From Beyond Good & Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, as translated by R.J. Hollingdale
I’m tempted to say that somewhere along the way art went from being purely decorative to having to mean something. And then I have to take a step back and take a really deep breath because, well, first of all I’d have to clarify which artistic tradition I’m talking about–probably a Western European one, and even then I’d have to really narrow down the definition of “art” because even though there have been works–mostly paintings and sculptures–we could call strictly decorative aesthetic touches are still often added to everything from tables to teapots so even those things could be–and sometimes are–treated as works of art, especially if they’re really old.
And speaking of really old things the book The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists by Gregory Curtis devotes almost all of its space not to analyzing what the cave paintings may have meant but rather how what archaeologists and art historians think the cave paintings meant has changed, and changes, depending on who’s doing the looking.
And to get back to my naïve assumption that at some point art went from being decorative to having “meaning” if I had to pin down when exactly I might have thought that happened I’d say it occurred with the invention of photography and the birth of Impressionism and then Fauvism and really took off after World War I when art–at least in Western Europe–split into a million different isms and people started to need a philosophy degree to understand why a bunch of squares or scribbles should be considered great art.
Except it’s not that simple. Throughout art history, and throughout art traditions around the world, art has often “meant” something, but what it means has been determined by both cultural context and the eye of the beholder, which raises the question, if a work of art can mean anything, does it really mean anything?
And that’s when I start to wonder, am I looking at art or is it looking back at me?