Modern image overload throws light on long history of art
LET’S start off with a question.
What do you find on the walls of homes all over the world and that’s been there throughout history? The answer is, of course, art!
Thirty-thousand years ago, cavemen daubed bare walls with paintings. We don’t really know why. They may have been the work of witch doctors who had hidden themselves away to enlist the help of ancestral spirits or communal projects carried out during severe weather conditions or attacks from predators.
What we do know, however, is that these are the first examples of art in the home. Much later, the Romans adorned their villas with mosaics on the walls and floors. In the Middle Ages, tapestries were painstakingly woven and hung in the principal rooms of settlements right across northern Europe and not just for a bit of primitive insulation. Much later, during the Renaissance, the more majestic homes would boast frescos on walls and ceilings, often depicting religious scenes. Then came the aristocratic fashion of hanging oil paintings of family members, often in stylized poses and often in military uniform or official regalia.
More recently, during the Industrial Revolution, the desire to show off such portraits became the aspiration of the new middle classes. Indeed, if there was little family heritage to display, the alternative was to whack up a portrait of oneself. Across the world, the mediums used to decorate homes may have varied (wood carvings in South East Asian long houses, ceremonial masks and shields in southern Africa, Aztec pictographs or Eskimo whale bone carvings) but the universal urge to produce art remains constant to this day and this puts the artist in a particularly significant position in any culture.
With the developments of high quality, inexpensive printing, we can cover our walls with replicas of paintings by old masters as well as holiday photographs and pictures drawn by grandchildren and stuck on the fridge door.
History has given us homes filled with art. The next question is simply why? What compels us to cover our walls with pictures? One theory is that we need to record historic moments and recall the actions of past members of our family or tribe so that we might enjoy similar success and good fortune in the future.
Another suggests that by remembering our ancestors and what they achieved, we begin to understand our own place in the world.
Put these two explanations together and it’s easy to see why we cover our walls with photos of weddings, graduations, newborn babies and deceased relatives.
But there’s another reason too. Pictures are inspirational. “A good picture is worth a thousand words” is a phrase that has already slipped into newspaper folklore. Pictures can excite, depress or terrify us, can bring us to tears or make us laugh. Today, we live in a world full of pictures, far more than at any time before.
We are constantly bombarded with images on television, in books, magazines, on our mobile phones, on billboards, on the sides of buses, on shop fronts as well as in galleries and museums.
There are now digital photo frames that can be programmed to show a never ending selection of pictures. The “virtual” walls of Facebook and Twitter are another constant source of images. In fact we see so many pictures every day that we easily become blasé about them and they begin to blur into invisibility.
As a result, our feelings also become blurred and leave us insensitive, partly because of the sheer volume of images but mostly because we just don’t know how to look at them, how to filter out the rubbish and how to focus on the quality and meaningful pictures and brush aside the banal.
This skill of discernment is a big challenge right now and it only goes to show that today, more than ever, we need our artists and their art to show us the way.