Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Art as Reflection of Culture
Art has been produced by human beings throughout his existence. Even before recorded history one can find examples of art. In learning about the people who created them, art has been a very important factor, because art is not only about creating a thing of beauty. Oftentimes, art serves a dual purpose, which is to be beautiful and useful at the same time. As such, the idea of context can be quite useful in art. Context is the circumstances by which a work of art is created, which helps in fully understanding it. In essence, to fully understand why a work of art is the way it is one must understand the culture of the people who created it. Likewise, the work of art also informs us of the culture of the people who created it.
One of the oldest works of art that is still in existence is the Hall of Bulls in Lascaux, France. It is a depiction of not only bulls or aurochs but of wooly mammoths, reindeers, rhinos, and horses (Lazzari and Schleiser, 2011). An observer of the cave painting in the present would have a hard time understanding why these animals are the topic, but for the people who created them, the animals have a very strong significance. They were most likely hunter-gatherers who saw these animals not for their beauty, grace, or strength but a source of nourishment. So they are afforded with respect and adoration because they provide nourishment but are not readily available. There is somewhat a struggle to hunt and kill them so they afford them with respect. It is not so much man was capturing a prey but of the animal letting itself be captured so it becomes a way for man to be nourished. This is represented by the cave paintings that depict animals as noble even serene creatures.
The difference now is that when animals like these are depicted in art, they are not often depicted as food, or one viewing it would not have food as the first thing in mind. Even in the concept of food as animals, modern man does not really think that meat comes from a whole animal, only in small packages from the grocery store. So in order to get the context we must understand that these animals are revered and immortalized in the cave painting because they were a means for survival.
Another example of context showing being an essential part of a work of art is in the Palm Wine Calabash from Cameroon. The calabash or gourd is shown as highly decorated and stylized with beads, cloth, and cowry shells (Lazzari and Schleiser, 2011). In order to understand the work of art, one must again look into the context of the culture of the people who created it. Palm wine is a very important beverage for the people of this area, and is used for socialization. As such it is symbolizes unity, which is a very important factor considering the circumstances that they have to endure in Africa where nature does not provide abundant food. So working and living as a community is important, this is enhanced by the drinking of palm wine as a group.
The cowry shells that were used are very important because at one time or another it was a form of currency in Africa. The use of it in decorating the palm wine calabash is to signify that the owner of that object might have been a very important person. Or that the palm wine is worth is worth as much as the shells that it is adorned with. Another factor is that the palm wine that might have been stored there is of high quality, which means it adds importance to the gourd itself. Another way of looking at it would be to make the connection that palm wine is associated with high importance. Much like expensive wines and alcoholic drinks of our time that are sold in highly decorated bottles and boxes.
On the side of the sacred and religious importance of food, one of the best examples is the Silver Representation of a Maize Plant. The piece is rendered in silver and highly accurate with very fine details (Lazzari and Schleiser, 2011). Maize is a very important food crop for Incan Civilization that made this work of art. It is their staple food as well as being a key ingredient in making chicha a form of beer that is drunk in their many religious festivals. Silver on the other hand is a metal that the Incas prize also because of its religious significance. It is known as the tears of the moon and represents it. Gold by the way represents the Sun. The Incas were known as Sun and Moon worshippers. So rendering maize in silver clues us in on how important the foodstuff is the Inca people. It is a way of immortalizing an important object by rendering it in an equally important metal.