Introduction

If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Role of Art in Society

1. To Support a Hierarchy

For much of human history, art has primarily been used to lend credibility to those in power: politicians, religious leaders, and big businesses. Artists crafted ceremonial costumes, tools, books, and temples to help these leaders impress their followers. You can see it in every culture and at every point in history. Art improves appearances: it gives these institutions an aura of validity. People and groups use art to gain confidence and influence, at times using it to include, at other times to exclude, and at times producing propaganda. It's a role that continues today in a variety of ways.

The ethics of this are always questionable. You may wonder how the blacksmith felt while hammering a sword for King Louis XVI,

 
or possibly what Anthony van Dyck thought of King Charles I, while painting his portrait:

Charles I, King of England, 16 years before his beheading.

 I think there's a certain Zen to focusing on the quality of your work, regardless of whether you really like the project. Maybe they hoped their art would inspire these people to be better.

2. To Please

A great deal of art is made and displayed just for fun. We enjoy it. This covers the vast majority of visual art, music, film, and comedy. It might sound frivolous (unimportant), but there's actually more to pleasure than simple relaxation. When we turn on a TV, or go to a gallery, cinema, or dance hall it's an opportunity to diffuse stress. We can put aside all our worries and responsibilities and enjoy life, in the present. We don't forget all our problems, but we can take the time to detach from them, making them more manageable, a process of emotional healing we call catharsis.

In some extreme cases, people use art as a form of escapism, burying themselves behind a book or computer screen to avoid the reality of their lives altogether. It's sad, and art is no substitute for life, but it's important to remember just how many lives are saved this way, as people suffer from depression, abuse, poverty, and a host of other social problems.

3. To Develop Identity

There are many elements that make up who we are: our families, towns, friends, our personal histories, our temper, our language, interests, etc. The art we choose to enjoy is another important aspect. Every day we decide how we want to appear to others, what clothes to wear, how to arrange our hair, etc. We don't simply want to look nice. We want to provide clues about who we are––quiet or loud, simple or sophisticated, professional or casual, friendly or menacing. People use art the same way, selecting music, clothes, books, and celebrity role models in a effort to boost their ego, to reinvent themselves in a new and better image. Art is often made and bought as a way to impress those within one's social circle, presenting an outward identity. We decorate our walls, anticipating the reactions of our friends and family. At the same time, by contemplating on an artwork, we can develop a more thoughtful interior identity.

4. To Document History

Every work of art is a document, reflecting the time in which it was made. It tells you about the artist, but it also tells you about the values and concerns of the society she lived in. Art might not be as detailed, clear, or factual as a history book, and it lacks the authority of an official government document. Art is a different kind of document, focusing on a culture's biggest priorities and interests, its loves and losses. We see, not just the past, but how we've changed since then.

5. To See Through Someone Else's Eyes

Art can expose us to the hardships of others, which we wouldn't normally see in everyday life. It can move us to sympathize (to share a common feeling) and empathize (to fully understand someone) with others. In this way art gives us a greater understanding of the world and teaches compassion (sĂșcit), whether you're looking through the artist's eyes, or through that of her subject.

6. To Criticize Society

Societies all over the world suffer from countless problems, many stemming from ignorance and greed. Some artists address these problems in their work, although they often despair at the efficacy of such attempts. It's hard to change people's minds, but art is one of the best ways to do it. It's hard to argue with the emotions you feel in a picture. Particularly, art-as-protest is a powerful way to give a voice to those who are invisible and marginalized.

7. To Ask Big Questions

The world we live in is filled with mystery, questions we may never answer. Astronomers struggle to understand the force that is causing our universe to expand. They say 95% of our universe is "dark matter." People struggle to find meaning in life. We wonder what our purpose is on Earth, if life is worth living. We worry if we're good enough, if we'll ever find peace. We don't know where we came from or where we're going. We panic at the thought of various disasters: a meteor collision, a new super virus, a nuclear war. So we use art to ask questions, and hope it may provide us some answers, or at least help us focus on our priorities.

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