Art and Society

Art as a Mirror by Jeannine Cook

As we enter a year of elections, not only in the United States, but elsewhere in Europe and beyond, minds turn inevitably to all the contentious issues of left, right, roles of government, the place of religion in society, jobs and the economy and how to improve life for people. There is, nevertheless, an interesting aspect to national discourse as Jawaharlal Nehru once sagely remarked, "The art of a people is the true mirror to their minds".

I don't believe I have heard a politician, in recent years, ever talk about how the mood and ethos of his or her nation can be read by looking at the art produced. Yet, if you think about it, it is a very good indicator of a lot of things. Even the size of art that is being produced is often tied, to some extent, to the state of the economy! The content and styles of art produced reflect or herald issues and attitudes prevalent in the country. Artists are often barometers of society but also, having to earn their living, they try, to some extent, to produce art that is saleable because it provokes a favourable response amongst the viewing public. In recent times of bubble-affluence, quite different art was being heralded as marvellous to what is now "in fashion".

If one thinks back to pre-Renaissance times, for instance, when the Roman Catholic Church was pre-eminent in society, artists were far more likely to achieve success by securing commissions to paint altar pieces or works that celebrated religion and their patrons' religious devotion. As religious diversity spread through Europe, artists adapted and many more genres of art - from floral ebullience to landscapes to portraits and beyond - became the norm. People became more worldly, and their tastes were mirrored in their support and choice of art.

Whether it is Western art, Japanese art, that of Iran, India or elsewhere, down the ages, art helps us understand the evolution of that country's society. Art is the mirror by which today's historians, architects, fashion designers, interior designers and others can learn of what previous generations deemed important, how they lived, dressed and behaved, even what political and religious attitudes they espoused.

Margate Imperialists, 1930s Roy Eastland metalpoint drawing  (Courtesy of the artist)

Margate Imperialists, 1930s Roy Eastland metalpoint drawing  (Courtesy of the artist)

I am left wondering what future generations will deduce from today's art about the state of our societies, country by country. I have a nasty feeling that it will not be a pretty picture shown in many of the mirrors left by artists as the creative representatives of their nation. But, in the spirit of a New Year promising better days, I hope I am wrong!

Art as Magic Glue by Jeannine Cook

Christmas Eve is one of those moments in the calendar when each of us stops and thinks of family and friends, an important milepost as each year turns to a new one. As I write holiday messages and receive lovely cards of greeting, I am struck ever more forcibly by the realisation that art has been the magic which has created so many of these friendships.

If one ever doubted the universality of the power of art to communicate and celebrate, then it is at times like this holiday season that that doubt should be dissipated. From the beauty of music, choral or orchestral, to productions of the Nutcracker delighting audiences all over the world at this time, to exhibitions of beautiful art on the walls of museums and - in my personal case - to the sharing of the love of art, the links become a sparkling, complex yet elastic web. Diverse optics and backgrounds, languages and ages can all find common ground in enjoyment of art and - more generally - the arts.

The creation of art takes an interesting trajectory. Most times, the work of art is created as a private, personal expression of one person, a work often created in solitude and thought and often, flat-out hard work. But once created, that work takes wing and is launched into the wider world, where it can find an audience that ranges from totally indifferent to highly receptive and appreciative. Art is defined in Britannica Online as "the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments and experiences that can be shared with others." Man has been creating art in one form or another since time immemorial, with a diversity of goals that range from self-expression to pure creativity. Art can be used to express ideas, be they political, philosophical or spiritual, to evoke a sense of beauty, to explore perceptions, to generate a variety of emotions from pleasure to solemnity, awe or grief - or none of the above. Art for art's sake is a well-known concept in our times. Art, in any form, is nonetheless a form of communication that everyone can understand.

Today we all regard art as a universal language, irrespective of who exactly has ownership of the actual work of art. Copyright ownership is indeed important, for that forms part of the earning capacity of an artist, but nonetheless, there is a wider philosophical consideration that has been around for many centuries. Who truly "owns" a work of art, once it has reached the level of widespread recognition and appreciation? Many people consider art as an essential ingredient for human life, vital for a quality of life that is uplifting and beneficial. Thus, it is reasoned, art cannot just belong to a privileged few.

The first public museum was founded in 1753, in England, when Sir Hans Soane bequeathed a huge art collection to King George II for the benefit of the nation, a bequest which was ratified by an Act of Parliament for the creation of the British Museum.

Hans Sloane, Stephen Slaughter, 1736, (Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London)

Hans Sloane, Stephen Slaughter, 1736, (Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London)

Another early manifestation of this idea of art belonging to everyone was the creation, in 1793, of the first French public art museum, the Louvre. The King of France's magnificent collection of paintings, drawings, sculpture and other objects became the people's collection of art, housed in the Louvre and available to all for enjoyment and inspiration. Throughout the world, this lofty idea of art as a universal form of enriching communication was adopted. Thus, the great museums we know today, from Madrid's El Prado, (created in 1819), Berlin's Altes Museum, built in 1830 as the first of the collection of art and archaeological museums on Berlin's Museum Island , to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1870) in New York, came into existence. By the 20th century, the idea that art is an essential ingredient of human society was so widely accepted that Diego Rivera could declare categorically, "Art is the universal language. It belongs to all mankind."

Small wonder that on a personal basis, each of us artists find that the art we create proves to be a magical glue that unites us with a wide, diverse and wondrous community of friends, all sharing a love of art. What richness - and what a renewed gift at this time of seasonal celebrations. Happy holidays to you all, my friends and fellow art-lovers!

Art as a Mirror on the World by Jeannine Cook

In El Pais of 1st August, there was a long review of two books which had previously appeared in English - Julian Bell's Mirror of the World and 30,000 years of Art by various authors and published by Phaidon. These weighty reviews and compendiums of what, today, is deemed the most important, the best art, started me thinking about art as a general mirror of the world.

What each of us does as an artist is mostly work that comes to us as an expression of individual passion and concern, sometimes steered in one direction or another because the work is commissioned. Generally, however, the work reflects firstly each artist and secondly, the world around that artist. So in a way, each of us mirrors our own world, for good or bad. Artists who are more tuned in to the natural world will tend more to emphasise natural subject matter, urban artists often find their inspiration elsewhere. Today's world, however, becomes much more mixed up as more and more artists tap into the "world's contents, mingled in a vast collective potlach available by Internet, cell phone, TV, satellite and an ever-expanding inventory of connective gadgetry." (Art in America, March 2009) We can all avail ourselves of situations, sights, sounds, whatever, that we have never personally physically experienced. So the art-as-mirror idea potentially gets changed, perhaps distorted, potentially homogenised, worldwide.

Of course, you still have many, many artists quietly continuing to follow a personal vision and passion. Catherine Spaeth, art historian and art critic, in one of her pieces, talked of "the meanings generated by a work of art extend into the larger context of the world at large, and it is here as well that you are becoming art historical" Those meanings of the art generated reverberate out and speak to an audience willing to listen, to look, to ponder and evaluate. I am not sure artists set out always to address meanings/content to this end, but it happens nonetheless. As Emil Cadoo, the photographer working in the Sixties in Paris, once observed, "Only when an artist in any field touches universals can it last through time, can it survive the destruction of things."

Double Exposure, Emil Cadoo, c. 1960, (Image courtesy of phtographer)

Double Exposure, Emil Cadoo, c. 1960, (Image courtesy of phtographer)

Ultimately, it is for us artists simply to go on trying to work seriously, follow one's passion in creating the art that is important to us, as best we can. We will, even today in our ultra-connected world, be mirrors on our worlds, willy-nilly. And it will fall to those, like Julian Bell (artist and critic himself), or those at Phaidon who have selected the best works to represent artists for the last 30,000 years (quite a job!), to tell the next generations who (perhaps) are the best artists mirroring the world in which we all live. One does however have to season the selections a little, mindful of "Chacun à son goût"!