What does the development of art tell us about the way we perceive the world?
To a large extent, art has a momentum of its own, and moves forward just as a result of new artists introducing new concepts and techniques to the art world, or as a result of new media being used to express their ideas. But art is also a reflection of the society that produces it, and as it changes, so does the way we represent our thoughts artistically. This means we can learn a lot about the outlook of different societies – be they different societies from historical eras, or different societies by virtue of geography – examining their artistic achievements.
Below are five different artistic movements or achievements, with some ideas on what they reflect about the society that produced them.
The change from two-dimensional art to perspective-based art
One of the biggest leaps forward in technique was the incorporation of perspective into frescoes, drawings, and paintings. This moved art on from the rather two dimensional appearance – one of the characteristics of medieval art – to a much more realisitic appearance – which was in turn one of the characteristics of renaissance art of the 15th and 16th century.
Although the change didn’t occur overnight, and had been attempted before – for example, rules of perspective were known to the Byzantines in the 11th and 12th centuries, and Giotto was drawing on it in the 13th century – it wasn’t until the 14th and 15th century that perspective was really ‘mastered’.
The fact that Renaissance artists relied on a careful interpretation of the laws laid down by the Greek mathematician Euclid (born around 300 BC) in order to employ perspective correctly. This re-use of classical knowledge was one of the reason we refer to this period as the Renaissance, or ‘re-birth’, as either new knowledge (brought from Constantinople after its capture by the Turks in 1453) or rediscovered classical knowledge was turned to again.
In addition, it says much about geo-politics of the time. Perspective was first employed successfully by the artists of Italy – specifically, Florence. This indicates the cultural importance of this region at this time, as merchants and artists built up Italy as the richest series of city states in the world.
Finally, the Renaissance was the time of the emergence of the individual, after the shared sense of community of the middle ages. Works of art, such as the great cathedrals, were projects designed and carried out cooperatively rather than by one person, and people’s psychological outlooks were based on the idea of being a faceless member of the multitudes. Perspective literally allowed artists to ‘jump out’ of the page, more effectively than ever projecting their ideas into the minds of their audience.
The plays of Shakespeare
To read or see performed Shakespeare’s plays is to be given a mirror into the late 16th and early 17th century psyche. His most famous play, Hamlet, has many themes and concepts showing how people’s outlooks were changing, and often involved sophisticated ideas we usually associate with later philosophical traditions.
This is apparent from the earliest stages of the play when Hamlet says to one of the guards on the walls of Elisore Castle:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
This allowance for different realities and perspectives on the world is developed later in the play when Hamlet says to Rosencrantz, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”, which owes its ideas to Stoic philosophy. Hamlet’s famous ‘To be or not to be’ deals with the existential crisis typified by Jean Paul Satre in the late 20th century, likening as it does action to existence and inaction to death.
Towards the end of the play, Hamlet makes this speech:
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—
nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.
This reflects the fact that many renaissance thinkers of the time – notably the French writer Montaigne – were questioning the assumption that man was created by God in his image, and was able to choose his own nature. Instead, the characters in Hamlet are trapped by their natures, and unable to escape their instincts and personalities.
In Montaigne’s words:
Is it possible to imagine so ridiculous as this miserable and wretched creature, which is not so much as master of himself, exposed and subject to offences of all things, and yet dareth call himself Master and Emperor.
The poetry of the First World War
Although historians are now questioning the extent to which the ideas expressed in the ‘Great War’ poetry truly reflects the experiences of ordinary soldiers during the fighting (most poetry was written by men from the officer classes, and their outlooks were very different to those of the men), there is no doubt that this type of poetry tells us a huge amount about people’s psychological outlooks in the second decade of the Twentieth century.
Poetry written by men such as Wilfred Owen shows us how the unquestioning acceptance of orders from the ruling classes was now no longer an option – a real paradigm shift in how society viewed itself. Own and others felts that the leadership had needlessly sacrificed millions of men. He wrote bitterly, in his most famous poem (Dulce Et Decorum Est):
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardentfor some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
By using Latin, he parodies the classical education given to most upper and middle classes in Britain at that time, the words (from the Roman writer Horace) translating as ‘It is sweet and honourable to die for your country’.
Siegfried Sassoon was, if anything, more bitter about the war than Owen, turning his anger not just on the authorities, but also the people who celebrated what was happening: In ‘suicide in the trenches’ published in 1918 he wrote:
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
For many people, Sassoon among them, the experiences of the war led to a search for a new way of running a country, with many pledging their allegiance to socialism.
The art form that most extensively personifies the desires, ambitions, fears, and overall outlook of 20th century society is film. A film can say so much about the historical era that produced it, and, by extension, the mood of people at that time. There are many examples of this, including the films of the 1940s that hoped to drum up support for the struggle against Nazi Germany (see Olivier’s version of Henry V, The Dam Busters, Casablanca, Saboteur), the alien invasion films of the 1950s that reflected the US fear of communism (see The War of the Worlds), films supporting the fight for equal rights for black people in the late 1950s and 1960s (see In the Heat of the Night, The Great White Hope, To Kill a Mockingbird), and explicit films which showed society’s newly permissive views to sex in the 1970s (see Deep Throat, Emmanuelle).
There is never one preoccupation alone that film-makers of a particular period are interested in, but there is often one that overshadows the others. The events of September 11th 2001 still loom large in the cinema today, with the aftermath (invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, etc.) still being explored in many films. Examples include Reign Over Me, Fahrenheit 9/11, Brick Lane, World Trade Center, and The Hurt Locker.
Punk music – the existential crisis of the modern age
Punk music first appeared in the United States and Great Britain in the late 1970s. Punk was about a rejection of what rock and roll had become, with punk musicians feeling that it had been sold out by people compromising its original revolutionary philosophy. It also rejected mainstream culture and authority, coinciding in England with events such as the winter of discontent, the rise of inflation, and the general consensus that the government was ineffective and distant.
In the States, the most famous punk rock band was The Ramones, whose drummer, Tommy Ramone, said:
In its initial form, a lot of [1960s] stuff was innovative and exciting. Unfortunately, what happens is that people who could not hold a candle to the likes of Hendrix started noodling away. Soon you had endless solos that went nowhere. By 1973, I knew that what was needed was some pure, stripped down, no bullshit rock ‘n’ roll.
In the UK, the most ‘authentic’ sound of the punk movement (the word ‘authentic’ is a critical one in punk, being far more important than judgements of technical ability) was The Clash, a highly politicised band whose lyrics tackled issues such as racism and unemployment. In London calling, the band sing:
Come out of the cupboard, all you boys and girls
London calling, now don’t look at us
All that phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust
London calling, see we ain’t got no swing
‘Cept for the ring of that truncheon thing
This includes classic punk rock elements, such as an attack on authority and the fakeness surrounding (though not necessarily created by) a previous musical band – The Beatles.