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Pleasing the Gods

1 Jun

The Great Mosque of Cordoba

I think I waited so long to write this post because it’s the most complicated of the “Five Reasons” that I’ve discussed.  Religion has been perhaps the most volatile subject for humans discuss since we first met different tribes and realized that not everyone had the same ideas on the subject.  It’s virtually impossible to discuss the topic without offending someone, but here goes nothing.

At the same time it’s also one of the easiest to discuss, especially when it comes to art.  I once took a Japanese art class where we studied a set of prehistoric bells that were meant to have a religious purpose.  The professor reminded us that, “After all, music and dance were created as ways of doing something extraordinary for the gods.”  It stands to reason, then, that if the performing arts were created to appeal to deities than surely the visual arts were, as well.  The natural desire of religious humans is to create beautiful things in honor of their deities, whether they are songs or paintings.

How pervasive was this idea?  We think of pottery as a way of making practical vessels – tableware, containers, and the like – but many of the earliest surviving works from clay that survive are actually small figurines that experts suggest were used for magical or ritual purposes.  The difficulty in assigning religious meaning to these objects, however, is that no written records exist to say what exactly their purpose was supposed to be.  We don’t know what kinds of deities or rituals these groups had, so making assumptions about their religion based on what we know about the subject today is more than a bit arbitrary.

It is much easier to see the combination of art and religion by looking at architecture.  Most of us have at some point in time been in a house of worship and are at least passingly familiar with the theology behind the architecture.  The most moving example of this that I’ve ever seen is the Great Mosque of Cordoba.  Even without knowledge of Islamic theology and the conventions regarding the building of a mosque, you immediately get the sense that you’re in a mystical, holy place.  Islamic tradition states that no images of humans or animals may be depicted in a mosque, so the decoration is limited to vegetation and the intricate scrollwork that is the hallmark of Islamic art.  The end result is a stunning environment for prayer and a testament to the works of beauty humans are capable of in the name of religion.

Window depicting the Adoration of the Magi in Westminster Abbey

Works of beauty can also be educational, as well.  Since most people in Europe were illiterate in the Middle Ages, the church relied heavily on images to teach about Christianity.  These were incorporated into church structures in many ways.  The most striking, however, were the stained glass windows that were created for the Gothic cathedrals.  The glowing colors not only illustrated Biblical passages to the people but did so in a way that make worshipers feel like they had entered some sort of heavenly space on Earth.  Unfortunately the modern eye can’t fully appreciate how amazing these windows, and the cathedrals in general, were to the common people when they were first built.  Imagine, though, if you will, if you had never seen a movie or television show, if you had no books or magazines at home, how grand these windows must have seemed.

Creating art for religious purposes is fundamental to the human experience.  It’s rather unfortunate that religion is often seen as such a force for destruction and hatred in the world when it has also inspired some of the most astonishing works of beauty that history has passed down to us.  When works of art were created for worship they are tinged with a certain extra element of care that can create a touching moment for the viewer, as they were intended.  These are works of art that are meant to not only, as I put so in delicately, please the gods, but also inspire others to experience the divine.  Whatever your own religious beliefs, I think you can agree that Man can have no greater goal.


Showing Social Status

20 May

As idealistic as I can be sometimes, even I can’t deny that throughout most of history art has been dominated by the ruling classes.  After all, they were the ones who had the money to commission works of art and the most pressing desire to display their status to the world.  It’s only understandable.  But despite how little it’s sometimes discussed, matters of patronage and social one-upmanship can provide a fascinating insight into art and society as a whole throughout history.

Masaccio, Holy Trinitity, Santa Maria Novello, Florence, Italy, ca. 1428

Take, for example, your average Renaissance altarpiece.  Or, for a rather obvious case, look at Masaccio’s Holy Trinity fresco from church of Santa Maria Novello in Florence.  Ignoring the iconography and the artist’s use of perspective, look instead at the two kneeling figures on either side of the scene.  Those would be the donors, Lorenzo Lenzi and his wife.  Donating to the church by sponsoring building, artworks, and clerical objects had been a popular way of demonstrating one’s piety and hoping to ensure a more favorable afterlife since organized religion began, but the idea of having one’s own likeness depicted within the work of art was relatively new.  It was a way for patrons to broadcast their wealth, piety, education, and generous nature in a place where many would see it – the church. Playing “Spot the Donors” can actually be kind of fun.  Some are a bit harder, being represented only by a coat of arms or other family or trade guild symbol, and oftentimes, especially in earlier paintings, donors are depicted as almost comically small, owing to the custom of using a hierarchy of scale to demonstrate the importance of figures.

Of course perhaps the best statements of one’s social status can be found in portraits throughout history.  If you could afford to have your portrait painted, it was clear you were a wealthy individual.  If it was done by a relatively popular artist, even better.  If, like King Louis XIV of France, you have your life-size portrait painted in extremely expensive fur-lined robes featuring the icon of French monarchy then, well, pity the poor person who tries to outdo you.

But we can’t talk about social status in art without bringing up one of the most important artistic markings of class that one could have in the late twentieth century – the portrait by Andy Warhol.  For a time politicians, actors, sports figures, musicians, really anyone who could afford it, had their portrait done by Warhol.  He started out painting portraits as a way of showing how fleeting and impersonal fame was, but later in his career a portrait by Andy Warhol was a mark of fame itself.  Figures as diverse as Liza Minnelli, Brigitte Bardot, and even the Shah or Iran all paid to have their likeness done by the artist.  His portraits became so ubiquitous as to be often parodied, and if you look at your computer’s photo editing software I’m guessing there’s a setting to give a photo a “Pop Art” effect – essentially your own portrait by Warhol.

Warhol portrait of hockey player Wayne Gretzky

This may sound horribly vapid and make you feel more distant from art if it is, as I’m claiming, a history of large egos throwing their money around.  The thing is, these were often extremely fascinating personalities, and the marks that the well-to-do left on the art world hint at some interesting and often lurid stories.  Walk around the Vatican, for example, and you’ll see how many supposedly pious men of God spend unimaginable amounts of money to add their mark to the palaces, and you can be sure they weren’t exactly anonymous about it (individual Papal coats of arms can be found everywhere).  Or look at one of the most famous portraits in the collection of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.  There, in all her glory, sits Madame de Pompadour, perhaps the most famous royal mistresses of all time.

So you see, much as we’ve come to understand how the personalities of the artists influence art, the patrons had a large and lasting effect, as well.  Since they were the ones paying for the works they often had major sway over what was created, and their desire to have great works in their honor in public places and the latest and most impressive works in their private quarters spurred artistic creation for centuries – still does.  It goes back to stopping and asking “Why was this work of art created?”  Quite often it can be traced back to some wealthy patron who wanted to show off their status.

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.

Aesthetics: Art for Art’s Sake

1 Mar

It’s a point of pride among us humans that one of our forefathers had the genius to come up with basic tools.  We’ve all seen the reencactments of a caveman miraculously inventing the wheel, and we know they had spears, a few cooking tools, and other assorted items on display at museums of natural history the world over.

A Delft ceramic plate, adding a bit of beauty to the everyday

I take a slightly different view, however.  I’m more interested in the moment when one caveman looked at his spear, looked at his companion’s, and then decided that he wanted his to look different.  An engraving here, a little bit of pant from some berries there, and next thing you know humans were personalizing and decorating just about everything they could.  Some of these decorations had s

pecific purposes, mind you.   As I’ve stated previously art is full of all sorts of ideas, stories, and meanings, but all of this is often done with the aim of creating something that is pleasing to the eye.

A good example of this is the decorative arts.  The Decorative or Applied Arts are often overlooked in the art world because they’re not big and important like 2-D art and sculpture.  They don’t have sexy names like da Vinci or Picasso, either.  What makes them absolutely spectacular, though, is that none of it was necessary.  You can have a plate or table that’s just that, a plate or table, but those with the means made the effort to make sure they had utensils that were pleasing to the eye.

It goes beyond tableware, however.  Even works that are considered part of the traditional “Fine Arts,” i.e. painting and sculpture, were often done for the sake of beauty and decoration.  With the rise of the middle class in Europe, more and more people desired paintings for their own homes, and these were often scenes that were meant simply to be beautiful.

To understand this, one needs only look at the landscape paintings of the seventeenth century French artist Claude Lorraine.  Many art historians often try to read great moral and historical signifigance intolandscape paintings of the time, and no doubt on some level this was true, but the end result is simplly the beauty of nature put down on canvas.

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Cattle and Peasants, 1629

It is perhaps going a bit far to say that all art up to a certain point in history was meant to be beautiful on some level.  In many paintings storytelling or moral instruction trumped any desire to be aesthetically pleasing, but the idea of art being “ugly” or making the viewer uncomfortable is really an invention of the late nineteenth century.  Was that bad for art?  I’m not stupid enough to try to answer that question here.  But the next time you visit an art museum or even pick out a new set of dishes for your house remember that we are attracted to beauty, we enjoy having it close at and, and if you look to art you’ll see some of the most beautiful objects man has ever created.

Telling A Story

28 Sep

It may be difficult to think of art as telling a story.  The advent of the “moving picture” made it much harder for the brain to imagine a complete narrative from one single image , but for millenia this was the case.  Heroes, lovers, battles and fables were all told through art.  Many scholars believe the first cave paintings were done to commemorate a hunt, to tell its story, as it were.

Full view of Trajan's Column in Rome

The Greeks were experts at telling their stories through art.  Greek vases are covered with the deeds of the great heroes of Greek mythology.  The greatest at it, though, were quite possibly the Romans.  They didn’t relegate their heroes to mere household pottery.  Oh no, they told their stories in grand fashion.  All the better to glorify Rome and more importantly their immortal emperors, after all.  Probably the best and most obvious example of this is Trajan’s Column.  Erected in 112 A.D. and standing at 182 feet tall, it’s an impressive mausoleum in its own right (the emperor’s ashes are located in its base) but the emperor’s eternal glory wasn’t guaranteed by a nice plaque or even a statue, but rather by a 625 foot winding band that depicts Trajan’s victory of the Dacians.

Detail of a ritual sacrifice being prepared

This is an extreme example, however.  Even one picture can tell you all you need to know about a story.  Probably my favorite is Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Begère from 1882.  The one scene depicted tells you all you need to know.  For me it’s not the composition, the colors, the busyness of the bar reflected in the mirror but the look on the barmaid’s face that tells you everything you need to know.   You start trying to figure out who this girl is, why she’s working there, and what exactly happened to make her seem so melancholy in the middle of such a great party.  There’s a feel for narrative and sympathy for the character normally found in great novels, plays, or films that’s been created by oil paints on one single canvas.  What makes it even more interesting is that every viewer is free to create his or her own story based on the scene Manet has laid out for us.

Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Begere

The performing arts, literature, and now cinema are all meant to tell stories, but the visual arts do this in their own unique way.  The only downside is that often a bit of background knowledge is needed to truly appreciate the stories depicted.  In Western art a basic knowledge of Greek & Roman mythology and the Bible will take care of a good percentage, but there’s much more from other sources.  Even without this knowledge, however, simply trying to figure out what the story is based on the clues given will give you a good enough idea and often time make you connect with a work of art even more.

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.