Why Do the Arts Matter: A Means of Understanding our Cultural Past

What monuments to our past will we leave behind?

The arts reflect the society and culture in which we live today. And I could take an entire post dedicated to that question (not to mention probably a book about it!). But what that statement did was get me thinking about our past and history and how the arts inform our understanding of our past. Today I’m going to consider three examples that will help us reflect on this.

Ancient Egypt and the power of the artifact

When we die and our bodies are buried, and all that remains of us are our bones, what else will be remnants of our culture, beliefs and of our personal history? Ancient Egypt is a great example of how the arts has informed and educated us about a culture. We could start with the pyramids or places like Luxor, where ancient structures remain with beautiful sculptures. Researchers have taken the time to decipher the words carved on assorted structures, figured out what colors those sculptures were probably painted and have even gone into tombs to see the jewelry as well as the wall paintings  left behind. These items are thousands of years old and we revere them today as artifacts of a lost culture. And it is those artifacts that have let scholars make conclusions and share with us about a different culture and time. What will we choose to leave behind? Which of our structures will stand the test of time? And how much of that will inform archeologists of the future? I love archeology and as a kid read vigorously about the subject. What I was left with was this understanding of Ancient Egypt as a culture concerned with death and the afterlife. I wonder, will we be noted for our successes, or will it be our obsession with consumerist culture? And what artifacts and artwork represent us currently? If you had to choose, what would it be? There is a great program via the BBC that uses objects to tell history called A History of 100 Objects. Does this reflect those ancient cultures or more recent history or better yet, our own culture and investment in objects?

Renaissance and the power of communication

In the time of the Renaissance, the Church was supreme. There were few who were literate and the Church needed to communicate Christ’s story and their own connection and influence to those who couldn’t read the Bible. Thus, the Church as patron was born. With so much wealth the Church could hire artists such as Michelangelo to create imagery within the churches of Italy to communicate religious stories while also suggesting their own power and influence. If you have ever entered the Sistene Chapel, you know exactly what I mean. The power of those visuals still resonate with us today. People travel all over the world to see the artwork by Michelangelo and this includes people of Catholic faith and people of different faiths. Art spans religion, even when its being used as a means of propaganda message. What is also interesting about this time is despite the fact the Church was a major patron, with more celebration and focus on the capabilities of man and our intellectualism, artwork also managed to reflect this. Consider The Birth of Venus, which in its composition and mythology speak to ideas of individualism and humanism. While one motivation of these kinds of visuals may have been to speak to the illiterate of the time, today we have scholars reflecting on their meaning and how they tell us about our past. What does it mean that we revere this historical artwork and are willing to travel the world over to view these works? I would argue this art still powerfully communicates today.

Beautiful Sculpture from Ancient Egypt

World War Two and the Power of Art

If you have read anything about WWII one piece of information you have probably learned about was HItler’s obsession with the perfect German tied directly to his interest and passion in the arts. He was an aspiring artist who was rejected from art school (I always wonder if he had been accepted into the program would his life and thus ours, be different today?) Despite this rejection, he always avidly admired the arts and as he grew in power, Hitler began to dictate what was good art and what was not quality art. Some very gifted European artists, for example, Paul Klee, had to live in hiding because of the art he made; Hitler deemed it unworthy and included it in his Degenerate Art exhibit, which intended to make fun of and humiliate artists he felt were a threat to his government or his ideal of art. Art was a threat! It was a means of subversion, of making a statement in one respect while in another it was a means of  embracing and encouraging a culture of homogeneity and deluded notions of “perfection.” Both sides in the war made efforts to preserve and save artwork. What does it mean that we take strides to protect art while at the same time fight for our lives and freedoms? An interesting timeline that discusses stolen art is here.

Today I hoped to briefly showcase how art can be a tool for historical understanding. These are three mostly surface discussions that I hope generate your interest and encourage you to read and learn more. Art can be a beautiful relic of our ancient history, a powerful communicator, and something people feel so strongly about they fight over it. We have a responsibility to learn more and take a more active role in today’s art culture. What do you want to be left behind to reflect our contemporary moment?

Artist Strong Action: What object would you choose as an artifact to represent our contemporary culture for future generations?