Art includes both producing and interpreting physical manifestations of an artist’s ideas or intentions. When I mention art as part of Your Society, I’m referring to the profession and how it has adapted over time. Using our earlier definition, anything created by our early ancestors can be considered a work of art: a marking on a cave wall, a branch turned into a tool, even a symbol meant to represent a word. Since art is all about representing and interpreting ideas, we’ll ignore tools and languages for right now. We’ll look a little closer at cave paintings.
Sometimes the artistic work will look like the real object it is meant to represent: drawn human hunters, bears, deer and bulls most likely didn’t have more ambiguous meaning than the organism itself. Other cave paintings have less clear intentions, this one showing the outlines of hands with markings made inside the hands. Here, the artists could have used the different markings to convey more complex messages. The prints could have been accidental and our tendency to look for intention has given us the opportunity to create one beyond the artist.
Although this painting is ambiguous, the hands are still very recognizable by future human audiences. Art walks a fine line between remaining ambiguous to allow for diverse interpretations but must also remain relatable so that the audience can at least begin from a similar idea. Here, the relatable idea is the shape of the hands, the ambiguity comes from different interpretations: some might say the spots are disease, others might comment that they are all left hands.
Artists have walked this line of relatable ambiguity throughout human history. Some ambiguity has been lost due to the repetition of themes with specific stimulus. Color and sound are two very ambiguous and relatable stimuli. Our exposure to so much art with colors or sounds representing similar ideas has made us synapse those ideas with the color. The more art we have access to, the more likely we are to find similarities between artists that use the same color palates. Art requires audience interpretation and an audience with more artistic experience will interpret using those experiences.
You’ve probably heard of the stereotypical “starving artist” and it makes sense because translating your ideas into physical manifestation doesn’t necessarily provide food. Instead, our society created money as an intermediate between producing something and obtaining food. The artists that were able to continue making art, especially full time, were paid to do so. However, if you’re paying for something to be created, you probably want a say in what’s being made. Art becomes institutionalized when there is a single authority that asks and pays for a specific idea to be placed into an artwork.
When it comes to spreading messages in exchange for money, we can turn to the largest institutions of most societies that probably had quite a lot of money: religion. Religion became the first institution to commission new art to be made insisting on the presence of characters and themes from their holy book.
As an artist who is told to paint a specific scene, you don’t have to avoid deviating from the intention of the institution, you’ll just need to keep that part ambiguous. There’s a reason most of the world’s art, at least for a large portion of our history, was related to the gods of the time. Some artists truly wanted to share their love of god but for many others, you can follow the money trail.
The next institution to commission art to be made occurred in the Entertainment Age as the media expanded their wealth and reach over the population. Just like religion before them, the media wanted a return on investment for purchasing someone’s artistic talents. Thus began the new branch of art known as advertising.
Artists could continue to express their intentions in an artwork as long as they included the name or logo of the company paying them. With a single institution commissioning much of the popular art of an era, there will naturally be a tendency toward a single style based on marketing trends. In a way, the style limitations lowered the potential creativity of the artists but it also allows us to quickly determine and appreciate specific time periods of art.
Art is a two way process: the artist needs to (1) translate their ideas and intentions into a physical manifestation that can be (2) interpreted by an audience. Let’s look at that concept using a metaphor: the intended idea is a whole tree and it can be expressed in a huge number of ways represented by the branches. The physical art is only able to demonstrate a single branch of the idea tree. The artist gets to keep every other branch of that tree private while still sharing the idea with others and it gives an extra assignment to the audience.
When observing art, the audience will take the given branch and try to construct an idea tree of their own, usually relating to themselves. Because the art is only a branch of an unlimited amount of trees, the audience can also try to reconstruct the tree of the artist by trying to understand his/her intention instead of how it can be interpreted. You are all artists, and you are all interpreters.
We live in a world with billions of universes that we have created either by ourselves or with the inspiration of another artist. Never forget that you are a part of the same world as all the artists that have helped you to create universes beyond your reality.