The Five Reasons for Art

23 Sep

There is little in art more annoying than someone who starts discussing a work by saying “This is just a fabulous example of the post-war, anti-impressionist, pro-absinthe movement!”  I may exaggerate a bit there.  Many artistic movements in history have been pro mind-altering drugs.  But my point is, does such a description really help you understand the work?  You may know the names of artists and movements, but do you really comprehend art?  For that it helps to take a step back and start from the very beginning.  And I mean the very beginning – cavemen painting the walls at Lascaux, Bronze Age man creating crude clay statues of his gods beginning.   To understand the most avante-garde Twentieth Century painting, you have to start back when man first created what we call art.  The question that emerges is strikingly simple yet often overlooked – Why did human beings start making art in the first place?

I should start by saying I’m not a career anthropologist.  Such an academic would be able to go into much further detail on the originis of artistic expression than I am able to, but one doesn’t particularly need much detail in order to be able to appreciate art.  The first and most important step is to see art as a means of communication.  Think about it.  Written language began as a series of pictures.  Early man wanted to record his thoughts and ideas in some way, to share them with others.  Once this idea took hold it became part of virtually every part of life.  Great public monuments, the walls of homes, even the human body itself became a means of expression.  The amazing thing is that once writing became more than pictograms and humans had a systemized way of expressing themselves these visual communications became even more complex and revered.

Sorry, I can’t help but get a bit emotional when I talk about this stuff.  It just amazes me that a couple of apes could somehow create works such as the Sistine Chapel or Picasso’s Guernica.   I’m not trying to suggest every visit to an art museum should be like a religious experience, and that you should take your shoes off when entering the Great Temple of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  (I’d like to see a museum try that sometime.  Leave your shoes, but please take your wallet.  You’ll need it at the gift shop.)  I’m hoping that after reading this you’ll simply find art more interesting.  To assist in this, and to understand what exactly artists are trying to communicate, I’ve come up with five basic premises behind every single work of art.  Each piece is meant to do at least one of the following: tell a story, share an idea, please the gods, show social status, or be aesthetically pleasing.  I refer to these as the Five Reasons for Art, and I promise that I’ve never found a work that doesn’t fit at least one of them.  Most pieces of art were actually created with several of these themes in mind; that’s what makes art so incredibly exhilarating and endlessly beguiling.

In order to make things easier I’ll write about each of these seperately.  Not because they’re so complicated, but because the more you separate one from another the clearer they become in a work of art.  Besides, this has already gone on long enough.  I’m guessing you’ve figured out by now why people don’t like going to art museums with me.

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