It's not easy to pin down exactly what art is. The dictionary defines it as the display application and expression of skill. Plato called it the imitation of how things really are. Many notable artists have described it as the creation of truth or expression of thought. Seneca saw it as an attempt at immortality when he wrote that life is short, yet art is long.
Art is unlike other cultural mediums. This is one of the reasons why it is so important.
Films, books, lore and music all gain value from reproduction. The more copies exist, the more successful they are. Anyone can download a song, book or film for free and the perceived value of it is no different to the paid version.
That isn't the case with art. A reproduction of a painting is almost worthless compared to the original. A forgery is only valuable if people believe it is real. No image of a painting on a screen can come close to seeing the actual work. Artists and galleries are careful to keep it that way.
Whereas most elements of our culture belong within an everyday context, art is something we see in galleries. This is a specific experience in a specific place with a specific purpose. Most people read, listen to music and watch films every day, though few go to an art gallery that often. Most people own books and films though a smatter have fine art hanging on their living room walls. Perhaps a print or poster, worth little more than the paper used to print it. Maybe even a limited edition print ( a form of false rareness) with a signature on one corner. Still, nothing compared to the original. A replica cannot hold the thoughts of the artist who managed to convey what they saw. The difficultly associated with passing off a forgery as genuine lies in the fact that a painting is more than oil on canvas. It is its history, its story, its scandals.
Fine art is significant because of its exclusivity, and how that exclusivity makes it all the more accessible. Few people can afford to spend millions on a piece of art, so much of the most important pieces are in galleries. Most galleries have free admission for at least some of their exhibitions. Even the paid exhibitions do not tend to cost much more than a cinema ticket or paperback book. It's often possible to buy a yearly membership for about the same cost as a Netflix account. Access to galleries does depend on where you live. If you're reading this then the chances are that you live in a country with them.
A lot of people consider the high prices art tends to sell for to be ridiculous. There is always a backlash when a new record is set. A piece sells for £50 million, £80 million, £100 million and people get angry. Part of this comes down to our collective inability to be realistic about the concept of value. A pile of bank notes only means something when someone decides it does. To say that a painting is not 'worth' the price it sells for is to miss the point altogether. The value of something is not an inherent property of it. Value (of any type) is something we create. Sometimes society in general fabricates it. Sometimes we assign certain people to decide on it. The value of a piece of art is not that useful in this discussion. It is undeniable that art has an important role within our economy. That is not the sort of value I am discussing. A piece of art's true value is something we translate into a price in an attempt to quantify it.
This is one of my personal favourite pieces of art. 'Saint George Slaying the Dragon', painted by Paolo Uccello somewhere between 1450 and 1470 (sources vary.) You can see it for free in the National Gallery, room 58. If you are ever in London, go and see it. If you have been there before, the chances are that you haven't noticed such a small painting, so go again. It's an odd piece and a bit of stylistic mess. In fact, it's so far removed from artistic norms that its authenticity has been contested. The four characters (princess, Saint George, horse and dragon) are strange, deformed creatures. Their faces are blank and lack much real emotion. Around them is a confused landscape, with patchy grass, a jagged cave and stormy sky. Uccello was a bit of an oddball artist whose work is jarring compared to that of his contemporaries. Today, most people know him for his obsession with perspective. You might have ruled lines on photocopies of his work in art lessons when studying how to construct a vanishing point.
The first time I saw it as a child, I remained in front of the canvas for a full hour without moving an inch. I took a break, then returned for another hour. Since then, I have returned each year to see it again. It is both an old friend and a confusing stranger. Some day, I might tire of it. That day has not yet come.
In this painting, Uccello uses his characteristic vanishing point and formulaic perspective. The bisection of the dragon's wing and cave signal where that precise point from which everything emerges is. Square patches of grass lead the eye towards this singularity. From there, the tip of the dragon's wing points to a gathering storm in the sky. The eye of the storm aligns with St George's lance as it pierces the dragon's eye. Our focus then follows the leash held by the princess, around the cave edge and back to the vanishing point. Compared to his earlier works, it is stiff and muted. There's not much drama or passion involved.
I love this painting, and many others from the same era, because of how removed from reality they are. The 1400s and 1500s must have been a bizarre time to live. What era in human history was not? These were the early days of the Renaissance, a time when religion was the centre of society. The paintings lean away from realism. They teem with elements of fantasy. Only it wasn't fantasy back then- it was what people believed in.
We don't know a tremendous amount about life back then. We can know the vague, technical facts; names of a handful of significant people, who ruled and for how long, which empires fell and which began. We know this was when Columbus landed in America, Middle English began to form into the language we use, Joan of Arc fought and was burnt at the stake. We know that Uccello painted against a backdrop of conflict. Italy in the 15th century was wrought by warring city states. Different leaders fought for power and conflict was endless.
We have a sketch, little more than an outline. No one can ever know what life was actually like, or how people thought or failed. Then again, we can never know what anyone else thinks or feels, even now.
We don't have many stories from that era. But we have art. This was the era of Jan Van Eyck, Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Botticelli, Donatello and others. Their paintings, sculptures, friezes and mosaics have survived to tell their stories. They tell us how they saw themselves, what mattered to them, how the world looked back then. A momentary glimpse of their perspective remains encased in resin.
Uccello has left us with his paintings and that is just about all. Very little is actually known of his life. Most of his paintings are identified based on style, not documentation. We know that he cared more about creating depth on a canvas than he did about forming a story, and was criticised for that. Other artists (like Da Vinci) took his ideas and made them more palatable which is why they have survived to become a part of how we understand the world. We know that he loved his daughter and her own art, although none of it survives so we can't know if she painted like him or had her own style. We know that old age hit him hard. He suffered towards the end of his life and struggled to continue working.
We can try to create an image of a bearded Italian man working all night in his studio, frustrated that his peers could not accept his ideas, arguing with his wife when she called him to bed, ignoring his daughter until she learned to attract his attention through her own art. I imagine him sketching vanishing point lines in his mind over every horizon he saw. Seeing the world as a sum of shapes, shadows and lines. Searching for secrets which were still yet to be found.
Art provides a record of much of human history. It is, after all, what we design to survive. Art is not meant for use or wear. We create it with the intention of it lasting. It gets preserved and winds up in galleries centuries later. Once there, it tends to remain in galleries for good. Experts preserve it, and archives hold what can't fit on the walls.
Looking back at art from the past has another purpose. It reminds us that we will be okay. Somehow, humanity has survived terrible leaders, natural disasters, conflict and unrest time and time again. People survive it all. The events are moralised and then turned into majestic works of art to celebrate those who win by living or by ending the lives of others.
To walk through any large gallery is to confront centuries of human confusion and suffering, intermingled with triumph and progress.
Tolstoy wrote that, "Art is not a pleasure, a solace, or an amusement; art is great matter. Art is an organ of human life, transmitting man's reasonable perception into feeling."
We need art more than ever at this point in history. Not just to keep creating it, also to keep looking back at and valuing that which came before. More education about it, more time in galleries, even more accessibility. It's the best balm we have for our current times.
This is a time in history when people chose to only experience things which will benefit themselves. We have enough options to only select those which seem appealing, because attention (rather than information) is a commodity.
Best selling books are usually about getting rich, loosing weight and becoming more popular. The same goes for the articles which are most circulated. Simple, image heavy clickbait which gets forgotten a second after reading. If the reader can't imagine it will somehow benefit them, it will not get read. Films, TV shows, books and podcasts rely on shock factor to ensnare viewers. It comes down to a need to compete for attention.
The same is happening to modern art. The concept of art has become broader and less clear. We hear about the subversive works. Tracey Emin throws taboos in our faces. Yayoi Kasuma pulls us into her mind through rooms filled with pulsing lights. Anthony Goldsworthy manipulates the natural world into something more logical. Modern art is far more focused on complex concepts than on simple aestheticism.
Artists from Uccello's era (the Renaissance) tried to capture the truth of being. To look at any portrait from then is to see the artist grasping to capture the essence of the sitter. Many take obsessive care over tiny details. This was art which sought to push the limits of human capabilities, utilise new techniques and portray the divine. It is art created for the sake of beauty. That is very different to the core values of relatibility and utility which our culture is now based on.
Personally, I believe in art for the sake of art. As a writer, I often find myself torn between writing what I want to write, and writing what people will read. It's a confusing conflict which most creative people face. Looking at art from centuries ago reminds me to
Fine art is a crucial, lingering reminder that creativity can exist for its own sake. It isn't always about making money or pleasing other people. Sometimes it matters that we make art for our own benefit - art which is exploratory, cathartic and exists for its own sake. It also matters that we keep looking back at the art made by people before us. Not just because it is beautiful, but because it can inspire us to make the future more beautiful.