Understanding Art: A look at isms’, Movements, and concepts through time

What is art? When we look at art what is it that we see? What do we look at? And how do we know if something is really art? All of these questions are as old as the word art. From time to time we find ourselves reexamining what makes art, art. Sir Roger Penrose, one of the foremost scientists of our time, when faced with a similar problem with regard to the definition of quite something else, viz. (即), consciousness (知觉), states in his The Emperor’s New Mind: “I do not think that it is wise, at this stage of understanding, to attempt to propose a precise definition of consciousness, but we can rely, to good measure, on our subjective impressions and intuitive common sense as to what the term means …” The same seems to hold for art: You know what it is, I know it, but a definition is quite something else.

Part of the reason it may be so hard to define art has to do with the fact that through time the means, methods and even styles of creating and producing art have changed. Art or at least what we know to be art today has not always been so. Items that we consider to be art today may not have been considered art at the time it was created. When we look at Prehistoric cave paintings, Greek pottery or even early medieval illuminations (中世纪照明), and so on – these objects were made at a time when the word art or even the concept of art that we have today did not exist. The words “art” and “artist” are actually modern terms which themselves have changed and developed over time.

Because of these reason art has and will continue to have an unsatisfactory definition. With no clear definition it is best to describe art not as what it is but how it is done. Artists are asked to describe their work as to the process which includes skill, environment, and imagination to name a few.

While this is true I will try to define art in the best way I can, piece by piece and one period at a time.

So what is art?

Part of the problem that comes from defining what art is comes from the fact that so little is known of the early cultures that produced objects that we know as art today. When we look at early art from the cave art to small stone carvings it is unclear of what if any of these objects may have been created for adornment and what was created as part of their need or beliefs. One reason for this may be that only a small portion of objects from that era have survived through time.

More is known of later civilizations: Ancient Egypt (古老埃及), Mesopotamia (美索不达米亚), Persia (波斯), India (印度), China (中国), Ancient Greece (古老希腊), Rome (罗马), as well as Inca (印加人), Maya (玛雅人), and Olmec, because these civilizations lasted longer and were much larger. Each of them developed their own styles and techniques (技术) of creating art that have influenced some of the art of even today. One of the factors for this is that it is during this time that we find some of the first records of how art is created during this time. It is these records that have been reserved. Another being that the size and materials used to create art of these eras has made it possible for the objects to last longer.

Though these civilizations created more elaborate works of art, it is clear that their concepts of art were still not what we consider them today. To them art was a skill that was learned, and artists were no more important then that of a carpenter or shoe maker. In late Antiquity the arts consisted of the seven “artes liberals”, the liberal arts (人文科学): Grammar (语法), Logic (逻辑), Rhetoric (修辞), Geometry (几何), Arithmetic (算术), Astronomy (天文), and Music (音乐). Philosophy (哲学) was the mother of them all. On a lower level stood the technical arts (技术艺术) like architecture (建筑学), agriculture (农业), painting (绘画), sculpture (雕塑) and other crafts. “Art” as we conceive of it today was a mere craft. It was considered a skill that one would learn.

During the Middle Ages (中间年龄) art was known as the “ape of nature”, the ape was a symbol for the arts of painting and sculpture. The artist’s skill was regarded as essentially imitative (模仿) and became linked with the animal known for its imitativeness. The idea was expressed in a popular saying, “Ars Simia Naturae”— Art is the ape of Nature.

It was not until the 15th and 16th century in Italy (意大利) that an object being known as a work of art emerged together with the concept of an artist. It was during this time known as the Renaissance (新生) that the word art developed as a collective term that encompassed painting, sculpture, and architecture. This was contributed in part by Italian artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century. Later Poetry and Music where added to this group which in the 18th century became known as the “Fine Arts” (艺术).

So how does art go from being known as a craft or skill during the ancient world and Middle Ages to that of what we know as art today? It was during the later part of the 16th century when the first academies of art were founded that artists were instructed in courses which included geometry and anatomy. From this was the term fine arts were developed. But even then the definition of what constituted art was narrow.

With the development of the academies art continued to make developments and during the 19th century new theories and claims were made about the ideas of painting and sculpture. In the mid-19th century modernist concepts and approaches were introduced. These ideas came with new subject matters, and included new areas of painterly values.

Near the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century rose the concept of “art for arts sake”. The term comes from an early 19th century French slogan ”l’art pour l’art”. Then in the early part of the 20th century artist such as Marcel Duchamp threw the world of art into frenzy. He claimed that all things are art and anything the artist does could be considered art. This mock of the classical ideas of art, while not accepted by all, gave room for a broader definition of what we define as art. This era marked an end to Modernism and opened a more umbrella term of contemporary to engulf the world of art. While there have been some smaller movements since the 1970s, the driving force for creating new movements in art have been secondary to the idea of creating art for business sake. Probably the greatest question today is weather or not art has new areas worthy of exploring or has it all already been done. The future of art is unknown.

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