Modern im­age over­load throws light on long his­tory of art

Yorkshire Post - Property - - PROPERTY - Robin and Patricia Sil­ver

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.

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