Summary or overview of the final 3 chapters from 1900 to post World War 2

My tutor suggested in her final feedback I did a summary of the final 3 chapters with a concentration on 4 headings:

  • Art as a social commentary
  • Art as a cultural property
  • How politics shapes art and art shapes politics
  • Learning about the past to inform the present and shape the future

These 4 headings could apply to the history of art as a whole and so I base my answer as a reflection on the whole course but with my thoughts on my notes of the final 3 chapters.  My headings have made me consider my responses carefully which are based on my notes of the last chapters as well as my notes throughout the course.

Art as a social commentary

Art is a reflection of society due to it being a visual record of events and this applies down the centuries.  There can be no doubt of the changes that began to take place socially at the turn of the 20th century and which gathered pace due to the devastation of the two World Wars and eventually resulted in a very consumer and materialistic society.  The art of each period mentioned in the chapters reflected those changes including breaking with the traditions that dated back to the 14th century – the use of colour, perspective, form and line changed from that of naturalism and realism to expressionism, surrealism and abstraction in all the variances of style.  Artists observed society in the same way as before but reflected the social changes and were consequentially highly influenced by them – this can be seen for example in the work of the documentary photographers or the Mexican muralists.  The artists were also influenced hugely by the advances in science and technology as well as the psychologists which were all a part of the ever changing societies of the period.  Art is literally a window into the differing eras and therefore the commentary of the artists who were part of those societies.

Art as a cultural property

The Mexican muralists are perhaps the best example of this because the art reflects their culture and also the era in which it was painted and this is also apparent in the different countries worldwide. I question whether art is a cultural property or part of cultural identity and for this I must look to the past as the art of the Dutch Golden Age can be distinguished from that of a 17th century Italian Baroque painter in the same way that the art of the English landscape painters of England and American each had their different styles – for example the English Romantic painters and the Hudson River School painters who were influenced by the former but there is a distinct variance in style which reflected their landscapes and culture.  African and Oceanic art influenced the Cubists and Expressionists but these two forms of art very much form the cultural identity of the people and in our multicultural society of today we witness the different artistic styles of many different countries or religions and each is part of their cultural identity and each artistic style is the cultural property of that country or people.   The consumerist society of America post-World War II influenced very directly the culture and society of firstly America and then England and in turn influenced the art – the Pop Art culture is almost iconic for many in the same way that Cubism is very much a European style.

david-mcneil-fun-with-acrylic-paintingAt this point I must stress the fact that culture does not just refer to country or to a specific group of people but of course to religion and religious art is very much part of cultural property as it has been throughout the ages – this acrylic painting by David McNeil from a Facebook group, who has given me kind permission to share his work, is an example as it is a Christian image and any member of the Christian community would say that this represents their culture.  Art from the various religions around the world is instantly recognisable – statues of Buddha for instance or the different architectural styles between churches, mosques or temples.  This particular painting despite its relatively simple composition also speaks of a very strong message of the Christian church, without the need for words,  as it is concerning the Crucifixion and the purple cloth with its reference to royalty due to the fact Christ was believed to the King of Heaven. This painting also crosses into art as a social commentary in the fact that the art is associated with a social community, albeit a religious one,  and speaks of the beliefs of that community.

How politics shape art and art shapes politics

Politics has a very direct influence on the art world whether it is political politics or religious politics.  Politics shaped art particularly regarding  being used for propaganda purposes during the political unstable era of the first half the 20th century and a prime example is the Futurists of pre-World War I eventually distanced themselves after the war due to the increasing  membership of far-right organisations.  Politics uses the visual message of art to be able to inform the people affected by the manifestos but in the same way the artists or the art reflects the people of society and the feelings of those people and this in turn can shape the politics of the era.  In effect art of any nature can be used as a political tool in a visual form in the same way that the stained glass windows or art of the Catholic Counter Reformation was able to spread the message that the way of the Catholic Church was the right way.  Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is one of the most powerful paintings of the Spanish Civil War as it speaks of the devastation caused the Nazi’s – the art tells the general public of events that have happened without necessarily using words and therefore the message can be stronger and evoke more emotions and this in turn can be used by the political parties to stir up support for their party or hatred for another party or group of people.  The posters of the World War I in England were used for moral boosting messages by the political parties and this happens repeatedly throughout the 20th century and indeed into the 21st century in the newspapers. A further example is  protest art, including that of the Futurists, that had a direct effect on the politics because it was the people’s way of getting their message across over what they wanted to their politicians.

Learning about the past to inform the present and shape the future

Firstly I must think of the rejection at the beginning of the 20th century of all forms of naturalism and the break away from the traditions of the 14th century – yes this is not learning about the past directly but to be able to break away or reject something you must first be knowledgeable about it.  Artists over the 20th century have sought to find new ways of expressing themselves using new technology and inventions but the artists also sought new ways of exhibiting without being constricted to the established galleries or exhibitions which were the accepted way of becoming known in the past – art has become more accessible.  I am studying art history in order to inform my studies and shape my future and I feel that to learn about the artists of the past or their art means I have a clearer understanding of not just the paintings or the sculpture but also the political or economic and for me possibly most importantly the social history which shaped the art and influenced it.  The artists of the 20th century wanted to express their inner feelings or express what they felt and saw around them but they also had to be aware of the past conventions and history in order to develop the new styles or the new ideas which formed their future.

I do not feel that the future can be shaped or the present can be informed if the past is not a part of the lessons – to look at a Cubist or Surrealist painting you must first learn of the eras that preceded that.  I could not understand Minimalist art or Colour Field art or abstraction or Expressionism if I had first not studied the Romantics, the Realists, Rococo, Medieval or Greek art or any of the styles and eras in between and knowing what the Western Classical Canon is – to be able to understand and appreciate modern art and to be able to shape your own artistic future you must study the art of your predecessors.


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