Intolerance: Understanding Decorative Artwork

Article by Julian Spalding, Author of 'The Art of Wonder -- a History of Seeing' When we first emerged as a species, only about 150_000 years ago, our eyes opened on to a world full of wonders. We had no idea what happened to the sun when it set, why the moon changed shape or what made the stars shine. We couldn't explain why flames rise and water falls, or why we are the only creatures that walk upright. We had no notion what was beyond the sea. Even until a few centuries ago the western edge of the known world was at 'Finisterre', which means the end of the earth. The eastern edge was Japan. Its name, 'Nihon', means 'the source of the sun'. Everything we looked at was mysterious and poetic. Our modern, scientific world view emerged when Mr.Columbus sailed over the edge of the ocean and didn't fall off, when Mr.Galileo turned his telescope on the moon and discovered it was a lump of solid rock, when Mr.Newton worked out why the moon stayed up but an apple fell down and when Mr.Darwin revealed that the appearances of all living things, including ourselves, has changed and is changing. My new book, 'The Art of Wonder -- a History of Seeing', takes its reader on a journey back to a time when art was inspired by wonder. It requires an imaginative leap to see through the eyes of people in the past. It's difficult to unlearn what we know -- to see the moon, for example, as a virgin giving birth, and not a satellite in the shadow of the Earth. Most art history has been written from our modern viewpoint, and misinterprets art as a result. So how does looking through the eyes of people years ago change the currently accepted interpretations of world art?
The art of China is a good example. We've come to think that Imperial China was centralist, rigid and inhumane.
In fact their whole culture was dedicated to harmony and humanity.
They were centralist because they thought the world was centred -- but on what they didn't know.
A dragon dancing around a pearl was a favourite symbol for this mystery. Like most ancient people, the Chinese believed that the Earth was floating on an ocean (water sank through the soil and it had to go somewhere), so waves are shown at the bottom of Chinese Imperial robes.
Also, like most people, the Chinese believed the Earth was square because it had four directions -- east and west (the path of the sun) and north and south (the Chinese invented the compass about 2_000 years ago).
The world's centre had to be where these lines crossed. Chinese emperors, as sons of heaven, performed ceremonies at these central points, to connect the celestial with the terrestrial world and draw harmonious influences down to land -- and they went on doing so until 1911, when Western science finally undermined their 2_000-year-old tradition.
Gravity, that mysterious invisible force, fascinated our ancestors. Our spark of life reached for the stars, while our bodies sank down to the cold grave. Our hopes were above; death waited for us below. This must surely explain the context of Scotland's earliest art -- the 'cup and ring' marks incised on boulders, which are about 4_500 years old. Countless different explanations have been given for these markings, including the idea, seriously proposed, that they show the movement of planets around the sun, though no-one in Scotland could have had such a conception then. These 'cup and ring' marks are remarkably similar to modern Australian Aboriginal painting, which is a product of the oldest continuous culture in the world, dating back about 35_000 years. The ancient people of Scotland knew nothing of their contemporaries in Australia, but they were the same sort of people trying to make sense of the same sights -- such as the wonder of a starry night. It's most likely that these 'cup and ring' marks were attempts to praise particular stars and bring their beneficent influence down to Earth. The fact that Australian Aborigines are still performing such ceremonies shows how enduring and satisfying our ancient way of interpreting nature was, before the advent of modern science. It's generally assumed in the West that scientific discoveries undermined religious belief. But most major faiths, such as Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, were unaffected by these revelations because they believed divinity was beyond human perception, no matter how deeply we probed. Christianity, however, was seriously challenged by science because it taught that God could not only be seen in his creation but appeared in it. This is why Christian art is unique -- not because it's better, as European art historians often assume, but because it was born from a different world view. Christianity was the only major faith to encourage the close examination of the natural world. This culminated in 'The Renaissance', when artists painted God's light in the world. We usually think of Leonardo da Vinci as being the father of our modern scientific age, but he was actually closer to the cave painters than he is to us. It's true he examined nature more intensely than anyone had before, yet he believed by doing so he would be able to see its divine source. 'The Mona Lisa' was his attempt to paint the soul. But the more Leonardo examined nature the more he began to wonder if it had really been made for us to look at. That's why 'The Mona Lisa's' smile is so equivocal. She's the pinnacle of an ancient world view, but hints at the beginning of our own. The great period of scientific discovery began 500 years ago with the invention of the telescope. We now call this period 'The Enlightenment', but in terms of Christian art it was a darkening. The more closely Christian artists and scientist looked at nature, the more they doubted whether they could see God in it all. During 'The Renaissance', Mr.Albrecht Dürer had painted himself as if he could see God in his own face. Rembrandt was no longer sure. His increasing introspection is usually explained, by art historians, in purely personal terms, but it was a reflection of a much wider and profoundly disturbing change in our world view. 'The Enlightenment' produced the darkest art the world has ever seen. By the start of the last century, the appearance of everything we could see had been explained. Scientists turned their attention to worlds beyond the reach of the naked eye. Freud explored the unconscious and surrealist artists began to paint their dreams. Truth to appearances, which had been the guiding light of Western art for centuries, was abandoned. Art historians claim this break with representation was the great achievement of modern artists, but it was, in fact, a product of our changing world view. New wonders are appearing all around us -- most recently in fractal geometry, and in the nature of consciousness itself. It's now thought that awareness of death and the ability to wonder and create art distinguish the human species. One thing we can be sure of, while we continue to exist, wonders will never cease. Julian Spalding is a writer, curator and former director of Glasgow's museums and galleries. 'Do you really know how to look at art?', Julian Spalding, The Scotsman, 2005-11-22, Tu


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Spalders, typical spalders!

Makes a great source for dinner-parties and pub-quizes, but sheds effall light on the subjectmatter. As one would of course expect. Spalding simply needs a book for his outpourings of miscellany. The artstrand is a tricky attempt to stand everything together somehow. Tenuous at best. Nice try, but complete codswallop in the main.

Yes, of course it is difficult to interpret works done in the past, or indeed by another culture without the effects of our backgrounds and lives.

Some have an assumption that art is to be judged on how well it meets the artist's intentions, others on how well it meets the original client's brief. Yet others feel it should be in the interpretation (devoid of all background information, including labels). A timeless artwork is one that transcends information and somehow connects with the audience figure directly, even when they bring their own culture and times to bear on what they are looking at.

If so, then Spalding is way off base.

11/23/2005 12:56:00 am  

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