How does culture affect an artist's artwork?

Culture affects an artist’s artwork by proving them with a social context against why their work can be defined. All artworks are, to some extent, the products of their culture, and they reflect prevailing assumptions and beliefs. The greatest works of art, however, have the capacity to transcend the times in which they were created.

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Culture has a major impact on an artist’s work. As well as providing the imminent background against which a work of art is created, it also invariably shapes what is actually produced. In some cultures, painting is the predominant art form, whereas in others it may be pottery or ceramics. In both cases, it is the dominant culture that determines what kind of artworks are to be produced, especially if there is a thriving art market that responds to changes in taste among collectors and connoisseurs.

Even if an individual artist has a strong antipathy to the cultural milieu in which they live, as is often the case, they will still define themselves against that culture, challenging its norms and standards. Without some kind of settled cultural life, art, no matter how transgressive or innovative, is simply impossible.

But culture doesn’t tell us everything about a work of art. The greatest works of art transcend the time and place in which they were created to speak to successive ages. This doesn’t mean that they should not still be understood as cultural artifacts. But what it does mean is that a purely cultural or historical evaluation of a work of art is insufficient in and of itself to tell us everything we need to know. Great artworks are both temporal and timeless, cultural and transcultural, the products of the time in which they were created as well as enjoying vital contemporary relevance.

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Cultural changes impact the values of both society and the individuals within that society. In the simplest terms, culture makes artists react—on the canvas, in the recording studio, or through whatever medium they choose.

Music is a good example of this. Trends in pop music track how society feels. During the Vietnam War, for example, songs of peace and protest dominated the airwaves in tandem, from George Harrison's hopeful "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)" to Joan Baez's probing "Saigon Bride," which asked:

How many dead men will it take
To build a dike that will not break?
How many children must we kill
Before we make the waves stand still?

These artists' lyrics echoed the public's confusion, anger, fear, and sadness over the seemingly endless war in Vietnam. From that turmoil came an important, iconic interval of music.

Difficult times do not always yield "great" art, though. When the going gets tough, sometimes the tough gets going—straight into the warm embrace of escapist art. After the September 11 attacks, for example, America did not embrace angry punk music; they wrapped their arms around American Idol. Culture can produce the artistic equivalent of comfort food, too.

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Culture affects an artist's work by shaping the worldview of the artist and associations they may have with color, shapes, patterns, symbols, people, places, and things. Each culture has its own unique history and way of understanding the world. For an artist, this means that the message they try to convey in their artwork is done so through their own cultural language of symbolism.

Religious art is a great example for discussing how culture can shape the content of an artist's work. Consider the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michaelangelo. Part of the ceiling has a mural of God and man, and it is one of the most famous works of art in the world. This is a piece of European Christian art, so it is shaped by the values of Christian Europeans during the Renaissance. Throughout the history of Christian art, popular subjects have included the figures of God, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints. In comparison, in Islamic art you will never see a depiction of God or the Prophet Muhammed. This is because God is described in Islam as having no physical appearance, only the most beautiful features. To try and depict God in art would be to ascribe the artist's personal preferences upon God, and this is considered selfish or vain. There are no depictions of the Prophet for the same reason.

We can also consider more specific components of a work of art like the use of color, shape, and line. Different colors, shapes, and patterns are suggestive of feelings, values, people, places, things, and actions. For example, in the United States the color red may be associated with romantic love. In comparison, green is suggestive of love in Hinduism. Below I have shared a link to a handy chart which tells the associated meanings of colors in several different cultures. 

Depending on the culture an artist comes from, their choice of material or medium for their work may be limited. Some tools or materials are not always available in parts of the world, or they may not be preferred for other reasons. Other cultural values may influence an artist's attitude towards certain kinds of art and whether or not the medium is worthwhile. Leatherworking to create clothing, bags, or jewelry is generally considered an acceptable, worthwhile art form in the Western world. But for many Buddhist nations, working with leather is undesirable because it is made from the flesh of dead animals.

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