How does art reflect and inform the culture from which it emerges?

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lhc eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While we typically look at literature as a means of humankind to tell its story through words, really this same thing holds true for the visual arts, for music, for drama and performance.  Going back to the paintings in the caves at Lascaux (in France) and Altamira (in Spain), or even looking siimply at the hieroglypics found in the pyramids of ancient Egypt, one can see how humans used shape and color to depict the things that were important to them.  The hunting and gathering lifestyle of the prehistoric Europeans depicted at Lascaux and Altamira might be contrasted, for example, with the paintings done thousands of years later by artists of the same part of the world:  the affluent, and generally attractive folks depicted by the French artist Renoir, or the numerous portraits of the royal court done by the Spanish artist Valezquez.

Mankind's desire to tell his/her story can be interpreted as much through what he or she doesn't capture on paper or canvas, as what he or she does.  For example, throughout history, there has been an ebb and flow of artists trying to portray things as they actually exist, in as real and as natural a state as possible (as seen in the Renaissance period, or when Claude Monet worked so feverishly to capture every effect of changing light) versus creating art that communicates how things ought to exist , or at the very least, presented an idealized version, such as Renoir, who observed:

A picture must be an amiable thing, joyous and pretty--yes, pretty!  There are enough troublesome things in life without inventing others.

And so, where a literary piece might tell a story through the conflict between two characters, perhaps in the case of visual art, we see the conflict not so much in the individual work as in the artistic tug-of-war that takes place over the course of human history as art, and the cultures that produced it, change and develop. 

Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While art is an individual means of expression, it is a source of beauty, communication, reflection, pride, and immortality for a culture.  Whatever culture you are from, there is beauty in its art, for the entire culture to appreciate, whether that be painting, sculpture, music, or architecture.  All humankind requires some beauty, even going back to very early peoples who created beauty by painting in caves, making jewelry, or decorating the cooking utensils they made.  The art created in a culture communicates important ideas, about religion or politics or just contemporary life.  It is important, certainly, to communicate through words, but communication through images,  sounds, and objects seems to fulfill an important human need, too.  Art also reflects the culture and its concerns, with its particular focus, with choices of subject, with the materials used to create the art. We have learned a great deal about cultures past and present through their art, and a culture can also learn a great deal about itself through its art, since it is a reflection of the entire culture in one way or another.   A culture's art is a great source of pride for it, too, since what lasts is the best of its people's endeavors.  Many of us take great pride in the art created in our cultures.  And last, but not least, a culture's art tends to be preserved and handed down, which makes for a sort of immortality for the culture.  The ancient Greeks and Romans are no longer with us, but the works of art they created are, as are the various works of art from other cultures long gone.