Praeger Picture Encyclopedia of Art: A Comprehensive Survey of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture and Crafts, Their Methods, Styles and Technical Terms, from the Earliest Times to the Present Day

By Frederick A Praeger | Go to book overview

Art -- its Nature, Forms and History
1. MICHELANGELO, The Creation of Man, ceiling painting in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome

IT IS DIFFICULT to define art in a single sentence. Its aim is to express emotions, experiences and ideas that are beyond the reach of language. There would probably be no painters or sculptors if everything they wished to say could be conveyed in a few well-chosen words. If art, then, is entirely concerned with what cannot be expounded, how can we define its true character? Language can do no more than circle around the kernel of the problem. Nevertheless, there has been no lack of attempts at explanation from Antiquity to modern times.

Medieval thinkers based their interpretation of art on the philosophy of Plato and St Augustine. For them, this meant that there should be a harmonious relationship between the part and the whole. There was no question of the imitation of Nature in either the theory or the practice of art. Such ideas did not come to the fore until the Renaissance, when art was made to reflect man's newly-awakened sensuous approach to the natural world about him. The copying of Nature -- based on the philosophy of Plato's pupil Aristotle -- has continued in favour up to the present day and prevents many people from having access to wide realms of creative art. It was an entirely misleading theory, which could not truly widen the art of Classical Antiquity or even that of the Renaissance; it was strongly opposed by the protagonists of the Romantic Movement (c. 1800), who rightly maintained that artistic creation depended on the imagination and that the latter was not required for the mere copying of Nature. Nineteenth-century naturalism was, it is true, once again less interested in imagination, and Zola's famous dictum that art was 'Nature seen through the individual temperament' gained ground everywhere. But here the individuality of the artist is at least allowed to inform his work, even though its purpose is still to mirror Nature.

None of these explanations is completely right or completely wrong; each is only a half-truth and can at most characterize the art of a certain epoch; they do not explain the phenomenon of 'art' itself. If we survey the field of creative art, we see at once that, besides the artist who 'forms', there must be substance which can be given form. The raw material -- the sculptor's block of marble, the artist's paints, the mason's load of stone -- has to be brought to life. A wooden building of necessity differs from one made of ferroconcrete. A rigid Egyptian statue owes its form to granite and basalt just as the Gothic Madonna owes

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