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e s s a y s

Art and the Individual

Just How Has the Role of the Artist Changed Over Time?

     To teach art, and to learn art, and to express with art, it’s good to know a little history. Here we offer a brief overview of the relationship of the artist to their craft in historical context as no art curriculum is complete without an understanding of how we got to where we are now. It’s a fascinating window into the human condition. However, there is exponentially more depth to the story and we encourage further exploration.

     Art, as it reflects the human experience, is fundamentally tied to the development of culture. Homo sapien, or modern man, has been around for millions of years, mostly living tribally as hunter gatherers and variations of subsistence farmers prior to developing into what we consider today to be modern culture. This modern way of living is attributed to the development of expansionistic agriculture around ten thousand years ago in a part of the world known as the Fertile Crescent.  Most of the large, agricultural based cultures of our world today reflect social structures that the principle of excess food production naturally creates. They are civilizations where extra resources were available to be dedicated to pursuits other than basic survival needs. Prior to this agriculture style, subsistence cultures did not possess extra resources for objects of art, just as there  were not the resources for persons to live as artists, or any other profession separate of food production. Rather, the arts were an integrated part of each person’s daily life. Be it worship, passing on of knowledge, or symbolic aesthetics of belonging, the art of tribal cultures were tools of survival and were not the responsibility of artists but of all society members. One can see examples of this phenomenon in the few subsistence based cultures still surviving today which most often incorporate art and imagery in their functional objects rather than as separate mediums of expression as modern sculpture or painting might serve.  Interestingly, today we might at first even now think of art as decorative, but really it continues to play a vital role as tools albeit a more abstract connection.

When we settled down , started farming and gaining extra resources for the creation of specialists like artists we also developed  a complex relationship to hierarchy and the idea of individuality not seen in simpler times. This change can be seen in the arts at every turning point in history from the fertile crescent to the great dynasties of Egypt and the orient and into modern western history.

     Our current cultural understanding of the importance of the individual, and our relative relationship to art as a tool of self expression, is really a very recent development in the context of the evolution of homo sapien. The most dramatic turning point in the story of art is the story of the Greeks, whom we attribute the beginnings of western civilization to. The big step the Greeks took from their predecessors the Egyptians was in creating art in response to a new consciousness involving observing their world rather than following strict rules of language and imagery as was established in Egyptian culture. We are all familiar with the stylistic art forms of the Egyptians and how the forms and proportions were very much a part of a detailed language. Figures were drawn in that awkward side facing style to show every detail of anatomy because the rendering was not only a symbol for man, but the actual spirit of man.

In contrast, the Greeks in many aspects of society including art created new rules through their experiences.  The study of the human figure became more and more anatomically accurate and experimentation with visual effects built an entirely new aesthetic.  It was an entirely new thing for people to evolve such dramatic changes in such a relatively short period of time, a matter of hundreds of years.  This speeding up of cultural evolution is certainly one of the markings that differentiate modern man from civilizations that came before.  It was a reflection of the new freedoms individuals experienced in their expanding culture. Essentially, it was the beginning of the individual.

The Greeks lives were governed by a complex world of gods and goddesses, and  the marble statues and grand mosaics and frescos of  these gods and goddesses and political leaders that governed the world of the Greeks come to mind when we thing of this first great western civilization. Interestingly these representations, however anatomically accurate, were not so much what we would consider portraits, but rather renderings of the idealized aesthetics of the era that continue to be a standard to this day.

As society became more materialistically wealthy and subsequently more complex, resources for the arts expanded to create a caste of individuals dedicated to this as their sole role in a community. Artists were in the cast of craftsman, above that of commoners, yet still a part of the hierarchy working to give voice to great leaders and institutions, not their own ideas. Relative to today, very little attention was given to a population’s individuality. It was a time of the birth of great ideas like democracy, philosophy, and new understandings of science and nature, but also a time of slavery and relatively little value given to the ordinary lives of the masses that this grand and expansive civilization was built on. Most people were much more of a cog in the wheel as compared to our current cultural love affair with the value of the individual. However the Greeks did give birth to the power of the artist to change how things were done.

For all the advancements in aesthetics that the Greeks contributed to our experience of art, the Romans who followed showed very little interest in taking this explorative nature any further. Rome was politically all about expansion, and the art work that was created during this era reflects a society that valued growth and power over the celebration of aesthetics and natural beauty. The Romans initially appreciated and promoted Greek aesthetics, hiring mostly Greek craftsmen to copy earlier Greek styles with little if any modifications. Interestingly, portraiture did start to be more realistic than idealistic, as did representations of battle stories and religious ideas that were used to conquer pagan societies that fell to their expansion. Later, in the time defined by Constantine and the spread of Christianity, Roman art become more and more stylized in  its quest to keep the focus of the art on relaying a political message rather than any celebration of the beauty of nature. There was a great Christian revulsion to the potential distractions of idol worship that was risked in art, yet they knew images were a powerful tool for the spread of a now doctrine to the illiterate masses.  In this way, much of the aesthetic and craftsmanship knowledge of the Greeks was lost to many hundred of years of artists to follow, not to mention advancements in the sciences that were deemed heretical during these Dark Ages. It fascinating that for this time, the quality of imagery returned to a state similar to works by the Egyptians. Art returned to its role as orthodox and static tool of language rather than aesthetic exploration. Human figures once celebrated in glorious detail became distorted as understandings of anatomy  were lost and environments in paintings were gold leafed away in strict accordance to the rule that elements of nature and all that is not biblical would be a distraction to the worship of god and thus sinful.

It was centuries later, and the result of the erosion of the Roman Empire before the arts were able to find their explorative potentials. This Renaissance, or return to exploration and experience came with diversification of power and wealth  in Europe.  Art began to not only promote the power of the church, but also the glory of the rich and powerful in public, secular, and private sectors. During the Renaissance the artist walked a thin line, balanced between expressing his own ideas, and also staying in the favor of their patrons. Art was used as a means of establishing symbolic dominance. Just as towns battled to have the tallest churches, so did families battle to have the most famous artists paint their portraits. There are even stories of artists in hiding to save their own lives as patrons were known to attempt murder in their quest to have the last of an artists masterworks. Being an artist was a precarious and demanding experience with little room for self expression.

      Michaelangelo’s great struggle to find his voice in the oppressive commissioned work of the Sistine Chapel is a well known story. Leonardo Da Vinci’s struggles to pursue his own passion for science and discovery in a church climate that demonized such behavior demonstrate that the change in the experience of the artist was hard fought for and that societal change is always wrought with struggle and conflict. A great deal of attention was given to Da Vinci’s painting, “The Mona Lisa” as it was an outrageous portrait of someone without wealth or power in a time when this would seem meaningless. Interestingly, however, there was a certain amount of tolerance by the patrons in their pursuit of the glory of the work of these rising stars. It was an era that saw the creation of superstar artists who added to the elitist prowess of patrons. In a sense, they were adding to the growing celebration of the individual for themselves and their clients.  Similarly, today’s successful artists still find their status attached to the collect ability of their work by competing patrons, with one very significant change.  Art now mirrors our post industrial revolution society in it’s celebration of the individual by engaging in the tradition of seeking out meaning through each unique life experience.  We now celebrate the ingenuity and originality of new ways of thinking and expressing that seek to break through the confines of the past. Now fame is most often a result of being the first. Work doesn’t necessarily have to be great, just original.

Art continued to reflect the tastes and values of the elite in variations of realism for some time. Celebrating wealth meant images of bucolic landscapes, activities and trappings of the upper class, bountiful still life studies of foods and valuable possessions. It wasn’t until the revolution of the Impressionists that the identity of an artist as master of his own expression came to be realized. The Impressionists were a group of rebellious young artists, Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Mattisse, Renoir, Cezanne to name a memorable few. So many names we recognize and celebrate to this day because of their profound aesthetic and philosophical contributions to our experience of art. Just like all social changes, the impressionists were met with anger and rejection by a community who valued art in terms of realism. It is notable that impressionism coincided with the invention of the camera. Essentially, realism and portraiture were being served by this new media, thus freeing Artists to look for new ways to express their world. It’s a moment in time where technology greatly impacted a shift in culture.  Rather than focusing on making art as real as possible, the impressionists strove to capture impressions of their world. Quick glances, the changing quality of light, and even more casual, everyday images of the world. Van Gogh’s gray and soulful Potato Pickers is a clear example of art not meant to promote the upper classes.

Quickly on the heels of this movement was the industrial revolution where modern art as we know it found its life. Our journey began with the subsistence lives of our ancestors whom did not have extra resources for art as a separate craft or class. Now we are in a place where mass production of material needs, the emergence of leisure time, mass literacy and education,  democracy and a secular government, and the information age are all intertwined with the swift journey the arts have taken. Humans lived relatively unchanged for millions of years until the agricultural revolution of the Fertile Crescent unleashed ten thousand years of explosive growth and change that are mirrored in the arts.  In the last one hundred years we have leaped from the revolution of the impressionists to a place where no idea is too far fetched or abstract or outrageous to upset the confines of what we call art. There have been more isms in the last hundred years than in all the ten thousand put together. A fascinating question is where this is all headed. There has certainly been a backlash against the arts in recent years as many long for the simpler days of overt beauty. Perhaps this is a reflection of the pressures of living in the modern world we have created. Perhaps, as the arts always tell the truth about who we are, we as a culture are finding our current wealth and freedom overwhelming.