80 | The human urge to express

Turn The Page | June 21, 2022

Scattered across the globe, caves with an abundance of hand stencils – negative handprints – and other prehistoric paintings have been waiting for millennia to be discovered. These simple yet meaningful traces of life have been found in Indonesia, France, Argentina, and… the fridge in your parents’ house?

by Georgina Mannion and Gerben Post

Many of us have traced our hands on a piece of paper as kids, leading to amazement by the permanent imprint it left behind. Our parents probably love these drawings as they readily show them to friends and neighbours “Although my kids are older now, they were once small enough to fit their cute, little hand exactly inside this print.”

These hand stencils seem to have something magical since they are made by kids across the globe. Not just humans from our era but also from a past unbeknown to us. As the cave paintings show – some older than 40.000 years – we have long had the urge to express and maybe even immortalise ourselves. It makes you think. Have humans always been artists? And what even is art?

Whether our cavemen ancestors made their cave art to communicate or express themselves, they made time to create a means of expression without using their words. They realised they could communicate not only with words but that they could use permanent pigment and a cave wall medium.

Because of their cave art, we learned what their daily activities were, even more so for the Romans or our medieval ancestors. Their art came from existing scripture or folklore. Many people were illiterate, so artists were hired to create a visual explanation for a bible story or a myth. The people who made it might not even consider it art, just their version of inclusive language. Think of how Catholic churches always depict the Stations of the Cross, 15 images showing Jesus on the day of his crucifixion. These images were meant to tell an existing story not written by the artist themself. At some stage, art came to a point where artists created art not to tell someone else’s story but perhaps a personal one.

From storyteller to artist

After the storytelling period, there is a steady transition from one art period to the next until there are four art periods in co-existence. This overlap is not necessarily remarkable, but it is a coincidence that these four art periods occur alongside the industrial revolution, a period known for accelerating human development and capitalism, bringing the still-increasing wealth gap to light. Two of its art periods mirror society: Rococo, characterised by its extreme ornamentation and theatrical style, and Romanticism, characterised by escapism and the desire to dream about what could be.

Artists then did not make art for the stories written before their time like many of their predecessors, but what they were experiencing in their lifetime. It seems that art branched out from historic storytelling into a new way of self-expression.

For romanticists, art was a way to express their feelings. In the Romantic period, it became less about telling stories or depicting life and more about individual ways of thinking and feeling. Art became a medium to express yourself, tell about dreams and nightmares, love, horror, and everything in between. Opposed to (Neo)classicism and the Age of Enlightenment, a period of reason and intellect, which preceded Romanticism, artists collectively started using emotion and senses as their sources of inspiration for the first time. It seemed like humans were fed up with everything having to be accurate and logical. In a world that became stuck between science and religion, there was no room left for the individual’s feelings. Feelings and emotions allowed artists to show the world through their eyes and make it as bright, dark, dreamy, or brutal as they wanted. A new form of creativity became popular, and the artist was at the centre of it all.

Master of one, master of none

Art was often a reflection of society’s current events, and in its depiction, it seems like art improved over time. It resembles an individual’s artistic progress of ‘practice makes perfect’. Each statue with the same source of inspiration looks more detailed and professional than the last. For example, ancient Greek sculptures look amateurish compared to sculptures from the Renaissance. But was there a gap because Renaissance sculptors had better tools or were smarter than ancient Greek sculptors? Or did ancient Greek sculptors simply prefer their style and not care to do better? Despite the artistic difference, artists from both times probably considered themselves to be transcending creative boundaries.

Both groups of sculptors also have in common that their art was recognisable. Statues from both eras have identifiable human features and an apparent reference. If we look at this information on a timeline, art goes through a ‘rebellious’ phase before artists collectively seem to decide their art will be inspired by ancient Greece and Rome. We see this in the Renaissance and Classicism up until 1890.

“Artists from both times probably considered themselves to be transcending creative boundaries.”

Freed from creative chains

Around 1890, multiple art periods seemed to appear and exist at once. They all have their own distinctive traits but one thing connects them: the art is abstract or abstracted. There are fewer familiar scenes and human features, and instead of being able to point out what we are looking at, whether it be a moment in history or a still life, we wonder if what we are looking at is what we actually think it is. There appears to be a shift from artists trying to surpass other artists to reinventing themselves like they are trying to push their own boundaries.

Does this shift mean that art has a different definition? Or has it just become more inclusive? While that is up for debate, it is fun to speculate. Art used to be more inclusive in view of the fact that everyone knew what they were looking at. A still life with inanimate household objects, a scene encapsulating the bourgeoisie in their ball gowns, and the Last Supper included symbolism, but the objects depicted reality. Though a lot of newer art, think of Dali, Picasso and Mondriaan, is artist specific and more like a peek inside their head. Can we still call it art if we rely on them to tell us what we are looking at? Maybe we can call it art because they let us decide what we are looking at, including us in their creative process.

Google a picture from Mondriaan’s de Stijl. If you are not familiar with his work, it seems like perfectly placed boxes with the primary colours in it, but if you read why Mondriaan did this, he describes how he wanted to redefine the world as we see it by limiting himself in how he was allowed to depict it. He wrote how he limited himself to only the primary colours, black and white, and geometric shapes to illustrate the world he saw around him.

Connecting one to many

Art makes humans think. It snaps you in and out of out of reality, inspires, and stimulates your mind. When looking at a piece of art, feelings and thoughts are often provoked. Whether they are thoughts about a part of history long before our time or feelings of curiosity when looking at an abstract painting, the spectator receives a signal that gets their gears turning. During this process, we might try to make sense of the art before us, form an opinion on it, and maybe even try to learn something from it. And sometimes, we just want to appreciate the artist’s creation.

Maybe this is where the value of art lies. To connect the artist and spectator in a unique way. Because everyone looks at and experiences art differently. More often than not, we cannot be sure why the artist made a certain piece of art because we only get to experience the result and not the process. We will never really know unless we directly ask the artist.

Yet art can connect one to many. The artists express themselves to the spectators, not knowing their thoughts and feelings or whether their hard work will be worth it. Even after their death, their art does not have to be forgotten. After all, it is still art, and it can still be appreciated and studied. Maybe that is where its value lies: art is timeless.

Art has always been made for many different reasons, and these reasons are why art still is valuable and appreciated today. While art does not have one definition of what counts and does not count as art, there is a feeling that makes us call something art. How does this come to play in design? It seems like the boundaries of art and design have faded into each other over the last century.

Balancing art and design

Painters sketch and choose their colours and medium before they paint. Designers sketch, test materials, iterate, and prototype. Yet one is considered art, and one is not. Is it because designers make interactive or feasible designs? That is unlikely considering art like Jardin D’émail by Jean Dubuffet, a large climbable and playful outdoor sculpture that sits at the art museum Kröller Möller.

One of the best examples of the fine line between design and art is the vast amount of chairs being designed every year. Many of them are still made purely as functional pieces of furniture. Still, even in these functional chairs, it has become increasingly important to make them aesthetically pleasing. How else will your chair differentiate itself from the thousands of other chairs that are just as functional. And so every year, new chairs are designed, all so different yet so the same.

Designers have to get creative to rise above this crowd. Designing a chair almost becomes an art. Among all these chairs, more and more chairs are beginning to stand out as pieces of art – think of Rietveld’s red and blue chair – sometimes intentional and sometimes unintentional. This is where it gets difficult: where do you draw the line between art and design? There are many chairs that no one would even think to call art, and there are also many chairs that are clearly meant to be art, not intended to be simple and functional. But then there is this large middle group, in which the beautiful aesthetics of a simple chair make you wonder whether its purpose is even to be a chair.

So how do we distinguish design from art? Should the number of pieces produced be considered? Mass-produced products are clearly not art, right? But does that mean that a work of art can only be created once?

Others might say that the intention of the creator is what counts. If the designer produces a product, it is a product, and if the designer believes it is a piece of art, it is a piece of art. However, is the opinion of the spectator or user not just as important?

“Still, even in these functional chairs, it has become increasingly important to make them aesthetically pleasing.”

The point of creating art is not to define what is considered art and what is not. As you can see, it seems like there is no correct answer. Perhaps all design is art, or perhaps none of it is. Art has always been and will always be an outlet for humankind to share their thoughts, feelings, and creativeness. Its goal is not to fit into boxes, but to jump out of them and create new ones. To connect artist and viewer, to let humankind inspire and wonder.

The same applies to design. It connects and inspires, making the world a better and more beautiful place every day. Design shapes the world around us as if designers use this world as their canvas. Design is an art, but it is not art.

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