What Is Art?
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
(Oath of the Horatii, Jacques-Louis David, 1784, Louvre, Paris, France.)
Hello again and welcome back to Carivaggio.
I know it has been a few weeks since I have posted a blog and as the time went on I was becoming more obsessed with making my return post perfect. I was stuck - writer's block to the millionth degree.
So I decided to come on here and talk to you straight from my own brain. No research or hard facts. Just my knowledge and my thoughts straight from the source.
Recently I have been reading books about art philosophy. So many people in the past have tried to answer the question "What is Art?". An impossible one , right? Art is so fluid and its depth waxes and wanes as history continues. Art makes different impressions on different people. For me, Contemporary art is hard to grasp onto, but for others it is where they find the most truth. Today, I am about to tell you how what art means to me as an aspiring art historian.
On a warm spring day in Rome, I walked into Villa Borghese, saw Bernini’s Rape of Persepina and can still vividly remember those few moments with breathtaking clarity. I fell in love. How could one man breath such life into cold marble? After my bewilderment, I wandered into a room where six Caravaggio paintings hung elegantly against the lavish walls. Thoughts of Bernini’s work instantly moved to the back of mind. The love I had for Bernini’s work was a carnal love; yet, what I instantly felt for Caravaggio’s work cut deeper.
I was absolutely captivated by Caravaggio. To see a timeline of his work right in front of my eyes was astonishing. I wanted to learn more about his paintings, his life, his demons, his inspiration, and his muses. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is one of the most iconic Italian painters of all time, alongside his Renaissance predecessors like da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. But the man was more than just his art, and his mysterious and often dark way of life cements him as a true enigma of art history.
My fascination with Caravaggio exposed for me the relationship between art and history, that art is physical evidence of the past and a crucial variable in understanding how history unfolded. I pursued the history of art because I knew that art was not simply aesthetic decoration, but pieces of the past that deserve greater examination.
I have always been a visual learner. I needed tangible examples to understand concepts. I always thought something was wrong with me as I found it hard to grasp simple math and scientific concepts like everyone else could. I just could not comprehend how to take numbers, mix them all together and get an answer out of nowhere. But then I found art. I could learn the most important historical concepts and literally see them unfold in front of my eyes- Tangible markers of history. I could feel around, observe, and absorb. I was finally connecting with my learning in a way that I had not experienced before.
This is why I am so connected to historical art (and here I really mean any work produced before the 20th century). I started to learn that the more I invested in each piece, the more it gave back to me. I believe that you cannot understand art if you are not dedicated to its learning. Take any of my previous posts - would anyone know that Leonardo spent 12 years on the Mona Lisa's smile if they had not studied his life. What about Caravaggio. How could anyone understand the anguish that ran through his brushstroke because of his deep conflicting personal identity, if they had not given any time to understand him. Each piece has layers, and you cannot unlock them if you have no key.
I feel that so many people see art as an aesthetic addition in their life. It is just a fact that art is all around us and it is our right to observe it as human beings. This is false. From the Caves of Lascaux to the Frescos of Pompeii art was used to tell stories and to LEAVE stories behind. Yes there is art that shocks us, inspires us, terrifies us, and intrigues us - but at the end of the day they are telling someone's story.
I also believe that art does not stand alone. It teaches us about human experiences. In general, each work of art is connected to the next in a great timeline. But in a deeper sense, the art would not exist without the artists and, no matter what, we always see the artist in their work. Think about Michelangelo painting himself in The Last Judgement or van Gogh's everlasting self portrait - these people want to be as much a part of history and their art. As the historians, it is our job to connect the art with the artist, and create the whole picture for ourselves. I am dedicated to learning about art - and I hope that these posts can help you become dedicated too. I wish for more people to stop thinking about the Mona Lisa as a cultural icon and see her an everlasting historical marker - a fossil if you will. Not only can we learn so much about an artist through their work but also about historical context! This is why I am so passionate about giving you the tools to analyze works of art, so you too can further appreciate and understand what art means by itself and in a greater historical sense.
Art does not exist without history, just as history is not complete without art. The mystery of the inner workings of Pompeii begin to be un-shrouded through its frescos, and our knowledge of Napoleon or Henry VIII would be robbed of crucial detail if we did not have their portraits to dissect. Each painting, sculpture, or fresco has its own story and storyteller, yet it is part of one giant timeline that makes up the history of our world. The art historian places themselves in a moment in history and must connect it to something larger. Art is for those who want to know - and for those who want to believe.
And there you have it folks - a bit of personal art philosophy from yours truly. Below I have put in some paintings that have inspired me on my journey and I hope they can inspire something in you as well.
Thanks for sticking with me -
Jesus Christ the Pantocrator, 1261, deesis mosaic at Hagia Sofia, Istanbul, Turkey.
Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, 1477-1482, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.
The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch, 1503-1515, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain.
The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533, The National Gallery, London, England.
The Cardsharps, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1594, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.
The Calling of Saint Matthew, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1600, Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, Italy.
Rape of Proserpina, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1621-1622, Borghese Gallery, Rome, Italy.
The Swing, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1767, Wallace Collection, London, England.
Bal du moulin de la Galette, Pierre-August Renoir, 1876, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France.
Nighthawks, Edward Hopper, 1942, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois. (Although this is a picture done in the 20th century, I love it and think it reflects the isolating time we are in at the moment).
*I DO NOT OWN ANY OF THESE IMAGES* all images acquired from Wikipedia