As people we find it difficult to understand art. Sure, we think it can be decorative. We understand it is illustrative. Yet when face to faced with it we understand what we like. But that barely scratches the surface. As artists do more than illustrate, decorate, or capture a moment in time. They test our understanding of life itself. Given experience we recognise art is much more than what we at first see.
Ancient work found on rocks in the outback of Australia may be examples of mans first attempt to use art to tell a story, We are made aware of how modern aborigines tell the story of their forefathers in dot paintings. These totemic paintings are used to illustrate the nature of their storylines and tell something important of their mob. Old as dot painting is, world galleries are only now assembling collections of the work. Modern painters, of this art, are being celebrated as masters of a new movement older than recorded history.
In every continent Archeological work has uncovered the living conditions of past civilisations from once hidden art work. Evidence abounds that visual art work has been treasured throughout mans life on earth. Walls and floors have been found with mural decor. Sometimes the artwork has been made with natural clays. In other civilisations glass tiles are used to illustrate life and the things treasured are depicted in minute detail. Visual art is used to tell stories of past civilisation’s former greatness.
In many of the places we have visited in the ancient world there is evidence of the existence of sometimes up to six waves of invaders, each attempting to rub out the evidence of the previous peoples. And each civilisations has marked the arrival of a new civilisation with art.
In more modern times. Art work has be lost in fires, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, in famine and pestilence, in fact in almost every imaginable way. Yet scraps of the art remain as a reminder of how things once were. In the past humankind has valued art equally with science, law and religion. In fact religious groups are responsible for the protection and preservation of much we know about former civilisations.
In the Dark Ages art suffered through a period when the depiction of realistic art was unvalued. The illustration of mankinds adventure was instead stylised and heroic. Since that period the world experienced a Renaissance. Giotto is rumoured to have been one of the first new artists when, with the aid of a paintbrush and red paint, he is allegedly said to have pleased Pope Boniface as an able painter. It appears a simple circle was all the pontiff needed to know he was an artist of greatness. How ever he was commissioned to work for the pope, it is certain, he could depict real life eloquently.
The world has come to love the work of a catalogue of fine renascence artists with names we know: Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Titian – you can add dozens of well known artists. I am not going to list their best known works here except to say we have been fortunate in that we have seen much of their work in great galleries around the world. The work is known for its fine brushwork. It’s mastery of Fresco. The simplicity of its lines, or because of its beautiful flaws. David is sculpted out of a flawed piece of marble. The hands are perfectly formed but too large for the body yet it is known as a sublime artwork.
It is not for me to catalogue every art movement. Sufficient to say that each age has produced people able to uniquely capture the time, or paint in a way that depicts the real meaning of the work. (St Wendy ran a series of art history lessons on television fortunately most of her work is still available on YouTube. She was very good at pointing out the allegorical references in the work she cited. A flower placed at the centre of a painting would have meant such and such to the viewers. The landscape referenced in another had hidden meanings for those in touch with the symbolism. I this way artists have been able to signal clear dislike for their subjects or the movements of the time without losing the support of their sponsors.)
It is certainly true much art would never have been commissioned without the artist having a benefactor. The Church would possibly be one of the biggest supporters of art throughout history. The brand of belief is not of importance because each major religion collected the finest work of its time. For instance, in the Catholic Church, many a cardinal would commission a work from one practioner only to prove to a neighbouring prince of the Church he was better connected.
Of course art also depended on the wealthy for support. The kings and princes of Europe have always demonstrated their wealth by employing favoured artists. The palace of Versailles demonstrates the wealth of the sun king. In St Petersburg Catherine the Great collected works for the Winter Palace. Of course such extravagance was only possible because using slaves meant wages need not be paid.
To skip to modern art we turn to the impressionists. Their work is something we celebrate today for the impressions of life made in real time. The works of Monet serve as an example. The artist painted and repainted the same scenes. Not because he hadn’t captured the scene precisely but because as the light changed he saw things differently. Whether the paintings were of the great doors of Notre Dame cathedral, the lily ponds on his estate at Giverney, or the hay stoops in his horse paddock. He painted the daily life he experienced around him. He painted into old age capturing and recapturing the same scenes. No doubt he was disappointed on each occasion as the next time he looked he saw more red, or green, blue or white. It the light he viewed his subject the next time he looked it always appeared different.
To see his works for the first time I was blown away of course by each rendition of the scene but also because of the magnificent size of the works. To capture scenes as big as life itself was one thing, to continually capture the light across the scope of the huge canvass was something again.
Artwork doesn’t have to be grand to be good though. From the same period consider the work of the Australian Heidelberg school. It does vary in size but the brilliance of the artist is all there for all to see in the 9×4 inch paintings captured on cigar cases.
In each new art movement there are new stars. These are the people who test our understanding of art. Discontent to reproduce work in the same manner as their brilliant past masters they challenged us to rethink he question. What is art?
Today many artists gain fame by winning prizes from modern benefactors. Possibly a turning point in art occurred in Venice in 1895. Until then gallerists had chosen to display art from artists they selected as being good. Evidence abounds they too often got the choice of artist wrong. There can be no greater artist overlooked than Van Gogh, yet in his lifetime no gallery would buy or display his work. Each generation an artist, overlooked in life, is rediscovered. Anyway, back to Venice. In 1895, after a couple of years planning, the first great art exhibition was shown in what is now known as the Venice Biennial.
At first the works were chosen to display and find a market for several selected galleries. As time went by the sale reasons, the sale reason for the exhibition was dropped. Instead the organisers set about finding artists with something fresh to say and works less commercially wanted were shown, just as they are today. Given the great success of the biennial, it has kept expanding across the years, in time that has called for a division of the arts, As it is today , fine art and sculpture are categorised separately to music and literature.
In Australia the first benefactor of a major prize was found in – J F Archibald. First awarded in 1922 the Archibald award is for a portrait of a well know Australian or famous artist. The most awarded prize winner is Sir William Dargie, principally this is because the Art Gallery of NSW mostly chooses artist from that state as winners. Many a portrait painter has gained their reputation by winning this prize but it could be considered a poisoned chalice because winning often limits the growth of an artist and limits their future output to portraiture. Few talk today of Dargie as an artist one must collect.
After World War 11 new emphasis has been given to art fairs as a way for artist to market their output. The first, and possibly the greatest, is Art Basel. This fair is so popular is has spawned like fairs across the globe. The work chosen is limited and dependent upon work being selected by local galleries.
The Turner prize is given to the best artist living in or from Britain. The award has been given to sculptors since 1984. Previously entry was restricted artists under 50. That rule have been dropped. The award is mired in controversy and the reasons for this can be discussed later.
Modern artists do not generally have benefactors to support them in the creation of their art. Many are simply driven to produce a statement of life for themselves. If a buyer is found then the artist probably celebrates but the production of something was first inspired bu communicating something.
Art is so broad in this age it is almost impossible to catalogue – what exactly is art? If a video of a dripping tap is slowed to an ultra slow movement. Is the work art? If the aim of the artist is to make us think a moment of time is just part of the constancy of life, and we are slowed to think about it, it meets the definition of art.
What then of the artist who uses their body as the art medium? If they change their body so an arm that looks like it has grown an extra ear, what then? What if they that cut themselves and the viewer is asked to make meaning of what appears to be an act of self harm? How is that art? We know if our skin is pierced it hurts and it is disturbing to see our blood running undisturbed until it stops. The artist makes us consider, what is ordinary human behaviour. Art has moved from a pure depiction of life to examining life itself.
Like the poetic works of Gerard Marley Hopkins that make no sense at all on the first reading, the artistic works of the alcoholic Jackson Pollock make no sense. Australia was scandalised when the Whitlam government spent over $1 million purchasing these dribbles of paint. Yet on seeing his work, first in the Guggenheim Museum of Art in Venice, I can see the work as brilliant. Viewed up close the work is not dissimilar to the way the eye constructs meaning in a Monet. Monet does not illustrate a hay stack. Our mind joins the dots (figuratively speaking) and we see a hay stack. The same is true in the random streaks and splashes of Pollock. Our mind reassembles the colours into a painting we can attach meaning. His work requires the viewer work at meaning from the lexicon of their experience if his art is to say something meaningful
20th Century art had new art movements every few years. The fauves, the cubists, the abstractionists, finding names for styles could easily occupied you for years given the number of movements. New art often seemed twee. Take the example of pop art – when Andy Warhol painted a baked bean tin, or the imitation of a printed art gravure comic, found in the work of Roy Lichtenstein. He magnified the style of dots used in gravure printing so the image was made of larger dots as pointillists had previously.
Whole art movements have sprung from artists magnifying an everyday object to a supersize and we, as the audience, see more of something easily overlooked. Or take the sculpture of Ron Mueck. His people sculptures are lifelike in the absolute detail except they are often bigger than the models themselves. Damien Hirst makes his simple work known because instead of preserving a work in formaldehyde, like a scientist might with a frog, his work reached new status when a shark was preserved in fluid. Is it art to act as a preserver of life? Throughout the century realistic painting came and went and returned again. The works of Gustave Courbet The origins of the world, for example, setting the standard in the 19th century.
Our aunts, and our grandchildren paint scenes of their district but when it can be captured on film with greater detail is it art as the artist looks at the world? Today artists have almost abandoned paint and paint brush and we the viewer is confronted with as art is a test of interpretation. They attempt to find meaning where on first viewing we, the unquestioning, see none and this they tell us is art.