Who Needs Artists? Pt I: Art for a ‘Higher Purpose’

The beginnings

Artists have always tried to influence those for whom their work is created, of course, from prehistoric times to the present. And needless to say, they always needed to be rewarded for their effort. lascaux-cave-paintingsThe 20,000 year old cave art at Lascaux France is clear evidence of expert knowledge, technical skills and practice that took time away from the  usual activities of hunting or gathering or child care; so obviously the tribal community must have thought the artists’ work was very important.

The earliest art by Homo Sapiens yet discovered  was recently found in Blombos Cave, near Capetown, South Africa. Calling it “art” distinguishes it from a purely functional object (like a flint spear head). blombos cave artIt is estimated to be 73,000 years old. Interestingly, this is just the time in prehistory that historian and philosopher Yuval Harari, in his popular 2011 book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,  suggested that an “Intellectual revolution” occurred in Homo Sapiens humans. They developed “fictive” language which could represent ideas not based in experience. Still earlier art may yet be found, since Homo Sapiens is thought to have evolved at least 200,000 years ago.

‘Civilized art’

The term ‘civilized’ is rather vague and has multiple meanings, some of which cause offense, especially in attempts to contrast ‘civilized’ to ‘uncivilized’ cultures or people. When trying to distinguish ‘civilizations’ from ‘primal groups’ it’s a matter of degrees – in size, complexity and technical specialization. For example, hunter/ gatherers, or nomadic  indigenous tribes don’t constitute a civilization, although they certainly  had cultures, with world views, social stratification, division of labor, technologies, laws, rulers and arts. “Chiefdoms” – e.g. in Sub-saharan Africa, the Americas, S.E. Asia, and Oceania – are perhaps a middle step between paleolithic bands and civilizations as described in this Wikipedia article.

Civilizations are territorially large and incorporate multiple cities, states or nations, organized into groups controlled by rulers, according to laws that are known to all the elite people, typically communicated through a common written code, and enforced by agents throughout the region. Although having enough food is the foundation of any group, a single village or city can’t constitute a civilization, however complex, specialized and able to feed its inhabitants. So Jericho – which at about 11,000 years age is thought to be oldest settled, self-sufficient town or city – isn’t part of the first civilization. The latter is widely accepted to be Sumer – in modern Iraq – between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (Mesopotamia) in the so-called Cradle of Civilization. Sumerian civilization developed with written language before 5,000 ago. Not surprisingly historians, archeologists and anthropologists often disagree.

Art specialists have worked in the service of rulers of every civilization, but the quality and originality of their art depended on their assigned tasks – either to copy or to refine traditional themes, values and methods, or perhaps even to find something new. 

Guennol_LionessBut more complex regional civilizations like those of China, Egypt and Mesopotamia had very refined art with complex symbolism. The Guennol Lioness , found near Baghdad, illustrates this clearly. It was carved around 5,000 years ago. This piece is extraordinarily fine in conception and execution. Obviously it represents  abstract thought, combining human and animal traits, and suggests symbolic meanings in how the head and hands are positioned. (Incidentally, it sold in 2007 at Southebys for over $57 M, reminding us of what defines the meaning and value of art works in today’s financialized world.)

Much later, in western history, Greek political leaders held to the idea that art should honor of the gods. They sought perfection. Great artists – temple architects, vase painters, sculptors , poets and playwrights – were highly esteemed; so we know their names recorded from ancient historians. By contrast, Rome’s rulers saw art as a practical job. It was used to influence and control a growing population, to aggrandize the empire or ruler, and for the personal enjoyment of wealthy aristocrats  on their countryside estates.

Art In Whose Honor?

Rome gradually took over the Greek peninsula militarily, but Greek language (spoken and written) continued in the eastern Mediterranean (and Ptolemaic Egypt). Even the elite in Rome proper adopted Greek culture. In brief, as the Roman writer Horace put it sardonically, “Captive Greece captured her rude conqueror.”

Because of this deference, Roman rulers made their artists imitate the Greek works they saw, but they couldn’t duplicate the original spirit of perfection. (Their copies are fortunate for western cultural history, however, since almost no original Greek art remains.) For this reason, except for writers who represented the real world of love relations, or the duties of citizenship (like Catulus, Horace, Ovid, and Virgil), artists of Roman sculpture, painting and building were treated like tradesmen – working for low wages – or as skilled slaves (often Greek as well).

To illustrate, compare the Parthenon, highParthenon athens wikipedia on the Acropolis in Athens, to the Pantheon pantheon rome in the center of Rome on land owned by the then ruler  (whose name appears on the facade), Emperor Agrippa. A few years later it burned and was reconstructed by the next emperor – Hadrian – who expanded Rome’s empire farther than any other ruler. Contrary to common belief, the Pantheon was not “For All Gods”, as the popular name implies, which would have been an affront and cause for dissention. It was probably deducated to Mars. In any case, the building complex enhanced the public image of both these emperors.

The Greek Parthenon was designed in the classic Doric style by Ictinus and Callicrates and decorated by the sculptor Phidias. The building materials are pure marble, including the parts that would be covered by sculptured figures and bright colors, and so invisible. It’s shape appears to be a mathematically perfect cube, precisely because the viewer’s experience has been enhanced to give optical illusions. Close inspection proves that, by intention, there are no straight lines in the structure.

The Roman Pantheon is a combination of a huge dome (142 feet) and an exaggerated entrance portico (40 foot columns). The decoration style is flowery Corinthian. The outer visible materials include granite columns and a marble facade or perhaps stucco, while the basic building structure is invisible concrete.  (Romans invented concrete that greatly increased what they could build.) The building is a marvel of engineering and practicality, to provide an easily accessible space – also useful for speech making – and to reenforce the emperors’ powerful image. An earlier era marked public works with SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus) -The Roman Senate and People – but that time was past.

Is Art Spiritual?

Are artists moved by some higher power or muses? To say they are, as the Ancients thought, suggests that inspiration (literally, spirit or divinity within) is required for art to be good and true. Plato (through Socrates in Symposium, Phaedo and Phaedrus) claims that love of beauty in all its forms causes a soul to recollect Pure Beauty or Beauty Itself, which it once experienced. For every soul is “immortal” [Phaedrus 245c], and at various cycles of time she has seen into the heavens where the “Ideal Forms” exist – Beauty, Courage, Justice, Temperance, and Wisdom. The ruler of the heavens is the Divine (the Good), which is one and unchanging; but human souls have ‘parts’, and can be tempted by bodily desires.  Socrates uses a metaphor – a chariot pulled by two winged horses – to illustrate. One horse is beautiful, good tempered and easily controlled by voice commands; the other is ugly, unruly and stubborn – always fighting to have immediate gratification when in the presence of a beautiful loved one. The charioteer must struggle to guide his vehicle upward,  away from the worldly life if possible, with the help of the manageable steed working against its harness mate. [Phaedrus 246].

The Symposium (especially 201C – 212A) offers a more reachable (but still Platonic) picture of how True Beauty and Art in all their forms connect to Love (Eros or Desire). Eros can help us all (who are willing) to grow and climb by manageable steps over time from earthly views to spiritual ones. Interestingly, Socrates cites the speeches of an “inspired” woman – the storied prophetess Diotima – who taught him how Eros can correct our beliefs about what is important and improve our lives to the highest possible degree.

Art for Secular Rulers

Through the European Middle Ages, Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, artists worked for a ruler or patron, regardless of their personal wishes or opinions. They had to do what was expected, or they would be without employment. Often their work aimed to teach religious beliefs. Sometimes it served royal interests. Often it served both, since government and religion have always been related, until the relatively recent modern age of western Europe – especially in the 18th C. – when secular thinking developed.

The economy of a society also influences how art is used. As economies came to depend more on humans and less on nature’s produce, concern for “the laws of nature and of nature’s god” diminished or was ignored, with bad consequences for nature (and for human spirituality) which are increasingly evident today.

In societies with highly developed trade and other business efforts, art has more and more been influenced by the interests of secular leaders. For example, rulers of Renaissance city-states, such as Venice or Florence, were business men. They were elected by a city council, which had authority even over church activities . Some of these, like the Medici family (who gained their wealth and influence as wool merchants and bankers), expressed an almost fanatical admiration for classical Greece and Rome – “The Ancients” – and looked to them as the true source of knowledge and values. So artists who could best regenerate that spirit – e.g. Davinci, Raphael, Verrocchio, Botticello and Michelangelo – were given the opportunity to develop their brilliant personal perspectives. But there was much competition and jealousy among them to find and please patrons.

Renaissance art emphasized rationality and recognizeable order. Symmetry and mathematical forms, in music, architecture were ‘classical’ principles. But the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and among competing monarchies, as well as the secular movements towards freedom all added up to a long period of war and change in Europe – both north and south. This changed the work of artists too, of course.

Gutenberg’s invention of printing (c. 1440) and the start of Protestantism in Germany had revolutionary effects on the availability, content, form, distribution, popularity and influence of art (whether visual, literary or musical.

England was slow to catch the Renaissance changes in art – perhaps because of the influence of Queen Elizabeth’s long successful reign and world-wide influence. Shakespeare’s works might be called revolutionary, but they didn’t have wide circulation at first.

Holland changed much more quickly and radically. As in other northern countries, successful Dutch business leaders influenced art tastes, but more significant was the tremendous desire for art works among the general public. After gaining independence from Spain and its Catholicism in the “Eighty Year War” (1568–1648), a general spirit of exuberance grew, becoming the ‘Golden Age‘ of Dutch art. It had world famous masters like Frans Hals, Rembrandt van Rijn, Anthony Van Dyck, Judith Leyster, and hundreds more. They produced many thousands of paintings to meet an almost insatiable desire of ordinary citizens to decorate the walls of their homes. Themes varied, e.g. street scenes, home interiors,  portraits, still lives, and especially landscapes. Dutch loved their land and still do.

Societal leaders of the 18th Century – the Enlightenment – especially in the north of Europe – became more and more secular, and less devoted to royalty. The Baroque era of art came during that time. It’s marked by strong emotions, and interaction of opposites – like light and dark, loud and soft, high and low, and very detailed ornamentation. It ranged from well-ordered recognizable structures to what could be overdone and frivolous – mirroring the changes in social classes. Mozart lived in that time, in which princesses might show off their pretty pettycoats on park swings, as in this Fragonard painting. The revolutions were starting to form.

Following on the Enlightenment, as a reaction of course, the European Romantic Era of the early 1800s produced art works that seem, to an observer with today’s perspective, to be “free expressions” of individual genius, e.g. in music, poetry and painting. We might suppose that great artists like Beethoven, Wordsworth and Delacroix were free and independent of their patrons’ views, and their society’s norms. That wasn’t true in their time; they depended on wealthy patrons. Nor is it true today, for various reasons.

In Pt II, I’ll try to show that artists are still dependent on patronage, though the patrons have changed. Yet rather than thinking of dependence in financial terms, it’s well to remember that creativity can be both inspired, and inspiring. In that sense, our society needs the ‘great ones’ of today and of the past more than they need (and needed) society’s support. We’re blessed that it’s so widely available.


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