A Definition Of
All Human inventions are first thoughts before they become things.
So the creations of communities, cities, governments, armies,
achievements - everything that goes up to make a civilization, must
spring from a community's thoughts. Hence:
Civilization is the tangible expression of a communal
Communal Understanding is that single perception allowed by
the set of values common to each member of a community. It is
generated and molded by the conversation of citizens associated with
everyday events, and given action by the institutions of the
Conversation is the daily expression and exchange of
individual opinions; a mechanism that can only echo and promote
popular, while suppressing unpopular, notions. That is, all those
ideas which match common feelings of right and wrong, will be
repeated and magnified into reasons to act, while those which
receive little or no support will inevitably be ignored; which makes
conversation the ideas filter, or the mind, of the community.
A Community being that group of people who share the same
language, customs, tradition and law.
A Communal Mind is similar in operation to an individual mind,
except that in the latter case audible conversation is replaced by
silent thoughts, but the mechanism of understanding is the same and
consists of ideas, expressed in words, which are filtered by a code
of values to determine which should become reasons for action. This
does not mean that everyone believes what is popular, but unpopular
concepts are ignored. Consequently:-
1. By sharing the same process of thought as individuals,
communal minds are subject to the same shortcomings of understanding
- Understanding appears only after the
formation of a basic set of values (morality), which become an
essential and immutable part of the creature. With the actual values
adopted determining the character of that perception (culture ).
- Resolve depends upon their nature ; if they
are selfish they will be impotent and deluded but if unselfish, they
will have vitality and understanding .
- Sanity may be lost, a graphic example being
the Nazi phenomenon, when a whole nation behaved like a lunatic.
- Age eventually renders them weak and
2. As words are the currency of thought, the use of language
is critical to both private and public understanding, with the
particular choice of words revealing the nature of an author's
understanding. So the nature of the literature published by a
community must reflect the nature of that community's understanding.
3. As the nature and concerns of communal conversation are echoed by
the media, the media can be considered the mirror of the mind of our
society, with the character displayed by the media being the
character of our civilization.
4. All intelligence has a memory, and communal memory is made up of
the traditions, manners, and ceremonies which retain the wisdom
taught by experience through succeeding generations.
Further on Civilization
The great mystery is not that we should have been thrown down
here at random between the profusion of matter and that of the
stars; it is that from our very prison we should draw, from our own
selves, images powerful enough to deny our nothingness.
André Malraux, Man's Fate (1933).
Up to about the year 1860, man's history had been conveniently
divided into three distinct epochs: Ancient,
Medieval and Modern.
After 1860, however, a new expression came into general use to
describe the cultures of the distant past. Pre-history was
the name given to that period of man's history before written
documents appeared. We can now study man's pre-history through the
field of archeology. Archeological remains can illuminate how and
where early cultures lived, stored food and produced tools. We can
learn of their religious practices, political organization and what
type of relationships may have existed between man and woman,
husband and wife, parent and child. Human artifacts uncovered by
archeologists also reveal the existence of kings, plagues, famine,
good harvests, wars and class structure. Of course, the history we
obtain from archeological digs is by no means complete, especially
when compared with man's more recent history (the past 500 years or
so). For example, in 1945, the U.S. First Army captured 485 tons of
records of the German Foreign Office just as these records were
about to be burned on orders from Berlin. 485 tons of written
records! And these records pertained only to the German Foreign
Office. The point is that since the 15th century (and the
development of movable type) the sheer number of written records has
drastically increased and so too has the work of the historian
become more complicated as a result.
When we think of the ancient world, we may perhaps think of the
Hebrews, Greeks and Romans. The Hebrews gave us faith and morality;
Greece gave us reason, philosophy and science; and Rome gave us law
and government. This is, of course, a crude oversimplification, and
the reason is obvious.
Western civilization developed before Greece or Rome. For instance,
3000 years before the greatest era of Greek history, civilizations
flourished in Mesopotamia and in Egypt. These civilizations were
urban, productive, religious and law abiding and in all meanings of
the word, civilized. A solid working definition of civilization is
difficult and depends upon your own judgment. Here are a few
Civilization is a form of human culture in which many people live in
urban centers, have mastered the art of smelting metals, and have
developed a method of writing.
The first civilizations began in cities, which were larger, more
populated, and more complex in their political, economic and social
structure than Neolithic villages.
One definition of civilization requires that a civilized people have
a sense of history - meaning that the past
counts in the present.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines civilization as "the action or
process of civilizing or of being civilized; a developed or advanced
state of human society." Such a definition is fraught with
difficulties. For instance, how might we correctly identify a
"developed or advanced state of human society"? Developed or
advanced compared to what? The OED defines the verb "to civilize" in
the following way: "to make civil; to bring out of a state of
barbarism; to instruct in the arts of life; to enlighten; to refine
and polish." Are we any closer to a working definition?
In 1936, the archeologist V. Gordon Childe published his book Man
Makes Himself. Childe identified several elements which he believed
were essential for a civilization to exist. He included: the plow,
wheeled cart and draft animals, sailing ships, the smelting of
copper and bronze, a solar calendar, writing, standards of
measurement, irrigation ditches, specialized craftsmen, urban
centers and a surplus of food necessary to support non-agricultural
workers who lived within the walls of the city. Childe's list
concerns human achievements and pays less attention to human
A Baseline Definition of Culture
People learn culture. That, we suggest, is culture's essential
feature. Many qualities of human life are transmitted genetically --
an infant's desire for food, for example, is triggered by
physiological characteristics determined within the human genetic
code. An adult's specific desire for milk and cereal in the morning,
on the other hand, cannot be explained genetically; rather, it is a
learned (cultural) response to morning hunger.
Culture, as a body of learned behaviors common to a given human
society, acts rather like a template (i.e. it has predictable form
and content), shaping behavior and consciousness within a human
society from generation to generation. So culture resides in all
learned behavior and in some shaping template or consciousness prior
to behavior as well (that is, a "cultural template" can be in place
prior to the birth of an individual person).
This primary concept of a shaping template and body of learned
behaviors might be further broken down into the following
categories, each of which is an important element of cultural
• Systems of meaning, of which language is primary
• Ways of organizing society, from kinship groups to states and
• The distinctive techniques of a group and their characteristic
Several important principles follow from this definition of culture:
• If the process of learning is an essential characteristic of
culture, then teaching also is a crucial characteristic. The way
culture is taught and reproduced is in itself an important component
• Because the relationship between what is taught and what is
learned is not absolute (some of what is taught is lost, while new
discoveries are constantly being made), culture exists in a constant
state of change.
• Meaning systems consist of negotiated agreements -
members of a human society must agree to relationships between a
word, behavior, or other symbol and its corresponding significance
or meaning. To the extent that culture consists of systems of
meaning, it also consists of negotiated agreements and processes of
• Because meaning systems involve relationships which are not
essential and universal (the word "door" has no essential connection
to the physical object - we simply agree that
it shall have that meaning when we speak or write in English),
different human societies will inevitably agree upon different
relationships and meanings; this a relativistic way of describing
If you have read through other discussions/definitions of culture on
these pages, you probably already have the sense that there is much
disagreement about the word and concept "culture" and you probably
already realize that any definition, this one included, is part of
an ongoing conversation (and negotiation) about what we should take
"culture" to mean. For a very brief history of this debate, see the
glossary entry for "culture"; for interpretive discussions and
explorations of culture, visit the "Exploring Culture".
The "essence" of something is that part or property from which the
thing's identity is derived. In other words, if you take away the
essence of a thing, it loses its identity. The essence of a bicycle,
for example, might be that it rides primarily on two wheels; devices
which rely on one wheel aren't called bicycles, but rather
"unicycles and those with more than two are identified as
"tricycles," wagons, cars, etc. Similarly, when we talk about the
"essential component" of something, we are speaking of that
component which is most basic to its identity. (Note: "Essential"
can also mean "necessary" - as in, Camilla's expertise is essential
to the success of our efforts.)
A society is any group of people (or, less commonly, plants or
animals) living together in a group and constituting a single
related, interdependent community. This word is frequently taken to
include entire national communities; we might, for instance, comment
upon some aspect of U.S. society. Society can also be used to refer
to smaller groups of people, as when we refer to "rural societies"
or "academic society," etc. Society is distinguished from culture in
that society generally refers to the community of people while
culture generally refers to the systems of meaning -- what Greets
calls "webs of significance" which govern the conduct and
understanding of people's lives. Nevertheless, because of the close
conceptual relationship between the community and its culture, the
distinction between these words is often unclear in common use of
"society" or its derivative words; for example, when we refer to
"societal problems," we are referring to conflicts which have as
much to do with culture as they do with society.
System of meaning
A system of meaning is a set of relationships between one group of
variables (like words, behaviors, physical symbols, etc.) and the
meanings which are attached to them. Relationships in meaning
systems are arbitrary: there is no particular reason why the word
"cat" should refer to a furry four-legged animal, for example.
However, when a society agrees upon certain relationships between a
certain class of variable (like words or behaviors) and their
meanings, a system of meaning is established. Language is perhaps
the most formal of human meaning systems. At the same time, we all
know what it means to wink at someone or to give someone "the
finger"; this suggests that human behavior, like language, can be a
part of a complex and established system of meaning.
"Reproduction," as it is applied to culture, is the process by which
aspects of culture are passed on from person to person or from
society to society. There are a number of different ways in which
this can happen.
The most common form of cultural reproduction is "enculturation,"
which one anthropologist describes as "a partly conscious and partly
unconscious learning experience whereby the older generation
invites, induces, and compels the younger generation to adopt
traditional ways of thinking and behaving”.
Does enculturation work like a photocopy machine, reproducing
everything mostly as it was? Of course not. Your hairstyles and
music and diction are different in many ways from those of your
parents; cultures are organic, growing and changing with the passing
of time. However, enculturation is a powerful tool, and
enculturation is the reason why, for example, people born in the
U.S. drive on the right side of the road while people in Europe
drive on the left. Parents and educators are two of the most
influential enculturation forces; the Muslim studying the Qumran (or
Koran) outside their teacher's house in the Old Quarter of Kino,
Nigeria, are involved in a variety of enculturation processes.
Another important pattern of cultural reproduction is called
"diffusion." Diffusion (which means "a spreading out") happens when
patterns of cultural behavior or meaning are passed from one society
to another. For example, when international leaders meet at a
conference or summit, it is quite normal for all of the males to be
wearing Western-style business suits -- even though such garb is
hardly part of a cultural tradition in most parts of the world. This
type of clothing, and its symbolic association with formality and
professionalism, has spread out to many different cultures.
Diffusion is also the reason why many U.S. citizens cherish sushi (a
Japanese delicacy), live in "Santa Fe style" houses (incorporating
Spanish and Native American architectural styles), and make everyday
use of words like "boutique" (a French loan-word).
Anything that is taken to mean something beyond what it is can be
said to be symbolic. The St.Paul’s ruins, for example, is often
taken as a symbol for Macau; when it appears on a postcard or a
sweatshirt, the picture represents -- symbolizes -- the entire city.
The sound or written appearance of a word is always a symbol when
someone hears or reads it and comprehends its meaning. On a larger
cultural scale, a storm can symbolize troubled times in some
cultures whereas in other cultures it can symbolize the blessing of
the gods. For comparison, see "sign."
A sign is a variable - like a word, for example - which stands for
another variable or meaning. The word "door" is a sign; the actual
physical object indicated by the word "door" is called the
"signified." The difference between a sign and a symbol is that a
sign and its signified enjoy a more specific relationship than that
between a symbol and what it symbolizes. For example, the word door
stands for a more narrow range of meanings than a symbol like the
St. Paul’s ruins in Macau, which, as a symbol of the city, can be
called upon to have a much broader range of associations.
A recent etymology of the word "culture":
Look in an old dictionary such as Webster's we will likely find a
definition of culture that looks something like this:
1. The cultivation of soil.
2. The raising, improvement, or development of some plant, animal or
product" (Friend and Guralnik 1958). This use of the word has its
roots in the ancient Latin word cultura, "cultivation" or "tending,"
and its entrance into the English language had begun by the year
1430 (Oxford English Dictionary). By the time the Webster's
definition above was written, another definition had begun to take
precedence over the old Latin denotation; culture was coming to mean
"the training, development, and refinement of mind, tastes, and
manners" (Oxford English Dictionary). The OED traces this
definition, which today we associate with the phrase " high culture
" back as far as 1805; by the middle of the 20th century, it was
fast becoming the word's primary definition.
However, if you try a more modern source, like the American Heritage
English Dictionary, you'll find a primary definition of culture
which is substantially different than either of the two given above:
"The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts,
beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and
thought." Why such a difference, and in such a (relatively) short
period of time? Well, in the past 40 years, the use of the word
"culture" has been heavily influenced by the academic fields of
sociology and cultural anthropology. These fields have gradually
brought what was once a minor definition of culture (the last of
eight definitions given in the old 1958 Webster's quoted above) into
It is easy to imagine, as an example, how the American society was
so focused on "socially transmitted behavior patterns" in the
sixties would come to need a word to describe the object of its
interest. The civil rights movement during this era brought
everyone's attention to bear on cultural differences within U.S.
society, while the Vietnam War served to emphasize the position of
the U.S. culture in relation to other world cultures.
Over time, these new uses for the word culture have eclipsed its
older meanings, those associated with cultivation of the land and
the production of crops. One might say that an aspect of U.S.
culture over the past 40 years is its fascination with the issue of
culture itself -- a fascination which has brought about many changes
in the way English is spoken by the different ethnical groups and
the meanings of words that are commonly used.
Quotes on Culture
Culture is properly described as the love of perfection; it is a
study of perfection.
Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, I, 1869
Cutlure looks beyond machinery, culture hates hatred; culture has
one great passion, -- the passion for sweetness and light.
Matthew Arnold, Literature and Dogma, pref., 1873
Culture is to "know the best that has been said and thought in the
Matthew Arnold, Literature and Dogma, pref., 1873
That is true culture which helps us to work for the social
betterment of all.
Henry Ward Beecher
A man should be just cultured enough to be able to look with
suspicion upon culture.
Culture is everything. Culture is the way we dress, the way we carry
our heads, the way we walk, the way we tie our ties -- it is not
only the fact of writing books or building houses.
Aime Cesair, Martiniquen writer, speaking to the World Congress of
Black Writers and Artists in Paris
Culture, with us, ends in headache.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Experience, 1841 [source: Esar]
No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive.
Culture of the mind must be subservient to the heart.
Men are so inclined to content themselves with what is commonest;
the spirit and the senses so easily grow dead to the impressions of
the beautiful and perfect, that every one should study, by all
methods, to nourish in his mind the faculty of feeling these things.
...For this reason, one ought every day at least, to hear a little
song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were
possible, to speak a few reasonable words.
Goethe, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. Bk. v, ch. 1 (Carlyle,
tr.) [source: Stevenson]
Rather than by your culture spoiled,
Desist, and give us nature wild.
Matthew Green, The Spleen, l. 248
Culture is like the sum of special knowledge that accumulates in any
large united family and is the common property of all its members.
When we of the great Culture Family meet, we exchange reminiscences
about Grandfather Homer, and that awful old Dr. Johnson, and Aunt
Sappho, and poor Johnny Keats.
Culture is but the fine flowering of real education, and it is the
training of the feeling the tastes and the manners that makes it so.
Minnie Kellogg, Iroquois leader
The poor have no business with culture and should beware of it. They
cannot eat it; they cannot sell it; they can only pass it on to
others and that is why the world is full of hungry people ready to
teach us anything under the sun.
A cultivated mind is one to which the fountains of knowledge have
been opened, and which has been taught, in any tolerable degree, to
exercise its faculties.
John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, II, 1863.
Culture is what your butcher would have if he were a surgeon.
Mary Pettibone Poole, A Glass Eye at a Keyhole (1938).
The primary indication, to my thinking, of a well-ordered mind is a
man's ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company.
Seneca, Epistulae ad Lucilium. Epis. ii, sec. 1.
Culture is the habit of being pleased with the best and knowing why.
Henry van Dyke
Culture is an instrument wielded by professors to manufacture
professors, who when their turn comes will manufacture professors.
Simone Weil, The Need for Roots (1949)
Are not the processes of culture rapidly creating a class of
supercilious infidels, who believe in nothing? Shall a man lose
himself in countless masses of adjustments, and be so shaped with
reference to this, that, and the other, that the simply good and
healthy and brave parts of him are reduced and clipp'd away, like
the bordering of a box in a garden?
Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas, 1870
WHAT IS ART
Any simple definition would be profoundly pretentious and
tendentious, but we can say that all the definitions offered over
the centuries include some notion of human agency, whether through
manual skills (as in the art of sailing or painting or photography),
intellectual manipulation (as in the art of politics), or public or
personal expression (as in the art of conversation). As such, the
word is etymologically related to artificial -- i.e., produced by
human beings. Since this embraces many types of production that are
not conventionally deemed to be art, perhaps a better term would be
culture . This would explain why certain pre-industrial cultures
produce objects which Eurocentric interests characterize as art,
even though the producing culture has no linguistic term to
differentiate these objects from utilitarian artifacts. For an
interesting list of the various definitions that have preoccupied
writers over the years, see definitions of art.
Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism [Summer 1980]), tries to
avoid partisanship by simply listing the various ways art has been
understood through history: (in no particular order) the product of
conscious intention, self rewarding activity, a tendency to unite
dissimilar things, a concern with change and variety, aesthetic
exploitation of familiarity and surprise or tension and release, the
imposition of order on disorder, the creation of illusions,
indulgence in sensuousness, the exhibition of skill, a desire to
convey meanings, indulgence in fantasy aggrandizement of self or
others, illustration, the heightening of existence, revelation,
personal adornment or embellishment, and so on.
In a brief review of new cave paintings discovered in France in
1995, critic Robert Hughes wrote: "art - communication by visual
images - ... is, at its root, association - the power to make one
thing stand for and symbolize another, and to create the agreements
by which some marks on a surface denote, say, an animal, not just to
the mark maker but to others" ("Behold the Stone Age," Time February
ART has not always been what we think it is today. An object
regarded as Art today may not have been perceived as such when it
was first made, nor was the person who made it necessarily regarded
as an artist. Both the notion of "art" and the idea of the "artist"
are relatively modern terms.
Many of the objects we identify as art today -- Greek painted
pottery, medieval manuscript illuminations, and so on -- were made
in times and places when people had no concept of "art" as we
understand the term. These objects may have been appreciated in
various ways and often admired, but not as "art" in the current
ART lacks a satisfactory definition. It is easier to describe it as
the way something is done - "the use of skill and imagination in the
creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can
be shared with others" - rather than what it is.
The idea of an object being a "work of art" emerges, together with
the concept of the Artist, in the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy.
During the Renaissance, the word Art emerges as a collective term
encompassing Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, a grouping given
currency by the Italian artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari in the
16th century. Subsequently, this grouping was expanded to include
Music and Poetry which became known in the 18th century as the 'Fine
Arts'. These five Arts have formed an irreducible nucleus from which
have been generally excluded the 'decorative arts' and 'crafts',
such as pottery, weaving, metalworking, and furniture making, all of
which have utility as an end.
But how did Art become distinguished from the decorative arts and
crafts? How and why is an artist different from a craftsperson?
In the Ancient World and Middle Ages the word we would translate as
'art' today was applied to any activity governed by rules. Painting
and sculpture were included among a number of human activities, such
as shoemaking and weaving, which today we would call crafts.
The term for ART in Greek (tekhne) and Latin (ars) does not
specifically denote the 'fine arts' in the modern sense, but was
applied to all kinds of human activities.
Art was characterized by Aristotle as a kind of activity based on
knowledge and governed by rules. An individual became a painter or a
sculptor, or a shoemaker, by learning the rules of the trade.
The Greeks applied rules as a means of bringing order to the
perceived chaos of nature and the world around them. They
consciously sought order, clarity, balance, and harmony in their
works. Rules provided a measure of control, and through control a
form of comprehension. To maintain order it is necessary to apply
rules, and the tradition that supports them. This is the nature of
the "classical" which is perforce traditional and conservative.
In this situation, painters and sculptors differed merely in their
competence or capability in applying the rules of their trade. They
were admired for how well they mastered the rules, for their
technique and skills.
Neither the painter nor the sculptor, however, could be "inspired"
or work according instinct or follow intuition. In Ancient Greece,
painting and sculpture were distinguished from Poetry and Music,
which were the products of divine inspiration and stood outside the
rules governing mundane activity. Poetry and Music were both highly
respected in the Ancient World. It is indicative of their relative
status that Poetry and Music are assigned Muses, but not painting
The Greek word for a painter of a sculptor was banausos, meaning
literally a mechanic. The term reflects the low social standing of
the painter and sculptor in ancient society, which was based on the
ancient contempt for manual work. This ancient Greek prejudice
against those who work with their hands and who serve utilitarian
interests still informs to some degree the distinction between the
Fine Arts and the crafts.
The system of the so-called liberal arts was organized in the late
antique period, after the time of Plato and Aristotle. Its early
development is unclear, but a Martianus Capella seems to have been
the first to list the seven liberal arts that later gained
recognition: Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic, Arithmetic, Geometry,
Astronomy, and Music. Of the Fine Arts, only Music is included.
Although attempts were made at one time or another to include
painting and architecture among the liberal arts (by Pliny, Galen,
Vitruvius, and Varro), the visual arts were generally ignored.
Seneca explicitly denies a place for painting among the liberal
The Greeks and the Romans recognized no system for the "fine arts",
and regarded placed the visual arts among the manual crafts.
The early Middle Ages inherited from late antiquity the view of art
as a "teachable" activity. It was during this time that the term
artista was coined but which indicated not an "artist" in the modern
sense, but either a craftsman or a student of the liberal arts.
Throughout the Middle Ages, painters and sculptors were afforded
little status and remained largely anonymous. As in antiquity,
delight was taken in their work, but it was admired in terms of
workmanship, or for the use of colour or precious materials (gold,
gems). Painters and sculptors were judged on their skill and
The Middle Ages also inherited from antiquity the scheme of the
seven liberal arts which served not only for a comprehensive
classification of human knowledge, but also for the curriculum of
monastic schools down to the 12th century. The liberal arts were by
then divided into the Trivium (Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic) and the
Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music).
By the 12th and 13th centuries, the liberal arts had become an
inadequate system for classifying knowledge, and with the rise of
the universities other subject areas were established such as
philosophy, medicine, jurisprudence, and theology.
At this time was formulated the seven mechanical arts (corresponding
to the seven liberal arts): lanificium, armatura, navigatio,
agricultura, venatio, medicina, and theatrica.
However, even within this scheme, painting and sculpture are listed
in the company of several other crafts as subdivisions of armatura,
and thus continued to occupy a subordinate position even among the
The visual arts were confined to the artisans' guilds. Because they
ground their colours, and had the same patron saint (St. Luke),
painters belonged to the guild of apothecaries and physicians.
Sculptors joined the goldsmiths' guild, while architects were
associated with masons and carpenters.
During the Renaissance, there emerged a more exalted perception of
art, and a concomitant rise in the social status of the artist. The
painter and the sculptor were now seen to be subject to inspiration
and their activities equated with those of the poet and the
The period of the Renaissance (14th and 16th centuries) brought with
it many important changes in the social and cultural position of the
artist. Over the course of the period there is a steady rise in the
status of the painter, sculptor, and architect and a growing
sympathy expressed for the visual arts.
Painters and sculptors made a concerted effort to extricate
themselves from their medieval heritage and to distinguish
themselves from mere craftsmen.
At the beginning of the Renaissance, painters and sculptors were
still regarded as members of the artisan class, and occupied a low
rung on the social ladder. A shift begins to occur in the 14th
century when painting, sculpture, and architecture began to form a
group separate from the mechanical arts. In the 15th century, the
training of a painter was expected to include knowledge of
mathematical perspective, optics, geometry, and anatomy.
A major development in the Renaissance is the new emphasis on the
realistic description of figures and objects in painting and
sculpture. The call to "imitate nature" involved an almost
scientific examination of optical phenomena. In order to make
figures and objects appear three-dimensional, forms were "modeled"
employing the optical principles of light and shade. These correctly
rendered three-dimensional figures and objects were placed in a
three-dimensional illusionistic space created through the newly
developed device of linear perspective.
The knowledge and use of scientific methods placed painting and
sculpture on a new basis that was intellectual, theoretical,
literary, and scientific. Painters and sculptors could now claim
that their profession required intellectual ability and knowledge.
This permitted the claim that they were superior to mere craftsmen,
and that painting and sculpture should be recognized as liberal
Painters and sculptors also argued that they stood equal to poets;
poetry and rhetoric, of course, were accepted as liberal arts. Part
of the basis for this claim was the notion that painting and poetry
were "sister arts", a concept the Renaissance developed from
Horace's dictum Ut pictura poesis ("as a painting, so a poem"), and
Simonides' description of painting as muta poesis ("silent poetry")
and poetry as pictura loquens ("painting that speaks").
It is through this association with the poets that the concept of
the "artist" as we know it begins to emerge.
During the Renaissance the revival of Plato and Platonism helped
spread the notion of the divine inspiration of the poet, which Plato
compared with that of the religious prophet. According to Plato,
poets and musicians, prophets, were divinely inspired (a term
originally meaning to breathe or blow into, and now understood as
meaning to be filled with supernatural power or energy) and infused
with enthusiasm ("en-theism" meaning possessed by a god,
supernatural inspiration, prophetic or poetic frenzy).
In effect, the gods inspired, or spoke through, poets and musicians
in same way god also spoke through prophets: to prophesy is to utter
with divine inspiration.
The ancients believed that poets and prophets were inspired by a
tutelary deity or attendant spirit, which the Romans called genius,
that communicated to the world through chosen individuals. In the
Renaissance, the source of inspiration became identified not with
some pagan god or antique muse but with God himself.
It was at this time that artists such as Michelangelo began to be
described by their contemporaries as "divine". At the same time
there emerged the important of the artist as creator, a word
formerly reserved for God alone.
This link with the divine immeasurable enhanced the status of the
In the 16th century the new image emerges of the artist as genius,
giving to eccentric behavior, or even slightly mad. The artist also
appears as an intellectual given to abnormal modes of thought, and
regarded as an inspired and special individual.
At the same time, the artist's work was regarded as unique and
imbued with the artist's divinely-inspired creativity; in certain
cases, an artist's work became the object the object of special
pilgrimage and reverence. This attitude has perhaps grown over the
In the latter half of the 16th century the first academies of art
were founded, first in Italy, then in France, and later elsewhere.
Academies took on the task of educating the artist through a course
of instruction that included such subjects as geometry and anatomy.
Out of the academies emerged the term "Fine Arts" which held to a
very narrow definition of what constituted art.
The institutionalizing of art in the academies eventually provoked a
reaction to its strictures and definitions in the 19th century at
which time new claims were made about the nature of painting and
sculpture. By the middle of the century, "modernist" approaches were
introduced which adopted new subject matter and new painterly
values. In large measure, the modern artists rejected, or
contradicted, the standards and principles of the academies and the
Renaissance tradition. By the end of the 19th century and the
beginning of the 20th, artists began to formulate the notion of
truth to one's materials, recognizing that paint is pigment and the
canvas a two-dimensional surface. At this time the call also went up
for "Art for Art's Sake."
The Twentieth Century
In the early 20th century all traditional notions of the identity of
the artist and of art were thrown into disarray by Marcel Duchamp
and his Dada associates. In ironic mockery of the Renaissance
tradition which had placed the artist in an exalted authoritative
position, Duchamp, as an artist, declared that anything the artist
produces is art. For the duration of the 20th century, this position
has complicated and undermined how art is perceived but at the same
time it has fostered a broader, more inclusive assessment of art.
Today the questions What is Art? and What is an Artist?
are not easily answered, therefore should not be
According to William Rubin, director of the Museum of Modern Art in
New York, "there is no single definition of art." The art historian
Robert Rosenblum believes that "the idea of defining art is so
remote today" that he doesn't think "anyone would dare to do it."
Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
in New York, states that there is "no consensus about anything
today," and the art historian Thomas McEvilley agrees that today
"more or less anything can be designated as art."
Arthur Danto, professor of philosophy at Columbia University and art
critic of The Nation, believes that today "you can't say something's
art or not art anymore. That's all finished." In his book, After the
End of Art, Danto argues that after Andy Warhol exhibited simulacra
of shipping cartons for Brillo boxes in 1964, anything could be art.
Warhol made it no longer possible to distinguish something that is
art from something that is not.
What has finished, however, is not artistic production, but a
certain way of talking about art. Artists, whoever they are,
continue to produce, but we, non-artists, are no longer able to say
whether it is art or not. But at the same time, we are no longer
comfortable with dismissing it as art because it fails to fit what
we think art should be (whatever that is).
We struggle with this because we have been taught that art is
important and we're unwilling to face up to the recently revealed
insight that art in fact has no "essence." When all is said and
done, "art" remains significant to human beings and the idea that
now anything can be art, and that no form of art is truer than any
other, strikes us as unacceptable, yet it is everywhere.
The Functions of Art
Other Important aspects
• Cities as birthplaces for Culture.
• Art as seen in Eastern and Western Cultures.
• Daoism and Humanism
• Religion and the main concept of Time as an equation for Cultural
and Artistic development.
• Technology as part of the art expression.
These are some of the foundations that can lead to a
discussion on Art.