If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Art of Ancient Egypt

Ø      Egyptian art was a big influence on Greek, Roman, and even our contemporary life: our art, architecture, money, cosmetics, etc.

Ø      The civilization of ancient Egypt lasted 3000 years. It had over 33 dynasties of ruling families, and can be divided into the:

·        Old Kingdom                     c. 2649-2150 BC
·        Middle Kingdom                c. 2030-1640 BC
·        New Kingdom                    c. 1550-1070 BC
·        Late Period                      c. 712-332 BC
·        Ptolemaic Period              c. 332-30 BC

Ø      Egyptian art is considered formal, static (meaning motionless), blocky, and abstract. It's simpler and possibly more childlike than Greek and Roman art, but this does not mean Egyptian artists were inferior. Their art served a different purpose.

Ø      Egyptian art was not merely decorative. It was functional. If an artist forgot to paint a loaf of bread in a king's tomb, that king wouldn't have any bread in the afterlife. That is why it was so important to include everything he needed.

Ø      This is also why Egyptians painted everything from its most recognizable angle. Faces were painted in profile, while eyes and shoulders were painted frontally.

Ø      Egyptian art was not meant to be seen. Egyptians painted the walls of tombs and then sealed them, hiding the entrances to prevent thieves from stealing all the treasure within. So, their attitude to their art was different from ours today, where we put art in galleries for all to see.

Ø      Egyptians painted stories in registers, meaning parallel lines, the way we write on paper today. Each line on the wall tells a different part of a story.

Ø      Artists also used scale to create hierarchy. The biggest people in the paintings were gods and pharoahs. Common workers were painted very small because they were less important.

Ø      Almost all Egyptian paintings include hieroglyphic text to explain the scene and the names of the characters.

Ø      Egyptians were famous for their consistency. They kept the same style of fashion and art for their entire history, with only a few minor exceptions. Egyptians kept their artistic traditions to promote stability and balance in society and the world.

Ø      However, Egyptian styles did vary depending on the materials used. Stone sculptures were very stiff and formal, with arms close to the sides of the body. But Egyptians also carved wooden figures doing all sorts of activities, looking much more realistic.

Ø      Egyptian statues also served religious purposes. Some statues were even bathed, dressed, and carried in processions.

Ø      Many Egyptian homes had small shrines to their ancestors. People would offer food, wine, and perfume at these shrines, and would write letters to their ancestors asking for help and advice.
Ø      After the Egyptians, it took almost 4000 years for anyone to build something taller than their pyramids.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Role of Art in Society

1. To Support a Hierarchy

For much of human history, art has primarily been used to lend credibility to those in power: politicians, religious leaders, and big businesses. Artists crafted ceremonial costumes, tools, books, and temples to help these leaders impress their followers. You can see it in every culture and at every point in history. Art improves appearances: it gives these institutions an aura of validity. People and groups use art to gain confidence and influence, at times using it to include, at other times to exclude, and at times producing propaganda. It's a role that continues today in a variety of ways.

The ethics of this are always questionable. You may wonder how the blacksmith felt while hammering a sword for King Louis XVI,

or possibly what Anthony van Dyck thought of King Charles I, while painting his portrait:

Charles I, King of England, 16 years before his beheading.

 I think there's a certain Zen to focusing on the quality of your work, regardless of whether you really like the project. Maybe they hoped their art would inspire these people to be better.

2. To Please

A great deal of art is made and displayed just for fun. We enjoy it. This covers the vast majority of visual art, music, film, and comedy. It might sound frivolous (unimportant), but there's actually more to pleasure than simple relaxation. When we turn on a TV, or go to a gallery, cinema, or dance hall it's an opportunity to diffuse stress. We can put aside all our worries and responsibilities and enjoy life, in the present. We don't forget all our problems, but we can take the time to detach from them, making them more manageable, a process of emotional healing we call catharsis.

In some extreme cases, people use art as a form of escapism, burying themselves behind a book or computer screen to avoid the reality of their lives altogether. It's sad, and art is no substitute for life, but it's important to remember just how many lives are saved this way, as people suffer from depression, abuse, poverty, and a host of other social problems.

3. To Develop Identity

There are many elements that make up who we are: our families, towns, friends, our personal histories, our temper, our language, interests, etc. The art we choose to enjoy is another important aspect. Every day we decide how we want to appear to others, what clothes to wear, how to arrange our hair, etc. We don't simply want to look nice. We want to provide clues about who we are––quiet or loud, simple or sophisticated, professional or casual, friendly or menacing. People use art the same way, selecting music, clothes, books, and celebrity role models in a effort to boost their ego, to reinvent themselves in a new and better image. Art is often made and bought as a way to impress those within one's social circle, presenting an outward identity. We decorate our walls, anticipating the reactions of our friends and family. At the same time, by contemplating on an artwork, we can develop a more thoughtful interior identity.

4. To Document History

Every work of art is a document, reflecting the time in which it was made. It tells you about the artist, but it also tells you about the values and concerns of the society she lived in. Art might not be as detailed, clear, or factual as a history book, and it lacks the authority of an official government document. Art is a different kind of document, focusing on a culture's biggest priorities and interests, its loves and losses. We see, not just the past, but how we've changed since then.

5. To See Through Someone Else's Eyes

Art can expose us to the hardships of others, which we wouldn't normally see in everyday life. It can move us to sympathize (to share a common feeling) and empathize (to fully understand someone) with others. In this way art gives us a greater understanding of the world and teaches compassion (súcit), whether you're looking through the artist's eyes, or through that of her subject.

6. To Criticize Society

Societies all over the world suffer from countless problems, many stemming from ignorance and greed. Some artists address these problems in their work, although they often despair at the efficacy of such attempts. It's hard to change people's minds, but art is one of the best ways to do it. It's hard to argue with the emotions you feel in a picture. Particularly, art-as-protest is a powerful way to give a voice to those who are invisible and marginalized.

7. To Ask Big Questions

The world we live in is filled with mystery, questions we may never answer. Astronomers struggle to understand the force that is causing our universe to expand. They say 95% of our universe is "dark matter." People struggle to find meaning in life. We wonder what our purpose is on Earth, if life is worth living. We worry if we're good enough, if we'll ever find peace. We don't know where we came from or where we're going. We panic at the thought of various disasters: a meteor collision, a new super virus, a nuclear war. So we use art to ask questions, and hope it may provide us some answers, or at least help us focus on our priorities.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Art of Ancient Rome

History of Rome

G    Rome was founded around 750 BC by the legendary king Romulus.

G    In 509 BC, Rome became a republic, ruled by a Senate, and by the people. This lasted 450 years, during which the Roman Republic expanded throughout Europe and the Mediterranean.

G    During this time, Rome conquered Greece and assimilated much of Greek culture - their art, architecture, philosophy, and religion.

G    In 51 BC, Julius Caesar defeated the Gauls and became Rome's most powerful general, so powerful that the Senate feared him. They ordered him to step down, and Julius refused, beginning a civil war.

G    Julius Caesar won this war, proclaiming himself emperor for life... But a group of Senators, including his friend Brutus, killed him in 44 BC, stabbing him to death.

G    But, Caesar had a son, Octavian. He defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and became Rome's second Emperor, changing his name to Augustus. The Roman republic was at an end. Now it was an empire.

G    This empire lasted for 500 years, during which it expanded to Britain, Syria, and Egypt.

G    In 313 AD, Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of Rome.

G    The Roman Empire fell for a variety of reasons. Part of the problem was it was too large to manage. This is called over-expansion. Imagine trying to govern all that land without our modern technology: no modern transport, no modern communication. Add to this, a series of weak emperors, civil war, financial crisis, and barbarian invasions.

G    In the 4th century, the Roman Empire split in two, beginning the eastern Byzantine Empire. This empire would last until 1453, when the capital city, Constantinople, was defeated by the Ottoman Turks, and became Istanbul.

G    The Western Roman Empire fell much earlier, in 470 AD, due to barbarian invasions.

Roman Art:

G    Roman art consisted of marble sculpture, painting, mosaics, jewellery & other metalwork, and glass blowing, which Romans used in place of ceramics.

G    While Roman artists were great, they were also anonymous. Roman historians paid no attention to them, instead focusing on the great Greek artists they copied from.

G    Besides Greece, Roman art was also influenced by Egypt and the Etruscans (a civilization also located in Italy that came before the Romans).

G    Romans loved Greek art, and copied many famous Greek statues. It's lucky for us, because many of the original Greek works were destroyed.

G    But, Roman artists didn't simply copy. They made small changes and added a sense of humour (often dark) to their works, making it distinctly Roman.

G    Another change was Roman portraiture. Greeks idealized figures, but Romans preferred a more realistic look. They were proud of their age, their wrinkles and bald head, as it represented their many years of service.

G    After Rome switched from a republic to an empire, its artistic style went back to that of classical Greece, stressing the perfection of their country, with perfect, ideal figures. Augustus Caesar, for example, made his portraits look like a young athlete, even right before his death.
G    Starting around 200 AD, Roman art shifted style. Realism became less important. Roman design became simpler, more childlike. By the end of the empire, Romans developed the same Byzantine style of art that characterized the dark ages. So, Roman art began to fall in the same way that Rome did.

The Art of Ancient Greece

    The ancient Greeks lived in separate city states, from Turkey to the south of France, but shared the same language and religion. Sometimes they fought each other, and sometimes they worked together to fight other enemies.

    The history of ancient Greece can be organized into periods (or ages):

            The Bronze Age                                                                         3200 – 1100 BC
                 The Mycenaean Age (Late Bronze Age, aka Age of Heroes)                  1600 – 1100 BC
            Archaic Period                                                                            600 480 BC
            Classical Period (Golden Age, ending with Alexander the Great)   480 323 BC
            Hellenistic Period (after the death of Alexander the Great)          323 31 BC

    The Mycenaean Age was named after the village of Mycenae, the first of its period to be discovered and excavated by archaeologists.

    The Mycenaean Age is considered the age of heroes because this is when all the epic events took place, which Homer wrote about - the battle of Troy, and the return of Odysseus.
    Art of the Mycenaean Age consisted mostly of pottery, with simple, geometric figures and designs. Greek ceramics had distinct shapes, based on function:

          Amphora - were mostly wine jugs (for storing wine). Also used as urns. 
          Hydria - were water jugs.
          Oinochoe - were wine jugs (for pouring at the table)
          Kraters - were jugs for mixing wine and water.
          Kylix & Kantharos - were drinking cups.
          Lekythos - a jug for olive oil.
          Pyxis - for women's cosmetics & jewellery.

    Greek Pottery can also be divided into stylistic periods:
      Proto Geometric      1050 900 BC
      Geometric             900 700 BC
      Oriental                 800 – 600 BC
      Black Figure           620 – 480 BC
      Red Figure            520 320 BC
      White Ground      around 500 BC
    The greatest art of the Archaic Period were marble statues of young men (Kouroi) and women (Korai). The women were dressed in elegant gowns, but the men were nude. These statues were life-size and free-standing, and were used to mark gravestones. They had arrogant, aristocratic facial expressions.
    The Classical Period was Greece's Golden Age, when they produced their most famous art, architecture, theatre, poetry, and philosophy. This period began with the defeat of the invading Persians (present day Iran).
    The Parthenon in Athens was built in the Classical Period.
    Greeks also began the production of gold and silver coins in the Classical Period.
    Hellenistic Greece began with the death of Alexander the Great, and the division of his empire. It ended with the Roman invasion.
    The greatest artworks of Hellenistic Greece were statues, for example Nike of Samothrake, and Laocoön and His Sons.
    Alexander the Great was so famous, that he started a fashion trend - a clean-shaven ruler. Greek and Roman rulers copied this for 500 years, up until the Roman Emperor Hadrian grew a beard.