A brief history of art and its importance

Why is art relevant? 

    You often hear about art being an ostentatious field in today's world. But can you imagine thinking that, and then stumbling upon the oldest human-made piece of art ever made -hidden, or perhaps shielded, in the Lascaux cave? I cannot conjure many fields that have survived through history and reinvented themselves as long as art. It seems to have flanked all the most universal human activities imaginable: the art of weaponry, the art of cooking, medicine, politics, entertainment, and eventually, the art of trade and management of wealth or other riches. I am a fervent believer that if art has been around for so long, and continues to exist, then there must be a reason for it.

There was a time when artists were more numerous and important than meat mongers. Those were times of legendary leaders who desired to take the world by storm, and use the arts as an emblem of their greatness, to recount the stories that set them apart. The Sun King commissioned Versailles and its famous hall of mirrors to stun his contemporary political guests with an air of divine grandeur. The Medici family were patrons to some of the greatest masterpieces, and artists, of all time; they fostered the power of Italian trade and banking through Italian art, and placed their artistic proteges (such as Da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael, and many more) at the service of important political leaders -thus becoming the suppliers of the image-makers defining grandeur. China saw a distinctive artistic tradition emerge under every new great ruling family -one of the most renowned artistic styles flourished under the Ming dynasty. There were times when artists had to be careful with their stylistic allegiances too. For example, the French artist Jacques-Louis David acclimated to the artistic and political changes that accompanied tumultuous times. Indeed, David joined the tail-end of Rococo painting (a style congruent with Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette's ill-fated reign), before witnessing the French Revolution; and somehow managed to secure himself a preeminent artist's position after the political coup that lead Napoleon to become not the next King, but Emperor, of France.  The past manifests a very functional need for art indeed, and artists fought to create new canons of art for new monastic rulers, shaping history, heritage, legacy. And thus did art establish itself as a very important cultural branding tool of sorts, through thick and thin, so long as it was at the service of authoritative figures of power.

As democracy gradually swept over the Western world, art had to reinvent its purpose. Certain famous artistic waves such as Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, or the consumerist art of Warhol and his contemporaries testify to the success that art found in integrating itself to society through different patrons and missions. It was in those times that art took on a different meaning than propaganda, and became "Art for Art's sake". The Artists of those different times appointed themselves fore-runners of their culture's "high-brow" craft, distinguishing themselves from low-brow art and illustration. Mainly the distinction had to do with high-brow artists pushing the boundaries of visual forms and languages through carrying a vision of their own, and cutting themselves off from advertising and servicing anyone other than themselves, hence the expression "Art for Art's sake". Picasso is regarded as one of the most versatile artists of this genre, to have pushed many types of artistic boundaries, and he is known for his different "Periodes" of styles. Interestingly, the famous styles cited here frequently figure amongst the highest-grossing acquisitions in the auction world nowadays.

In parallel to the development of the practice of Fine Art (or Art for Art's sake), the practice of art found a new course and business use, through other fields. Starting back with the invention of the printing press, and later on, of the magazines, art transcended the physical need to expose a private number of people to one physical painting. Instead, reproducible pictures became available to a wider audience. As a result, art decided to promote a different kind of power than that of private circles, and this is how art became illustration to many specific fields. Children's books, lifestyle advertising, etc. There emerged as many illustration fields as there were new types of patrons (or clients) for illustration. 

Today, I often hear that art is being pushed into desuetude by photography, the computer, the video format, and generally speaking, digital innovations.

And yet, aesthetics are more prevalent than ever, and if anything, I am proud to belong to a culture of aesthetes on the rise. I believe we are living in a world where the number of visual languages or styles is becoming more diverse than ever before. Some communities develop a preference for cartoons, some for graffiti, some for minimalism, the list seems interminable. I've also noticed the barriers between high brow and low brow start to muddle; the types of artists become less field-inclusive and more multi-disciplinarian. I would argue that we now live in a world where visual diversity is alive and thriving. Doesn't this make sense, in the Western culture in particular, where individualistic freedom is often seen as a basic human right?

 I have no doubt that there are different visual ways to tell different stories. There is unmistakably a power in taking pictures of our lives, and using that in a plethora of edited styles to deliver a vast array of messages. There is also a remarkable power to the unlimited freedom of representing our lives as a symbol of how we live it. Capturing the art of living can take on many visual styles. The question is simply the applied choice of visual language and identity. 

-Alexa Culioli 

 
 
Underlay_Kunst_by_Alexa_Culioli
 

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