For several years, I've been trying to find answers about how and why we artists arrived at this way of thinking and painting. Sure, I've taken courses in art history and read a bunch of books, but that really didn't answer my existential question. I learned about who created what art and when. You might wonder why this even matters to me. It's because I learned how to paint through formal instruction: lectures (one person's interpretation), rules, critiques (subject to one person's opinion), and studying paintings in museums and galleries. So, you might say that I just learned to accept what I'd been taught and didn't pull back the curtain to see what's behind it. If I don't pull back the curtain, I can't understand enough to find my way in art. After all, it wasn't until Dorothy saw Oz' "wizard" unveiled that she could find the way home. I'm trying to find my way home, too.
A few years ago, when I was teaching a college class, I briefly interrupted my own lecture and asked my students: "Do you believe what I just said simply because I'm the prof and I said it?" They sat in silence for awhile before someone offered the opinion that I was the expert and so it made sense that they should believe what I say. I told the class that, while I appreciated their respect, they should always challenge me. Ask me "How do you know that?" And, challenge themselves - do some additional research and see if I am correct. Maybe I'm not. After all, I don't know everything so the probability that I'll make a mistake is pretty high.
So, I'm challenging what I've learned and searching for answers. I found the book Art Theory: An Historical Introduction by Robert Williams and it's leading me down a path that might help me arrive at my destination. Perhaps you've already read it. The author is concerned with the history of "thought" about art and I'm beginning to understand how we artists got HERE. How I got here. Most of you are probably way ahead of me and know this stuff already. But, for those of you who aren't, I hope you'll travel with me through these next posts as I strive to find the answer. I realize that this book is the opinion of only one man, but it makes a great deal of sense to me. So, let's take a look at the deep roots of art "thought":
One thing that struck me is the enormous influence of ancient Greek and Roman art theory throughout millenia. Talk about having an impact! These ancients valued the artist's ability to create images in 2-D that seemed like the real thing in 3-D. They also valued paintings that moved beyond the suggestion of physical forms to express emotions and passions. And, they valued story-telling in art. All of these attributes of art are valued even today in one way or another. I'll guess that this is because it's human nature to find pleasure this way.
Today, we're used to superstar artists who are rich and famous. That occurred in ancient times, too, but only rarely. For instance, the artist Zeuxis got so rich from his paintings that he had his name embroidered in gold thread around the hems of his togas. The "rest" of the ancient artists were considered manual craftsmen and didn't make much money.
It's also interesting to me that artists back then weren't considered eccentric, like many are today. Instead they were deemed competitive, arrogant, and obsessive. Hmmmmm....
The over-arching thought was that art imitates nature. But, the ancients didn't just try to precisely replicate what they saw in their paintings. Instead, they believed in creating "ideal" forms. According to Plato, the "ideal" is also beautiful, and beauty was the goal. But, Pythagoras - who lived a century before Plato - believed that beauty is found in mathematics, and that math gives us the perfect proportions and symmetry of beauty. Actually, his thought wasn't original because a sculptor named Polykleitos, who lived in the mid-fifth century BCE, produced the Canon, which is a perfectly proportional statue of a man based upon mathematics.
There's more which I'll discuss later. So, what parts of ancient thoughts about art influence me today?
- creating 2-D illusions that have both emotional and story-telling content
- beauty in mathematics applied to art (proportion and symmetry)
- beauty? yes and no to that one
I'll string these threads through the next posts until we get to "today!"
P.S. The title of the painting I posted is The Egg Came First. This w/c painting was in response to a painter friend who thought the chicken came first. My argument: a fertilized egg is the product of sexual reproduction where chromosomes from the male and female must combine to form a new chicken. So, at some point a unique combination of chromosomes within an egg gave us the first modern chicken.