APSU Notes

Chapter 6: Connecting Art to Our Lives

Chapter Learning Outcomes

Aftere completing this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Identify the purposes art serves in society
  • Discuss the philosophy of aesthetics in the visual arts
  • Explain the function of art as a means of communication
  • Indicate how architectural forms contributed and enhanced religious cultures


  • Aesthetics - the branchs of philosophy concerned with the feeling aroused in us by sensory experiences.

These are experiences through sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. Aesthetics concerns itself with our responses to the natural world and to the world we make, especially the world of art. The word aesthetics was coined in the early 18th century by a German philosopher named Alexander Baumgarten. He derived his word from the Greek word for “perception” and he used it to name what he considered to be a field of knowledge. This was the knowledge gained by sensory experience combined with feelings, he called it. Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy concerned with notions of the beautiful in works of art. We also speak of an aesthetic as a set of principles or characteristics of what is considered beautiful in a particular time and place. In Baumgarten’s time, Western audiences viewed the Classical art of ancient Greece and Rome and the Italian Renaissance as the most aesthetically pleasing. They measured all art against these standards and considered art without roots to the ancient Mediterranean to be ugly or “primitive.” Collectors in Paris, London, and New York would display these works in anthropological collections rather than in art museums.

Aesthetics of Other Cultures

  • Exploring the aesthetics of other cultures can help us to appericate what expressive forms they value and why
  • Each work of art reflects a different, and equally valuable, aesthetic

This kind of cultural prejudice changed over the course of the 20th century, and today we understand that exploring the aesthetics of other cultures can help us to appreciate what expressive forms they value and why. For example, the tea bowl shown here was formed by hand in the Japanese province of Shigaraki during the late 16th or early 17th century. By the aesthetic standards of 18th- and 19th-century Western culture, this small vessel is not beautiful. Yet for the Japanese culture that produced it, the bowl reflects two key concepts that form part of Japanese tastes: wabi and sabi. Wabi embraces such concepts as naturalness, simplicity, understatement, and impermanence. Sabi adds overtones of loneliness, old age, and tranquility. The two terms are central to the aesthetics that developed around the austere variety of Buddhism known as Zen. They are especially connected with the Zen-inspired practice we know as the tea ceremony. Through its connection with the tea ceremony and with Zen Buddhist spiritual ideals, this simple bowl partakes in a rich network of meanings and associations that are valued in its context. Whether or not the Japanese tea bowl looks as “beautiful” as a Greek vase to us is irrelevant. Our opinions are shaped by the aesthetic preferences we were raised with. Each work of art reflects a different, and equally valuable, aesthetic. One is not better than the next. All are beautiful and worthy of study within their own contexts.

Aesthetics beyond Beauty

  • Art can produce pleasure, but it can also inspire sadness, horror, pity, awe, or many other emotions.

Art can produce pleasure, but it can also inspire sadness, horror, pity, awe, or many other emotions. Francisco de Goya was witness to many acts of cruelty and war during the early 19th century. Works he created for himself, those not commissioned by the Spanish government or wealthy, expressed his pessimistic view of human nature. Goya painted the image Saturn Devouring One of His Children on a wall in his house. by the compelling visual power, we can recognize them as extraordinary art, but they do not show pleasure or beauty. The common thread is that in each case, or work of art we view, we find the experience of looking to be valuable for its own sake. Art makes looking worthwhile. Art can be beautiful, but not all art tries to be beautiful, and beauty is not a requirement for art. Beauty remains a mysterious concept, something that everyone senses, many disagree about, and no one has yet defined. Artists are as fascinated by beauty as any of us and return to it again and again, though not always in the form we expect.


Romanticism began in the late 18th century. It was not a style so much as a set of attitudes and characteristic subjects. The 18th century, or Age of Reason, saw a focus on rationality, skeptical questioning, and scientific inquiry. Romanticism rebelled against those, and showed claims of emotion, intuition, individual experience, and imagination. They also focused on the Sublime. Romantic artists painted such subjects as picturesque ruins, tumultuous events, struggles for liberty, and scenes of exotic cultures. Geographically, the closest “exotic” cultures to Europe were the Islamic lands of North Africa. To European thinking, these were part of “the Orient,” a realm imagined as sensuous and seductive, full of barbaric splendor and cruelty. Eugène Delacroix, the leading painter of the Romantic movement in France, spent several months in North Africa in 1832. Fascinated by all he saw, he filled sketchbook after sketchbook with drawings, watercolors, and observations. Later, he drew upon that material to create numerous paintings, including The Women of Algiers, which portrays three women and their servant in a harem, the women’s apartment of an Islamic palace. Delacroix had apparently been allowed to visit an actual harem, a rare privilege for a man, not to mention a European. Delacroix’s technique is freer and painterly. Forms are built up with fully loaded brushstrokes, contours are blurred, and colors are broken.

Les Nabis (The Prophets)

The artistic group called Les Nabis extended the philosophical idea of aesthetics to look at works of art in a new and different way. Nabi painters emphasized abstract form, to convey spiritual meaning as well as a means of suggestion and personal expression. Maurice Denis was the most prominent art theorist associated with the Nabis. He stated “A painting — before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote — is essentially a flat surface covered with colors arranged in a certain order.” Emphasis on color and surface design is a primary characteristic of Nabi painting, which conveys emotion and meaning through abstract formal relations. In Denis’ Climbing to Calvary the simple dark shapes of black-robed nuns rise diagonally towards a large cross carried by a barely-defined red Christ. One nun reaches out to embrace Christ at the top of the hill, and a strip of bright sky tops off the scene. The basic forms convey the combination of mourning and hope that Christians associate with Christ’s death and resurrection. The scene is timeless, containing elements of the present (the nuns) and the past (Mary embracing Christ on the way to the Crucifixion, the dark silhouette of a crowd of Roman soldiers over the hill). The figure of Christ suggests both the nuns’ spiritual vision of Christ carrying the cross, and a Good Friday procession re-enacting the Crucifixion.

Decorative Arts

  • Les Nabis artist brought art into all areas of life by focusing on creating works to decorate specific locations

Nabi paintings do not allow viewers to get lost in the represented scene and forget that they are looking at colors applied to a surface. Instead, they display the tension between the represented scene and the paint that creates it by emphasizing abstract decorative forms over naturalistic details. In Maurice Denis’ April the landscape and figures are reduced to simple shapes, and the colors are flat and unmodulated. Denis further emphasizes the surface of the picture plane by depicting the distant hills in red tones rather than fading blues to represent the effect of atmospheric perspective. April was made specifically to decorate a young girl’s room, and many Nabi paintings were designed as ensembles for specific locations. The Nabis’ embrace of the decorative arts was wide-ranging and included designs for wallpaper, tapestries, stained glass, and ceramics. They illustrated books, created posters, and designed costumes and sets for Symbolist theatrical productions. Through their many forms of artistic production the Nabis expanded art into all areas of life.

Albert Bierstadt

Albert Bierstadt used romanticized imagery in his work Emigrants Crossing the Plains or the Oregon Trail to show the beauty of the west and to inspire more to take the journey along the Oregon Trail. Painting a romanticized image of wagon train of German emigrants that he had met along the trail. Bierstadt showed how great a trip west was. He ignored the struggle, hardship, and death that accompanied the emigrants along the Oregon Trail.

Art for Political Purpose

Works of art have long been used to show either the artists political views or the views that the patron wanted shown. One example of this is the Ara Pacis built in Rome during the reign of Emperor Augustus. Dedicated to Augustus after he returned from Spain, the Ara Pacis, which was part of a monumental architectural makeover of the Campus Martius (campus of Mars), it served as a reminder of the success that Augustus had in bringing peace back to Rome. The choice to celebrate peace and the attendant prosperity in some ways breaks with the tradition of explicitly triumphal monuments that advertise success in war and victories won on the battlefield. By championing peace—at least in the guise of public monuments—Augustus promoted a powerful and effective campaign of political message making.

The Dome of the Rock

Land of Fakes


Art can be used a means of unifying a group as well as a means of excluding other groups of people. Religious works are a prime example of this, especially religious architecture. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is an example of one such building. Built over a large rock, the Dome of the Rock claimed a location for the Islamic religion that was of importance to many other religions. The Dome was built to rival the Byzantine Churches of the time and to demonstrate the power of the Islamic faith. One of the key buildings that the Dome of the Rock was modeled after was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The domes of the two buildings are almost identical in size.

Art for Communication

In many societies where the majority of individuals were illiterate works of art were used to communicate community and religious ideas. It is thought that this figure found by Sir Arthur Evans in Knossos might be an image of the ‘Mother Goddess’ worshiped in pre-Classical Greece. What the meaning of this figure and if it represents a goddess are still debated today, but whatever the meaning, the people of Knossos would have understood.

Art for Political Purpose

Art can also be used to communicate political ideas either subtly or blatantly. Mel Chin makes a subtle political statement with his work ‘Cabinet of Craving’. His is discussing the addictions and manipulations of empires. Specifically the Victorian English craving for Chinese tea and porcelain. And the Chinese desire for silver and the trade of narcotics that led to the Opium Wars.

Ai WeiWei


Artist Ai WeiWei demonstrated a very blatant political statement with his art.

Art for Protest

Art is a great form of protest, it allows the artist to show what they or their patron are against. Jaune Quick-to-See Smith is a Native American artist who uses her art as commentary and protest on the history of the treatment of her people. This work, created as commentary on the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in North America, shows how not everyone is grateful for Columbus’ arrival. Her work shows themes of commercialization and stereotyping of Native American imagery. She also has underlaid positive imagery from her Native American heritage showing the indigenous side of the story.

Lake O Fakes

Land of Fakes

David P. Bradley, LAND O BUCKS, LAND O FAKES, LAND O LAKES 2006, acrylic paint on paper over wood box. Contemporary: Social Art (Race, History, and Ethnicity).


David Bradley used his art to fight misappropriation of Native American imagery used for capital gain. He reformulates pop imagery such as this Land O’Lakes butter box —found in American Grocery stores— to combat cultural myths and the treatment of Native Americans. In his own words: ”For five hundred years, American Indians have had everything taken from them. One of the last valuable things the own is their identity. Now that Indian identity has become a marketable commodity, it is being taken, as well.”

Art for Celebration

Art has been used to mark significant events in life throughout history. We have seen documentation through art of the celebration of many significant life events. This painting, ‘The Wedding Party’ is one example of an image used for celebration. Painted by Henri Rousseau, a self-taught artist, in 1905. He kept the figures on a single plane with little depth, reminiscent of works of Manet’s. At the time Rousseau was painting this group portrait, his work was seen as avant-garde. Avant-Garde simply means works of art that are innovative, experimental, or different from the norm or on the cutting edge

Grave Markers

On the opposite side of celebration art we see art designed to commemorate those who we have lost. Grave Markers were and can be highly decorative and used as a means to honor and memorialize those we have lost. This example from Ancient Greece shows the funerary stele, or grave marker, of a women named Hegeso (he-gee-so). Likely part of a wealthy family, Hegeso is shown in a moment of looking at jewelry, which use to be shown in paint but since lost. Her foot rests on a stool so she is not actually touching the ground in any place, adding to the solemn reminder that she has passed on. These kind of markers were common toward the end of the High Classical period especially around Athens. Today we still see highly decorated grave markers to commemorate and remember those we have lost.

Art for Worship

One of the most well known uses of art is in the worship setting. Most religions have some form of artwork used to help guide its followers. In the Hindu religion, the myriad of Hindu gods and goddesses in their many guises are a favorite subject. These cult statues – or images of a deity, saint, or holy figure, help guide the worshipper on their religious path. This large-scale sculpture depicts the myth of Vishnu as Varaha, the Boar, rescuing the goddess Bhudevi (boo-deve), which represents the earth. The rows of figures at the back are sages and divinities and two male musicians. On the sides of the panels there are images of the river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna with figures of attendants. This would have shown the viewers the triumphs of good over evil and to believe in the gods.


  • Altarpieces were the central focus in churches during the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque periods.

The work “Assumption” by Titian is in the Church of the Frari in Venice. It towers up behind the main altar of the church. The painting is part of a richly worked, massive stone altarpiece, with fluted columns, marble inlay, and gilded carving. A statue of Christ crowns the ensemble, flanked by two monks. We can see how the tall, arched shape of the painting repeats the pointed arches of the church itself, and we can appreciate how the painting’s bold composition projects clearly into the cavernous interior. This work would have helped the viewers feel the truth of their beliefs though the splendor of the architecture echoing with the vision of the miracle presented with Titian’s skill.

Art for Information

  • Egyptians: papyrus to make scrolls
  • Romans: codex form of books
  • Johannes Gutenburg invented printing press in 1439

Art has been used as a form of communication to provide people with information. This information can be of a religious nature or a secular nature. The secular information can be of community information or educational information. This secular information was usually shared in forms of scrolls made of papyrus used by the Egyptians or books in the codex form created by the Romans. The spread of information was passed from the scribes and educated to the illiterate. The Romans developed the first system of tiered education in the 1st century BCE. In the mid-15th century, the invention of the printing press and movable type launched Europe’s first great “information revolution.” For the first time in the West, information could be widely disseminated. The first printed books in Europe were illustrated with woodcut pictures inked and printed along with the type.


  • Manipulation of photography and graphic arts resulted in the spread of a great wealth of material of dubious accuracy and purpose.

The spread of information advanced considerably with the invention of photography in the early 19th century. One way in which photography changed the world was in the sheer quantity of images that could be created and put into circulation. Whereas a painter might take weeks or even months to compose and execute a scene of daily life, a photographer could produce dozens of such scenes in a single day. Photography could record what was seen as history unfolded, or preserve a visual record of what existed for a time. Around 1900, the first process for photomechanical reproduction—high-speed printing of photographs along with type—came into being, and with it images in newspapers transitioned from woodblock printing to reproduced photographs. The growth of visual media and the ability to mass produce images in papers and on the internet have lead to the possibility of visual information being spread that has been manipulated for dubious accuracy and purpose. We must always make an effort to verify and vette all information we view and shared digitally.


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