Response to Reading
For the greatest part of the historic period prior to 1800, visual culture was informed by the Classical traditions of Ancient Greece and Rome. The ideal of Classical antiquity set the norm for how art should be made and how it should be experienced. In this respect, particular evaluative standards about what is appropriate visual culture existed linking it to the Classical ideal and excluding everything else. The modern period saw the re examination of these values and contemporary visual culture specialists have expanded the field in order to include not only the traditional artistic methods of architecture, painting and sculpture but also photography, cinema television and advertizing. At the same time, there are attempts to distance the notion of visual culture from evaluating terms like high and low art, aiming at the inclusion of more forms and ideals.
David, the monumental statue, created by Michelangelo in 1504 for the city of Florence is an excellent example of the visual and artistic values of the historic period. The statue reminds the statues of classical antiquity. Renaissance scholars had rediscovered the world of Classical Greece and after a long period of medieval theocracy, the works of Plato and Aristotle were now read along with those of Christian writers. The impact on art was a turn to the classical ideals. Therefore, nude, male and youthful bodies found their way back into art. Michelangelo’s David embodies all these characteristics of the humanist ideals that became common in Renaissance Italy and beyond. He depicts the hero the Florentines had associated with their Republic, as a youthful, beautiful man with idealized proportions, who is at the same time determined to save his people from destruction. There is a particular attention on the muscles of the face and the body, a realistic depiction of human form while the intensity of the gaze reveals restrained emotion and tension.
Amedeo Modigliani’s Head of 1913 is also indicative not only of the artist’s personal style and taste but also of the cultural and historical period it represents. It was created in the 20th century, the period where art changed dramatically, adopting abstraction, denouncing the realism of the Renaissance tradition and exploring worlds beyond the classical tradition. In this work, Modigliani has clearly been influenced by African masks depicting a non European and at the same time unrealistically elongated face.
The differences between the two works are startling. The robust, ideally proportioned male nude of David is non-existent in Modigliani’s sculpture that represents simply the head and the neck of a human. The realistic portrayal of the face of Michelangelo’s work with the determined but calm expression of the young man is replaced by the absence of specific characteristics. These differences are the product of changing ideals and cultural values in the minds of societies that re-examined what constitutes art.
In this respect, everyday life is also important in understanding cultural values and changes in them during different periods in history. Everyday objects are therefore equally important and in the 20th and 21st centuries some of them have even been elevated to artworks. One example could the iron. Created for the removal of wrinkles from clothes when heated, it is an essential part of every contemporary household. Today it works with electricity, although in earlier periods it operated with coal and other heating devices. It is a totally functional object that at the same time shows aspects of our cultural beliefs. We expect our clothes not to be crinkled and we would probably comment negatively if someone appeared in public with non ironed clothes. In Western societies it is expected that the iron features in every house. In non developed countries however it is a commodity that could denote higher status. Especially, the electric iron might show wealth as the family could afford to buy and use it. Surprisingly maybe, the iron has been used as an art object and thus elevated to a high form of art. One of the most well known examples is Man Ray’s Gift from 1958 where the artist incorporated a line of spikes in a traditional iron. Man Ray transformed an ordinary object to a work of art with a twist embodying the ideals of the Dada movement that he was part of. In this respect, the iron is part of an art museum. This is not however the only reason why it could be incorporated in a museum exhibition. If we are to look at visual culture in a broader sense, then objects that represent our culture and our lives in general can have a place in a museum. It could be another change in the process of redefining what visual culture is.
Rampley, M. Visual Culture and the Meanings of Culture” in Rampley, M. (ed.) Exploring Visual Culture: Definitions, Concepts, Contexts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2005.
Tansey, Richard G. and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.