A History of Art

This account of the history of art, specifically visual art, will be patchy and Eurocentric, rather than comprehensive, and vague rather than precise. But I do hope for it to be somewhat insightful.

Before we begin, it is worth distinguishing between function and purpose – they do not mean the same thing. The function is ‘what the thing does’, or ‘the outcome of its happening’. The purpose is ‘why the thing was created’. For example, the function of a mug is to store hot liquids for consumption, it’s purpose, or reason for creation, is also to store hot liquids for consumption. It is the purpose, not the function, that determines the nature of an object; it doesn’t matter if we use a mug as a paperweight, it will still have a handle. This distinction may seem banal, but it is important when looking at developments in art.

Over time the function and purpose of art have been changing, sometimes coinciding, sometimes straying apart. These changes have been both the cause, and result, of developments in the appearance and form of art, making it possible to trace what art has meant to people, and what it has done, over time – by simply looking at it.

Naturally, it is at the outset of our journey where we have the most ambiguity in the motives behind art. We have few insights into the psychology of pre-historic artists, and those we do have are largely speculative. The most common form of art before the formation of city-states was cave paintings – crude drawings of animals or animals being hunted. It is likely that they would have played an important role in the tribes that created them – as a tool to bring people together, or maybe as a spiritual call for a good hunting season. Rather boringly these were probably the reasons why people created the paintings in the first place, the function and purpose of art would have been similar.

This was also the case from the Classical period, through the Renaissance, up to the Neoclassical period. Painting was a tool, not a form of expression; artists created their work not for the joy of creating it, but to tell stories, promote rulers, philosophers and soldiers. Greek, renaissance and neoclassical art were, in a technical sense, ground-breaking. Greek sculpture reached a level of realism never before seen; and likewise with scale, the Colossus of Rhodes stood as tall today’s Statue of Liberty but pre-dates it by over 2000 years. The renaissance was similarly pioneering; Da Vinci (1452-1519) invented linear perspective, studied the human anatomy and popularised the use of oil paints over egg-based tempera. But art still only a tool, of course enjoyment was a motivation to paint, but what they painted was still determined by the function of the painting. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1512) was not an inspired piece of genius – it was forced upon Michelangelo (1475-1564) by Pope Julius II, who was set on uniting Italy under Catholicism. Jacques-Louis David’s (1748-1825) ‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’ (1801) was a propaganda piece for the new emperor, certainly more tasteful than a Conservative party political broadcast, but no more meaningful.

Adam and God, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo (1512)

There was, however, some movement against the mainstream. The paintings of Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) were not commissioned by wealthy private collectors, rather were painted of his own accord, often depicting common people. Instead of promoting the establishment,they challenged its monopoly on glamour. By showing the beauty of a young girl with a pearl earring (1665), or working on a piece of lace (1670), in a very ordinary setting, Vermeer changed perspectives. Art was beginning to break free from the grip of those in power, it was no less appealing, the form had not altered much, but the function certainly had.

The Girl With the Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer (1665)

This change was given new solidified when the art critic Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), in the early 19th century, said ‘l’art pour l’art’ – art for art’s sake. This redefined the purpose of art, painters would paint for themselves and the viewer, not for the monarch, emperor or church. But that leaves the function of art open, what would art do for its viewers? And what would it be like? This is like asking, to return to our earlier analogy, if a mug no longer needed to store hot liquids for consumption, what would it look like?

The romantics were the first to really explore this idea – even before it was articulated. Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) and J.M.W Turner (1775-1851) are two painters that explored the power and scale of nature – their paintings give us a sense of the ‘Sublime’. A Sublime experience, as laid-out by Edmund Burke (1729-1797), is one that leaves us dwarfed and in awe of nature, for example in a great valley, in front of a cliff face or at the bottom of a mountain range. These painters, inadvertently, performed an important function in giving people access to the sublime; a humbling experience that may change the way you look at small, often trivial, everyday problems.

Morning in the Riesengebirge, Caspar David Friedrich (1811)

It took until the early 20th century for the next revolution in art that was more than superficial; abstract art. There was a build-up to this revolution; impressionism and pointillism moved towards painting things not ‘as-they-are’; cubism distorted real objects beyond recognition; but it was Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) that made the final leap of not representing any ‘thing’ in a painting. Art without reference to physical objects is quite important philosophically as it is able to transcend the barrier of language. In his ‘Philosophical Investigations’ Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) challenges the idea that feelings can be communicated using language. When you learn a word as a child you are simply matching the word with the physical thing that the word represents; your teacher would say chair and point at a chair – creating a link. This process breaks down when dealing with thoughts or feelings. To learn the word ‘pain’; when you seem to have hurt yourself an adult will tell you that instead of crying to express your feelings, you can use the word ‘pain’. The word ‘pain’ refers to the feeling you experience when you exhibit ‘pain behaviour’ that matches the ‘pain behaviour’ of others. The word ‘pain’ cannot refer to the same feeling for different people, because it is impossible to point to the same feeling as your teacher in the same way you pointed to the same chair. The painter of an abstract work uses the emotion of the image to get feelings across – avoiding the limits of language. This goes further than painting someone crying, as the crying still only refers to pain behaviour. Painters before this change could express emotion while still representing real objects, through colour and composition, but it was the abstract movement that attempted to express emotion alone, not as a part of a narrative or setting.

Composition IV, Wassily Kandinsky (1911)

Forgive my departure from chronology but it is necessary to briefly skip ahead in our story. Through the early twentieth-century, the nature of visual art changed rapidly, but its ownership did not. Ownership of art was still a preserve of the elite. Andy Warhol (1928-1987) tried, and failed, to change this. Upon reading that Picasso had only produced 4000 works in his lifetime, Warhol challenged himself to produce the same number in a single day – he only managed 500 in a month. But more important than this endeavour was the purpose of his art, he, like Vermeer, wanted to redistribute glamour and beauty. Warhol’s approach came from his appreciation for business and commercialism – rather than repeat his failed attempt to mass-produce art, he suggested that the mass-produced could become art. We see this in his ‘Campbell’s soup’ print of 1962; beauty could be found in the ordinary if one looked for it.

Campbell’s Soup Cans, Andy Warhol (1962)

This idea was pre-dated by a much more important one, from Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and the Dadaists. As an anti-art movement, they went further than anyone had done previously to reject what was meant by the word ‘art’. Art should not be easily understood, mean anything, or promote anything, they said. The true purpose of art was not to create something of beauty, but to stand outside the mainstream, challenging what is and what came before. This aim was certainly accomplished with Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ – a urinal on a pedestal – exhibited in The Grand Central Palace in New York in 1917.

Fountain, Marcel Duchamp (1917)

Many take this to be the end of art; but it can also be seen as a beginning of sorts. From this point onwards, painters were free, art came to mean ‘that which was labelled as such’; it didn’t have to be for viewer anymore. The art so often loathed in galleries today sticks by this; when next you see an unmade bed in the Tate, rather than resenting the artist, remember that art isn’t made for you anymore.

My Bed, Tracy Emin (1998)

Michael Tallent, Editor-in-Chief.


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