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How-Do-You-Know about Art

Although art is not necessarily in the eye of the beholder, it is because there is such variety in human experience and a seemingly limitless individual imagination, that art includes such a wide range of expression. The human mind may find artistic expression in almost every endeavor - be it the tone of a song, notes of a flute, sweeping grace of a dance, arrangement of a garden, words of a story, logic of an argument, drama of a play, color of painting, curves of a sculpture, or glory of a monument. While the beauty of most art forms can be appreciated by all, it is often very difficult for people of one culture to understand art produced by another culture. This may be particularly true of modern people raised in western cultures because of an unfortunate tendency to regard art as non-practical, serving no function other than aesthetics.

In most cultures, however, art carries meaning and communicates certain views. In the western world where individual experience and action are so highly valued, the artist's meaning may be wholly personal. Nevertheless, even the most individualistic artists cannot remove themselves from their culture; their time-bound socio-cultural position influences their experiences and actions, and thus affects their artistic expression as well. In fact, aspects of modern culture may be well reflected in some narcissistic 20th-century art. For most cultures, in most periods of both prehistory and history, however, art has specific cultural, socio-political, or religious functions related to worldview, belief and identity. It is because artistic works carry meaning that the study of art is so important to understanding, or at least appreciating, other cultures and societies at all points in time. Without too much overstatement, it can be said that the arts are the windows to a people's cultural and social soul. Acquire some understanding of a people's art, and you will know something of their values and beliefs.

In a sense, trying to discover the meaning, or at least some sense of what the artist is attempting to communicate, is the same for all art forms at all periods in human history. By recognizing that art carries meaning, the consumer of art undertakes an assessment of the piece's symbols, emotions and thoughts it evokes, the social and cultural milieu of its construction, socio-political class of the artist, and the intended audience for the piece. Additionally, interpreting prehistoric art often carries its own set of assumptions and methods. In particular because temporal, cultural, and social distances are so great, understanding prehistoric art can be much more difficult. (Even art of western cultures can be difficult to interpret if it is too far-removed from the late 20th-century perspective.) Religious doctrines, political speeches, diaries, newspapers, museum catalogues, or other written records where symbols and meaning may be cross-referenced and described are simply not available. Almost everything about prehistoric art must be inferred on the basis of bits and pieces of facts gleaned from other sources. Archaeological sources for interpreting prehistoric art include the archaeological context of a find (i.e., where a piece was found and its association with other structures and artifacts), similarities to other archaeological patterns (e.g., house design, layout of a settlement), similarities and differences to other works of art, and - if available - the ethnographic and historical accounts of similar art produced by related cultures.

Moreover, it must be noted that throughout written history, art has been strongly tied to socio-political and religious views of the ruling elite. Most of us are aware, for example, how 20th-century American politicians manipulate symbols of power, associate themselves with past revered leaders, use terms from sports competition that convey strength and determination, or stage photo images to associate the leader with the issue of choice. The image of our leaders going to church with their family tells us they are humble and just people who love God and their family and rely on them for their strength. Quoting the eloquent writings of Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, or King ties their beliefs in a personal manner to our nation's proud past. Photo-opportunities of the leader listening to poor children speak of their lives in the ghetto, pushing their daughter on a swing, or helping to clean a beach soiled from an oil tanker spill convey the message of caring and concern. Places like Washington's Mount Vernon home, Jefferson's Monticello, the Tomb of the Unknowns, and other shrines of some culture's leaders and military heroes serve to acknowledge debt to these prestigious people, the "founding fathers," America's almost mythical "hero-ancestors." In short politicians use images and words of a shared past and present to confirm their positions in the eyes of non-leaders. Similar meanings of power and status are conveyed by symbols of office such as the gold Papal staff and the British jeweled-crown. Objects, images, and words are manipulated to confirm their position as leaders.

This is not to say that all art is entirely in the hands of the rich, political leaders, religious specialists, or other powerful people. Much art, its icons and symbols, are inclusive and available to most society members. Religious icons such as the crucifix, statue of the Virgin Mary, Buddha, or the mezzuza, for example, proclaim a household's religious devotion and may be incorporated into daily family rituals. It seems likely, therefore, that the meaning of much prehistoric art is directly related to validating a leader's socio-political and religious position. Therefore, any appreciation of the aesthetics of prehistoric art must be bounded by understanding how the representation of belief functioned in the socio-political and religious spheres. Finally, we must recognize that when we speak of prehistoric art, we are referring to only a very small segment of that culture's artistic expression. Most is not preserved in the archaeological record. Lost forever are the melody of a song, rhythm of a drum, suggestive eroticism of a dance, words of a myth, texture of a rug, and the color and design of a bird-feather headdress. Archaeology gives us much with which to piece together an understanding of past peoples, but much of the color and texture of their lives we can only imagine.

The following references provide archaeological and anthropological interpretations of non-western art.

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