When you as a 13-year-old had your first history textbook and asked “WHY do we have to learn about those OLD times?” – you may have heard the standard teacher’s answer: In order to understand the present, you must know the past. Of course, most youngsters don’t find the answer convincing. At 13 there are plenty of interesting reality to discover and skills to acquire right in front of your nose. (Remember the first time you navigated your bicycle to the other side of town?) Later, however, you have hopefully discovered that your teacher had a point. You can benefit from knowing history on three levels: on the instrumental, on the cultural, and on the identity level.
Instrumental – a lab
You can see history as a great „laboratory“ of human behaviour – as a full-scale „experiment“! You can see how the genetically same species creates new circumstances which again create (new?) humans. From this development and course of events, the art of each period of time provides documentation. We know how certain people looked like thanks to portraits from the renaissance and onwards. By paintings (perhaps commissioned by the winner) we can see what a battle, say infantry with spears fighting knights, looked like.
Interesting for an artist could be seeing art history as a record of techniques. Also, you can see a variety of roles taken up by artists at different times. Many did pious religious paintings for the church and more or less servile portraits for the rich. But there were also other ways. Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) was a successful businessman with a logo that he protected. Martin Luther and fellow reformers opened a great market of protestant art for ordinary people on which the Cranach „dynasty“ of Wittenberg fed well.
Their culture – our culture
If you engage in contemporary art, you expect it to say something relevant about life as it is now. The same, of course, applies to previous art which was also once contemporary. In the 19th century, e. g., the affluent bourgeoisie loved to have their wealth depicted – the walls full of it, one image showing the lobsters you just ate, another perhaps showing the vehicles of the house and of course one showing the grand house itself. To-day those images are at best of interest as documentation.
But can art of previous times shed light on the culture we live in to-day? (As your teacher may have had in mind.) How does contemporary art do it? By presenting itself to the public, of course, but what happens next? Then there is the public square.
The public square
The public square is much loved and sometimes missed, in particular by intellectuals and other middle-class people. The public square is where the common opinion of a society is developed and articulated.
In a democracy it is the most important institution next to elections. I will say that the quality of the public square is as essential to the functioning of a society as are fair and reliable elections. Anyone going for a dictatorship (on behalf of himself or on behalf of a group) will seek to destroy the public square (knowingly or by instinct) by changing it from open to closed.
The individual use of art – sensing, being touched, and reflecting on it – rests in culture. If you are touched by van Gogh’s painting of a chair, you know that you are not alone. As long as a renaissance painting can undergo the same critique (interpretation and assessment relating to common values) as contemporary art, it is part of OUR culture.
Artwork of the fortnight
If you did not know the Mona Lisa, you would not be one of us. You can deepen your belonging to “us” by deepening your relation to this image and other classical artworks that made us who we are.
However, if you don’t want to be the spiritual descendant of Leonardo da Vinci and other great Europeans, you can cut off your roots. You will probably not reach a great magnitude and barely have further offspring.
Personally (by today’s reviewing) I find the combination of face and hands touching. Both face and hands express tranquillity and at the same time alert presence. If the face is the soul, and the hands are action, this is a person who is the one she should be and (therefore) does what she should do (and vice versa).