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1.4: Why do We Make Art?

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    Some of the earliest evidence of recognizable human activity includes not only practical things like stone tools and fire pits, but also decorative objects used for personal adornment. For example, these small beads made by piercing sea snail shells, found at the Blombos Cave on the southeastern coast of South Africa, are dated to the Middle Stone Age, 101,000-70,000 BCE. (Figure 1.19) We can only speculate about the intentions of our distant ancestors, but it is clear that their lives included the practice of conceiving and producing art objects. One thing we appear to share with those distant relatives is the urge to make art.

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    Figure 1.19 Blombos Cave Nassarius kraussianus marine shell beads and reconstruction of bead stringing, Author: Marian Vanhaeren and Christopher S. Henshilwood, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    A culture can be defined as a group of people who agree about what is important. Today many different human cultures and sub-cultures co-exist; we can find in them a broad range of ideas about art and its place in daily living. One main goal of Australian Aboriginal artists, for example, is to “map” the world around them. (Figure 1.20) In this painting on bark, pictorial symbols tell the story of the great hunter snake in colors such as red for desert sand and yellow for the sun. (Figure 1.21) In a similar way, though with different materials, Buddhist sand paintings known as mandalas present a map of the cosmos. These circular diagrams also represent the relationship of the individual to the whole and levels of human awareness. (Figure 1.22)

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    Figure 1.20 Australian Aboriginal “Map” Symbols, Author: Jeffrey LeMieux, (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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    Figure 1.21 Sand Painting, Author: Sailko, (CC BY-SA 3.0)


    Figure 1.22 Wheel of Time Kalachakra Sand Mandala, Artist: Losang Samten, Author: Steve Osborne, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    The need to make art can be divided into two broad categories: the personal need to express ideas and feelings, and the community’s needs to assert common values. In the following sections, we’ll look at some of these motivations to more clearly understand and identify artist intent in the works of art that we encounter.

    We should recognize that every person has lived a unique life, so every person knows something about the world that no one else has seen. It is the job of artists today to tell us about what they have come to know—individually or as part their community—using the art material or medium most suited to their abilities. While copying the works of others is good training, it is merely re-working what has already been revealed. Originality, however, is more highly valued in contemporary art. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986, USA) explained her view on this matter when she wrote: (Figure 1.23)

    It was in the fall of 1915 that I first had the idea that what I had been taught was of little value to me except for the use of my materials as a language—charcoal, pencil, pen and ink, watercolor, pastel, and oil. I had become fluent with them when I was so young that they were simply another language that I handled easily. But what to say with them? I had been taught to work like others, and after careful thinking I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my life doing what had already been done. . . . I decided I was a very stupid fool for not to at last paint as I wanted to and say what I wanted to when I painted.5

    5 O’Keeffe 1976, unpaginated.


    Figure 1.23 Series 1, No. 8, Artist: Georgia O’Keeffe, (Public Domain, "Prosfilaes")

    1.5.1 The Personal Need to Create

    Many works of art come out of a personal decision to put a feeling, idea, or concept into visual form. Since feelings vary widely, the resulting art takes a wide range of forms. This approach to art comes from the individual’s delight in the experience. Doodling comes to mind as one very basic example of such delight. Pollock’s Abstract Expressionist works, also known as action paintings, are much more than doodles, though they may resemble such on the surface. (Autumn Rhythm-Number 30, Jackson Pollock:; Number 10, Jackson Pollock: They were the result of many levels of artistic thought but on a basic level were a combination of delight in the act of painting and in the personal discovery that act enabled.

    Some art is intended to provide personal commentary. Artworks that illustrate a personal viewpoint or experience can fulfill this purpose. Persepolis, a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi (b. 1969, Iran) published in 2000, recounts her experiences and thoughts during the 1979 Iranian revolution, and is an example of such personal commentary. (Keys to Paradise: Satrapi is a leading proponent of the graphic novel, a new approach to art making. In an ironic critique of how different parts of Iranian society were affected by war, Satrapi compares the contorted figures of Iranian youth dying in a combat zone explosion with the dance movements at her high school celebration.

    Artworks can be created thus as a means of exploring one’s own experience, a way of bringing hidden emotions to the surface so that they may be recognized and understood more clearly. The term for this process is catharsis.

    Cathartic works of art can arise from perceptions of grief, good, evil, or injustice, as in The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1791-1824, France), which was an indictment of the French government of his day following the sinking of a ship. (Figure 1.24) When Whistler, on the other hand, became a proponent of “Art for art’s sake,” he was rejecting outside influences such as contemporary artistic and social standards in order to “purify” art of external corruption. (see Figure 1.18) The idea of removing influence from the creation of art is a modern one. Much of the art made before the nineteenth century was produced with the support and under the direction of religious, political, and cultural authorities in the larger community.


    Figure 1.24 The Raft of the Medusa, Artist: Jean Louis Théodore Géricault, (Public Domain)

    1.5.2 Communal Needs and Purposes

    Across history and geography, we see religious and political communities that remain stable despite constant pressure from both internal and external sources. One way in which communities maintain stability is in the production of works of art that identify common values and experiences within that community and thus bring people together.

    Architecture, monuments, murals, and icons are visible guides to community participation in the arts and often use image-making conventions. A convention is an agreed upon way of thinking, speaking, or acting in a social context. There are many kinds of conventions, including visual conventions. A good example in visual art would be a conventional sense of direction. In Western cultures, text is generally read left to right. Therefore, when they look at artwork, Western viewers tend to “enter” a picture on the upper left and proceed to the right. Objects that appear on the left side of an image are thought to be “first,” while ones that appear on the right are thought to be “later.” Since Asian texts follow a different convention, and tend to be read right to left, an Asian viewer would unconsciously assume the opposite.

    Architecture, especially of public buildings, is an expression of a community’s values. Courthouses, libraries, town halls, schools, banks, factories, and jails are all designed for community purposes, and their shapes become strongly associated with their function: the architectural shapes become conventions. The use of older styles of architecture can be as references to the values of previous cultures. In the United States, for example, many government buildings are designed with imposing stone facades using classical Greek and Roman columns that symbolize strength and stability. Federal government buildings such as the United States Capitol and the Supreme Court (Figure 1.25) were designed so that the community would associate ancient Greek and Roman ideals of virtue and integrity with the activities inside those more modern buildings.

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    Figure 1.25 U.S. Supreme Court Building, Photographer: US Government Employee, (Public Domain)

    Many twentieth-century architects, however, have followed the guiding principle of American architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924, USA), that “form follows function.” In his design of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius (1883-1969, Germany) rejected superfluous decoration and focused instead on the efficient and functional use of space and material. (Figure 1.26) The leading school of art, craft, and architecture in Germany from 1919-1933, the teachings of the Bauhaus, or “construction house,” have strongly influenced domestic and industrial design internationally since that time.


    Figure 1.26 The Bauhaus Building in Dessau, Germany, (Public Domain, "Mewes")

    Communities can remind citizens of public virtues by commemorating the individuals who displayed those qualities in monuments. Since ancient times, they have commonly been statues of such individuals placed on pedestals, columns, or inside architecture. The Equestrian Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni by Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488, Italy) is a good example of this type of monument. (Figure 1.27) Created for the city of Venice, Italy, during the Italian Renaissance, the sculpture of Colleoni on horseback shows him as the bold and victorious warrior he was. But The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917, France) and Vietnam War Memorial by Maya Lin (b. 1959, USA) are monuments that violate that longstanding norm. Rodin placed the burghers, or leading citizens, on ground level to humanize the six men who offered themselves as sacrifices to save their city; he did so in order to bring their internal struggles down to the viewer’s eye level. (Figure 1.28) Lin’s memorial is below ground level, and displays the names of the approximately 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War. (Figure 1.29) These choices reflect the belief that the Vietnam War was initially conducted “beneath the surface,” that is, unknown to most Americans, and to remind visitors that its cost was paid by real individuals, not anonymous soldiers. These two works of art are unconventional and original in their conception and execution.


    Figure 1.27 Colleoni on Horseback, Artist: Andrea del Verrocchio, (CC BY-SA 3.0, "Waysider1925")


    Figure 1.28 Burghers of Calais, Artist: Auguste Rodin, (CC BY 3.0, "Razimantv”)

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    Figure 1.29 Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, Artist: Maya Lin, (CC BY-SA 3.0, "Mariordo”)

    Since ancient times, murals, paintings on walls, have been created in both public and private places. Ancient Egyptians combined images with writing in wall paintings to commemorate past leaders. Some of these murals were intentionally erased when the leader fell out of favor. Roman murals were more often found inside homes and temples. The Roman mural located in a bedroom of the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor was unearthed in Pompeii, Italy. (Figure 1.30) It depicts landscape and architectural views between a row of (painted) columns, as if viewed from inside the villa, or country house.


    Figure 1.30 Cubiculum (bedroom) from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, Author: Rogers Fund, (OASC, Met Museum)

    The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519, Italy, France) and the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo (1475- 1564, Italy) are murals from the Italian Renaissance. They were created for a wall in a refectory, or dining hall, of a monastery (Figure 1.31) and for the ceiling of the Pope’s chapel. (Figure 1.32) Both depict crucial scenes in the teachings of the Catholic Church, the leading European religious and political organization of the time. Because many people at the time were illiterate, images played an important role in educating them about their religious history and doctrines.

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    Figure 1.31 The Last Supper, Artist: Leonardo da Vinci, (Public Domain, "Thebrid")

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    Figure 1.32 The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Artist: Michelangelo, Author: Patrick Landy, (CC BY 3.0)

    More modern examples of murals can be found around the world today. Diego Rivera (1886-1967, Mexico) was a world-renowned artist who executed large-scale murals in Mexico and the United States. His Detroit Industry murals consist of twenty-seven panels originally installed at the Detroit Institute of Arts. (Figure 1.33) The two largest panels depict workers manufacturing a V8 engine at the Ford Motor Company factory. Other smaller panels show advances in science, technology, and medicine involved in modern industrial culture, portraying Rivera’s belief that conceptual thinking and physical labor are interdependent. These works are now considered a National Landmark. The Great Wall of Los Angeles designed by Judith Baca (b. 1946, USA) and executed by hundreds of community members is thirteen feet high and runs for more than one half mile through the city. (The Great Wall of Los Angeles, Judith Baca: great-wall_m.jpg) Its subject is the history of Southern California “as seen through the eyes of women and minorities.”6 The mural is part of a larger push in Los Angeles to adorn public spaces with murals that inform and educate the populace.

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    Figure 1.33 Detroit Industry, North Wall, Artist: Diego Rivera, (Public Domain, “”)

    The term icon comes from the Greek word eikon, or “to be like,” and refers to an image or likeness that is used as a guide to religious worship. The holy figures depicted in icons are thought by believers to have special powers of healing or other positive influence. An icon can also be a person or thing that symbolically represents a quality or virtue. A good example is the image of St. Sebastian. St. Sebastian was a captain of the Roman guard who converted to Christianity and was sentenced to death before a squad of archers. (Figure 1.34) He survived his wounds, and early Christians attributed this miracle to the power of their religion. (He was later stoned to death.) In the late Middle Ages during widespread plague in Europe, images of St. Sebastian were regularly commissioned for hospitals because of the legend of his miraculous healing and the hope that the images would be curative.

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    Figure 1.34 The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, Artist: Giacinto Diana, (Public Domain)

    An example of a non-religious or secular icon might be the bronze bust of the famous football coach Knute Rockne at Notre Dame University in Indiana. (Figure 1.35) The nose of the bronze sculpture is bright gold because many consider it good luck to rub it, so it receives constant polishing by students before exams.


    Figure 1.35 Knute Rockne, Artist: Nison Tregor, Author: Matthew D. Britt, (CC BY-SA-NC 3.0)

    We have touched only briefly on the questions of what art is, who an artist is, and why people make art. History shows us people have defined art and artists differently in various times and places, but that people everywhere make art for many different reasons. And, these art objects share a common purpose: they are all intended to express a feeling or idea that is valued either by the individual artist or by the larger community.

    This page titled 1.4: Why do We Make Art? is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Pamela Sachant, Peggy Blood, Jeffery LeMieux, & Rita Tekippe (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) .