Five Reasons for Art: Sharing an Idea

23 Mar

The idea of a work of art sharing an idea is fairly basic, but also happens to be one of the most mocked and steotyped aspects of art.  Need proof?  How often have you seen some self-adoring artist talking about his philosophy and sharing his “vision” with the fawning public?  For good or ill, however, it’s rare for the viewer to be able to have the artist explain what exactly he meant with a certain work while looking at it, and that’s why it’s important to start thinking about what kinds of ideas an artist was trying to communicate in their work.

As in all other areas of art, a basic knowledge of history is vital.  Art was never created in a vacuum and to treat it as such is to lose most of its meaning.  Now I’m not suggesting that you have to go back and get a degree in history before heading to the local art museum, but just think back to some of what you learned in your high school history class.

Remember hearing about the Renaissance?  You know, the time when Italians supposedly revived the ideas of ancient Greece and Rome and by extension created the modern world?  Ring any bells?  Well, all the great art and even architecture of the time is absolutely full of this reverence for the Ancients.    For example, here’s two famous churches to be found in Florence, considered the birthplace of the Renaissance:

On the right we have the façade of Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral of Florence, which wasn’t construced until the 19th century and was done in a Neo-gothic style meant to fit with the architecture of the cathedral’s bell tower and on the left Santa Maria Novello, designed by Leon Batista Alberti around 1458.  To the untrained eye the two might look quite similar.  Both are done in contrasting marbles that make them look far livelier than the average church.  And let’s be honest, almost all churches are based on Roman municipal buildings, so they all have an ancient influence in that respect.  But the genius is in the details.  While the cathedral is very Gothic, with its pointed arches and need for decoration in every available space, Santa Maria Novello is meant to be much more Classical.

For the math majors among us, Alberti used a strict adherance to ratios and mathematical principles to attain some higher level of beauty, ancient ideas that were only once more coming into fashion.  But just look at the top level.  There on a Christian church we see a representation of a pagan temple.  Rather than focusing on religious decoration, it was all designed to look orderly, graceful, and classically beautiful – what we’ve come to associate with Renaissance architecture.

Hanna Höch, Cut with a Kitchen Knife, 1919-1920

Centuries later the 1900’s brought new ideas to art.  The Industrial Revolution gave us many new technologies and improvements to society, but all of this advancement was cast into serious doubt by the onset of World War I.  One particular group, the Dadaists, began to question all aspects of traditional Western Civilization, including art.  Collage was particularly popular in Dadaism.  The trend had begun earlier with other artists in other movements such as Picasso, but Hanna Höch’s Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Culural Epoch of Germany from 1919-1920 isn’t meant to simply use modern means of mass communication to incorporate something new into art; it’s meant to show its own absurdity.

Just look at it.  It really doesn’t make any sense.  The thing to remember, though, is that very little made sense to a continent that was recovering from one of the most devastating wars it had ever endured.  Dada was meant to liberate the mind from the cacaphony of the modern existence, and Höch was putting this into sharp focus in her collage.

The ideas of an artist are very specific to his lifetime.  Looking for these ideas, though, allows the viewer to see more from art.  What’s simply meant to seem beautiful or shocking can become an acute statement on society by using a little perspective.  Find out what you can about history, philosophy, even something like economics or technology, and the ideas behind art can go from a quiet whisper to an unmistakable shout.

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