play, or a novel or poem. This article, however, deals only with the "fine" arts: drawing, painting, sculpture, and architecture.

It is our intellect that makes humans unique. People have created religion, science, and technology to make their struggle for survival easier. They have created art to measure the worth of these and all human enterprises against the quality of life. European medieval art dealt almost exclusively with religion. Italian Renaissance art reflected the growing interest in the sciences. Much Oriental art conveys the idea of a harmonious, well-ordered universe. Art of the modern era is very much a product of the age of technology.

Art—or at least great ar—almost always gets at the truth. Great artists are expert observers and their work reflects life as they see it.

Art as a Record

The earliest art that we know about was painted on the walls of caves during the Old Stone Age--roughly 20,000 years ago. Most of the pictures depict animals--bison, reindeer, ibex--the animals that early people hunted and depended on for survival. We cannot be completely sure why these images were painted, but we can guess that hunters created likenesses of their prey in order to capture its spirit. Having taken the spirit, the hunters found it easier to take the body. And since early people were very good hunters, whose mastery of weapons gave them an advantage over much stronger creatures, they must have believed that the magic worked.

About 5,000 years ago, the first great civilization began emerging from humanity's intelligent struggle for survival. And with them came monumental art--art created to proclaim the greatness of a civilization and to last forever. In Egypt and Mesopotamia gigantic pyramids were erected, the tombs within decorated with carvings and paintings showing the great deeds of the rulers buried there. Clearly, these ancient peoples had no intention of ever disappearing. Even their utensils and vessels were meant to last eternally.

Mesopotamian and especially Egyptian art dwelt on the achievements of rulers. This was so mainly because the rulers were thought to be gods, or at least to have intimate contact with gods. And it was fitting, too, because the ruler was regarded as the living embodiment of the nation: Pharaoh and Egypt were one and the same. The individuality of the human being was seldom even recognized, much less celebrated.

Then came the Minoans and Mycenaeans and the Greeks, and people had their day. The early statuary of the Aegean peoples was said to represent gods and goddesses, but the forms were becoming ever more recognizably human. This in itself seems to indicate that people were beginning to appreciate their own importance. Like the ancient Hebrews, they proclaimed themselves made in their gods' image--not perfect, perhaps, but nonetheless godlike. By the Classical Age (400's B.C.) in Greece, even that pretense was dropped. Greek sculptors began portraying spear bearers and charioteers with bodies as perfect as those of the gods Apollo and Dionysus.

Greek art idealized the human form. We do not believe that there were no Greeks with pot bellies or bowlegs; but we can conclude that the Greeks thought enough of themselves to find great satisfaction in showing themselves as ideal beings. And so we admire the Greeks not so much for what they were, but for the ideals they set up for themselves.

The Greeks' high regard for the individual is also reflected in their architecture. Greek architects took great pains to proportion their structures so that people could use them comfortably: The ceilings are never so high, the rooms never so massive that a person feels small or lost within. This is another example of how we use art, which expresses ideals, to learn about a people of the past.

Roman art, like Roman civilization, was based to a large extent on the Greek model. But the Romans carried their concern with the individual a step further. One Roman statue is a representation of an old, big-nosed citizen with a stern expression on his face. No one would call it an idealized portrait. Yet, as one studies it, the face gradually appears handsomer; it seems to reflect great character, wisdom, integrity. With such works the Romans are saying that the individual need not meet prescribed standards to be beautiful.

When invasions by Germanic tribes into western and southern Europe became too troublesome for the Romans to deal with, the emperor Constantine (280?-337) moved his capital eastward to the site of the old city of Byzantium. The new capital was called Constantinople, in his honor. Constantine also was the first Christian emperor, and thus his eastern empire, called the Byzantine Empire, became the first Christian civilization. There the traditions of ancient Greek and Roman art were remolded to fit the needs of Christianity. Under the emperor Justinian (483-565), Constantinople was built up as the first great Christian city.

The Roman Empire in western Europe came to an end in the A.D. 400's. The following period, from about 500 to 1500, is called the Middle Ages. The Germanic people who established kingdoms in the former empire were greatly influenced by Roman civilization. They learned the Roman tongue and adopted Christianity. They turned their artistic skills to making Christian art, using the intricately carved and decorated style that characterized their art.

The early Middle Ages were years of confusion and disorder in western Europe. Yet during this period the great Frankish king Charlemagne established a large empire that included much of western and central Europe. Elsewhere--in the Byzantine Empire, northern and western Africa, and the Far East--great civilizations flourished.

During the later Middle Ages, a new and monumental style of architecture called Gothic (the name was given to it much later) developed in the West. All over France, Germany, and England, grand cathedrals rose, one after another, each more lavish than the others. Nearly all the art of this period, which lasted into the 1500's in some parts of Europe, was devoted to decoration of the cathedrals. Columns were surrounded with statues; doorways were richly carved; beautiful stained-glass windows colored the sunlight pouring in; carefully cut and polished wood formed the altars; huge, heavy tapestries hung between chapels; mosaic tiles formed mazelike patterns on the floors. It was as if all artistic creativity was focused on the glorification of God and the church.

Gothic architecture tells us a great deal about how society regarded people. The Gothic cathedral is high, heaven-reaching, enormously empty. Inside, one cannot help feeling small and humble. And all the statues --the saints on the columns, the demons over the doors--are watching and warning.

Early in the 1400's, the God-centered outlook of the Middle Ages slowly began to change. First in Italy and then throughout Europe, the individual human being became a main concern of art. This attitude, known as humanism, is what distinguished the Renaissance from earlier periods. It is what made the Renaissance go down in history as a great age for humanity. And again, it was in art that the spirit of humanism was expressed most clearly.

Humanism affected not only the content of art but the very way in which art was created. For if art said that people were individuals, worthy of recognition for their beliefs, were not the people who made art very special individuals, deserving credit for their accomplishments? So, with the Renaissance, the artist took on a new importance. And the recognition that the artist received added a new facet to art.

In Eastern lands, as in the West, art from its earliest days was an ever-growing record of what was most important to people. Art in Japan often reflects an appreciation for the beauty of nature. Early Japanese painting tended to be delicate, airy, and romantic, reflecting the graceful life of the Japanese court. Later, when Japan was ruled by militaristic emperors, art became harsher and more realistic. The 1700's and 1800's saw the development of the Japanese woodcut. Woodcuts, which are inexpensive to reproduce, were meant to reach a wider audience--to bring beauty within reach of the hardworking common people.

The arts in India have almost always had a religious content. However, this was often combined with an interest in earthly life. Sculpture, in particular, often portrayed gods and goddesses as vital and lifelike beings. Indian painters developed original and expressive styles of manuscript illustration.

China's artistic tradition is one of the oldest in the world, dating back to 5000 B.C. A respect for tradition and reverence for nature is reflected in Chinese art and architecture. Calligraphy, the art of beautiful writing, was considered one of the most important visual arts.

Art of the Past

Art since the Renaissance has remained a record of humanity and a reflection of the ideas that concern people. But since the Renaissance this record has come down to us in a series of very personal statements.

The great Italian artist Michelangelo believed that the truth of any matter existed in nature. The artist's job was to seek that truth and capture it in his art. He once described sculpture as the act of "liberating the figure from the marble that imprisons it." In other words, the forms that he depicted so dramatically in his work already existed; his job was to find them and free them.

A later Italian painter, Caravaggio, sought the truth in everyday occurrences, such as the pleasures of making music. Even in his paintings of religious events, he clothed the participants in the apparel of his own time, and placed them in commonplace settings, such as taverns. Saints were often pictured as poor people with plain garments and bare feet. Caravaggio seemed to be saying that all people, even the most humble, have value.

The paintings of the Dutch artist Rembrandt may represent the peak of humanism. In a very special way, Rembrandt's subject matter was the soul of man. He painted religious subjects, portraits of prosperous Dutch citizens, and he painted simple portraits of poor people and of himself. But whatever he painted, his figures always appear lit from within, as if they were filled with all the suffering--and the beauty--of humanity. Rembrandt is telling us that with all the pain, corruption, and helplessness that characterize human life, the human spirit is still filled with all the glory and good of God's light.

The 1600's and 1700's were the "age of kings" in Europe. The courts of the European nations dominated much artistic activity. Many artists were dependent on the kings and aristocrats who ruled the continent. And yet great artists can never be slaves--except to the search for truth. As the abuses of the monarchs stirred the common people to greater and greater resentment, the artists often joined in the protests. For example, when Napoleon's armies invaded Spain in 1808, the Spanish artist Francisco Goya turned his talents to an assault on the French. His paintings and engravings include works that are savage attacks on the French invaders, and even more savage--and lasting--attacks on war itself.

Another Spaniard, Pablo Picasso, made a similar statement 130 years later. His well-known painting Guernica tells the story of the Spanish Civil War as directly as any text. And it is not only about a destroyed Spanish city; it is about war.

The 1800's and 1900's saw a remarkable increase in the speed at which civilization changes. We have come through an Industrial Revolution into an age of technology into a space age. Artists have kept pace with all these changes.

The ways in which artists approach art have been in a state of constant re-evaluation since the mid-1800's. The impressionists began a process that led to a breakdown in the importance of subject matter. With these French artists came an interest in the technique used to apply paint to canvas. Concern with forms for their own sake led to cubism and then to abstractionism, in sculpture as well as painting. By the mid-1900's painting and sculpture seemingly came together in a search for new forms.

The 1900's also saw a growing appreciation of the arts of non-Western cultures. Once dismissed as "primitive" the arts of African and Native American peoples were now admired for their vitality and directness of expression. African sculpture, in particular, influenced a number of modern artists, including Picasso. As modern communications have allowed ideas about art to become ever more widely spread, the influence of cultures on one another has continued.

What is the truth of our own age, as expressed in art? As we study the art of our age, each of us can draw our own conclusions.

David Jacobs
Author, Master Painters of the Renaissance

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