A sea of change – art over the years

The one constant in art is change. The form is in a perpetual state of revolution, evolving all the time, unaware at times of its importance to the human condition. Think about this: someone somewhere in the world today is contemplating a new idea, soon to be the author of a something breathtaking. A masterpiece awaits.

Art, being instinctive, has no start point and no end. It is cyclical, everlasting and has therefore existed since, well, forever. However, civilised man having a penchant for history, we can nevertheless document a snippet of cosmological time as determined by random, oh so very tiny conscious entities.

Perhaps we owe it to the debilitating condition of meaning. We like to frame things so as to give them meaning (whether there is any). As Man Ray once said: “I never think about art and I don’t think the old masters ever thought that they were creating art. They had to express the spirit of their times.”

It mirrors Hegel’s sentiment of philosophy, which is that it exists to “comprehend its own time in thought”. However, while that is true up to a point, it is important to note that their efforts also extend beyond the constraints of their own existence.

Art echoes throughout history – hand stencils blown on to walls some 40,000 years ago indeed capture the zeitgeist but also say something of the shared meditation felt by generations of people, as captured by the angel Damiel in Wim Wenders’ beautiful Film Wings of Desire:

“Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there? When did time begin, and where does space end? Is life under the sun not just a dream? Is what I see and hear and smell not just an illusion of a world before the world? How can it be that I, who I am, didn’t exist before I came to be, and that, someday, I, who I am, will no longer be who I am?”

That preoccupation has existed always though it hasn’t always been openly expressed. From liberty of ‘pre-thought’ to the burgeoning limitations of ‘self-awareness’ and then the return to freedom with enlightenment (and everything that followed), art has had to struggle with orthodoxy, censorship and fear.

For a long while, art was defined by religion, organised or otherwise. Early on it was deeply personal, undertaken to appease George Orwell’s demon. As the years went by, the church came to be a patron of the arts – a by-product of its power – and so religious art flourished. that

With the advent of kings and queens and emperors and empresses, art continued to reflect religion’s hegemony but also became an instrument of power, wealth and immortality of self-appointed leaders. Iconic paintings competed with portraits of tyrants and magnificent scenes of heaven with equally mesmeric landscapes on earth.
This changed with the lightning bolt of lucidity that came with the age of reason. We’d been walking blind, toiling away for nothing, accepting the order of things because that was how it had always been. Not anymore. Championing a return to individualism and campaigning against the monopoly of tradition, the thinkers of the time planted a rebellious seed that flowered into a liberty of being.

Art developed to be more than just a tool of reverence, a way of capturing a(n idealised) moment, but as a weapon, social commentary, critic, journalism even. It also flourished in the ways in which it could be executed – artists felt liberated to explore different ways of painting a scene. Why not, for example, capture an impression? Such moments of discovery astound.

From this emerged modernism (still an unravelling epoch, some argue), a radical deviation from the norm. Here we witnessed expressionism, paint as a record of an emotion; cubism as a reaction to photography’s ability to accurately capture the past (everything is a moment lost in a picture); and surrealism as an exploration into the dark recesses of our soul.

So what of today and the future? Nothing new perhaps but something novel perhaps; because, if you recall, the only constant is change. Over to Pablo Picasso: “The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.”

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