Images are powerful things. It is no mere coincidence that much of the modern human brain is devoted to the processing of visually received stimuli. Our eyes are our best developed sense organ. Because of this, our images have grown ever more sophisticated as the full extent of our visual power is utilized. The growth appears to be exponential, mirroring much of human development. This growth can be charted like much of history by following the high water marks.
BIG IDEAS come into the world of the visual image when society needs them. The outdated imagery that was supplanted by the development of three-point perspective in paintings existed for millenia before. Flat, two dimensional imagery, in which size was indicative of status as opposed to a true measure, and which represented ideas as opposed to visible reality was the norm for most of the world's visual artists. This was true in the cultures of Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Europe, Africa, etc., and speaks of the aims of the visual image in those cultures.
I am not referring strictly to the content of the artworks, to the subject matter. I speak instead of the means available to the visual artists to make their point as those points relate to the culture at large. Let's look at ancient Egyptian art for example.
In Egypt's Old and New Kingdoms the use of visual art was mainly to serve the Pharaoh, the Temples, and the wealthy by spreading propaganda. Whether this was religious propaganda or political propaganda is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the art was straightforward, simple enough for even illiterates to understand the message being imparted. The images were in grids, demarcating a rigid stasis. Egyptians believed their leaders were gods on Earth. They believed in the endless cycle of life, mirroring the Nile river's yearly floods, in which everything plays it's proper part, and the people are but miniscule pawns in a much larger story being played out by the elites. In a desert the only constants are the magnificent terror of the Sun and the durability of stone. Everything else is in flux. Death can come on the back of a locust swarm or the mouth of alligators. Disease is a curse and death is a time of judgment. Life must have seemed so hard to ancient Egyptians. It was so brutal and short that their whole culture became one of worshiping death, or at least the state of being called “dead.”
Could this be why their art is so rigid? Egyptian visual art which survives shows actions, events, places, personages, and tells a narrative story, which can also be read allegorically. It does not place any importance in portraying motion, or the passage of time. It focuses instead on the action, and what that action means. The images do not care about relative size, and are so stylized and formatted as to make it impossible to differentiate between the carved figures. This problem is solved by the use of the cartouche. These are symbols that name the important figures in the artwork, such as pharaohs, gods, etc. The lower classes are portrayed by their jobs, not by anything individual. The artworks themselves were constructed to last for eternity, since whatever one was buried with would be what they enjoyed in their afterlife. Stone carving thus becomes the critical art form for the times. It allowed people of power to inscribe the walls of their death chambers with every possible thing they could ever desire in the afterlife.
These are means to an end. The Egyptians truly believed that birth determined one's life and that the individual will was but an afterthought, in many ways mirroring the modern Indian culture and caste system. Life was just a way-station which would present a person with the challenges, and the person's decisions concerning these challenges would then be judged upon one's death. Of course the art also showed you how to react to the challenges of life, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Egypt flourished for millenia with few challenges to this art ideal.
Much of the ancient world worked this very same way. The art served the ruling classes whims, allowing the mass illiterate poor to share in the legends and myths of their culture without having to actually read the source material. Art then served the purpose of pure narrative and allegorical communication from one group of elites to another group of subjects.
As society changes the purposes of art change as well. What used to be something only the aristocracy or royalty could indulge in now became accessible to the just plain wealthy. The houses of the wealthy became the showpiece for their new found appreciation of art, usually centered around portraits of themselves and their relatives which granted the subject a grandeur and power through it's very existence. Art became personal. It was not long before a new middle class of people was created. These people, not wealthy nor poor, but with enough money to afford some of the nicer things and the education to appreciate them, were the ones that opened a floodgate.
The visual image gained wider and wider exposure. Because of the new audience, the art changed as well. Images became appreciated more for their ability to describe and show the real world than for their symbolic and propaganda uses. Since in art everything builds upon everything else, the early reasons for art still exist and will always exist. They are only supplanted like an onion skin atop an onion skin by new demands placed on art. It all builds a framework of visual reference. Regular people were now exposed to more visual imagery than ever before and therefore the sophistication of the audience grew and grew.
The Old Masters managed to combine everything art is about and still explore new paths, new ways to make their art suit their purposes. The discovery of three-point perspective shone a light upon all the previous images. Those with proper perspective are obvious to the eye, to anyone's eye, for perspective allows to the tricks one's eye plays to be used for the full effect of the painting. After a while, any artist not working with proper perspective, or at least faking it as well he could, was considered “naive,” a backhanded compliment which essentially means, “your art is good for someone who knows nothing about art.” This becomes the main driver behind the visual image for centuries. Each new generation perfecting the techniques and ideas that allow for the art required by the times.
Artists are always at the vanguard of culture. Sometimes it is an idea that drives them to new places and sometimes it is a new media. Around 150 years ago the first tube paints were being sold, as the industrial revolution modernized and streamlined the means of production the world over. No longer did artists have to painstakingly prepare and manufacture their pigments and paints, or hire a crew of assistants to do so. The artists was freed to take his canvas and turn art from an indoor endeavor to an outdoor pleasure. Nature again became the main inspiration. These artists could go out into the world with their easel and paints and create artwork of immediacy. A preliminary sketch of a painting which used to take weeks could be done in hours, and many painters began to appreciate the beauty inherent in artwork that sought not to minutely recreate the nature before them, but instead to capture in colored paint, the way light played upon the world.
This was a very big conceptual leap forward. It was pushed along by the science of the times as well. People used to believe everything was what it was innately. A red jacket was a red jacket. A white egg was a white egg. Science showed that, as far as optics are concerned, common sense is useless. A red jacket receives white light, absorbs every color wavelength except red, and bounces red back at our eyes. Our brains then say, “this jacket is red. Paint it red.” Painters early on realized that the nature of the light greatly affects the nature of the color of an object. Morning light would make a red jacket appear violet, whereas overcast light would make the red appear toned with grey or black. Color is created in the eye. Someone like Monet would paint fast, loose, to catch that one specific light effect he sought to recreate in the viewer's eye. Painters were literally trying to paint light.
As the society progresses it absorbs the lessons of artists, and accepts them as truths. Society is stupid that way. Instead of understanding that everything works in a continuum and that nothing end and nothing begins and that one idea does not replace another, society dumps old ideas as fast as new ideas come. These new ideas are then treated as the new dogma. Society is stupid and slow and ignorant and will always need art to show the way to new thought. The problem lies in that society gets more and more rigid and therefore more and more resistant to the changes brought about or implied in artist's work.
These artworks were among many chosen 70 years ago by the National Socialist Party of Germany as being decadent and obscene. They were not decadent nor obscene because of puerile content, or nudity or offensive imagery. These artworks were dangerous to that totalitarian regime, just as dangerous as art remains today for totalitarian governments worldwide, because of the IDEAS.
Ideas in art are pulled by the artists from the meta-structure of humanity's total consciousness. Artists draw material and inspiration from places they do not even register. The entire world feeds their minds. An artists of any type is like a tuning fork. A tuning fork can be made to vibrate by another tuning fork being struck and brought near it. They do not have to touch. One fork vibrates the air and the air then vibrates the previously inert tuning fork. Now imagine an artist, a creative person, whose entire day is composed of endlessly varied stimuli affecting him or her in ways so subtle they may not be apparent for decades. Subtle, yes, but powerfully affecting nonetheless.
As the world turned industrial, and life moved from the pasture to the chaos of urban city living, certain artists felt the pull towards a complete dismissal of representation. They sought truth and beauty in the relationships of colors, lines, shapes, hues and tones. They did not seek to represent anything at all. To them, abstraction was a perfectly natural response to a world ever more constrained, ever more visually cluttered. A day's walk in any city would flood the mind with more visual imagery than a year spent on one's country farm. Imagine what that would do to someone extra-sensitive to stimuli of any sort. It only makes sense that artists sought to escape into pure abstraction.
Abstraction may seem to negate all the rules art had come to be built upon, but it is, in fact, just the end result of the path those rules laid out. Painting involves using colored material to create an image. The relationship in a still-life between a vase, let's say, and a tablecloth is one of color. Color, and how it is placed, defines boundaries, depth, texture, and light, as well as serving allegorically as a symbol. Pure abstraction engages a viewer through the same means as a representative image. The goal is different thought. Representative imagery needs to evoke the actual structure of the world. Abstraction seeks to create a new world to be judged by the aesthetics of the art of painting itself. In an era where anyone can create a near perfect representational image (photography) painting needed to create a sense of it's own value apart from pure documentation.
Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, etc., were all attempts to create art that allowed the artists to define art itself, or at least test the boundaries. They set their own rules, or tried to, but these rules were still only workable in direct reference to the boundaries they sought to replace These boundaries are the boundaries demarcated by culture and society itself. The past 200 years have seen the Industrial Revolution change not only art but the viewers of art and the artists as well.
Currently, we are in the midst of another whirlwind change in society, and therefore in humanity. The ability to have the vast sum of human knowledge and endeavor accessible from anywhere on the planet has affected artists greatly. If you think the Industrial Revolution brought chaos and infinite new experience, you will not be ready for what our cyber world is bringing us. If done right, this tool will increase the sophistication of everyone with access to it. Every image ever seen in a museum is available to be viewed through technology. Some artists are using the web itself as an art form, and others are turning into Luddites, afraid of being replaced as image makers by computers, or worse yet, regular people. All this is causing a new change in art.
Art can no longer be just representational, or abstract, or low-brow. Art needs to point the way to the future, good or ill. It needs to change itself to show the way to humanity. What is needed is a new Meta-structure for art. Artists have seemingly exhausted every combination of media, size, shape, color, etc., available for a two dimensional visual image. What has only been tried a few times, by artists such as M.C. Esher, is to create imagery, a new art essentially, which does not depend on the “normal” human points of spatial reference.
(Originally published at Open To Interpret)