As I understand it, the history of art and design divides into 4 books:
The human adventure starts with the mutation of our predecessor specie into the human form, with our present day characteristics, sometime around 100,000 years ago. The human brain as we know it nowadays was indeed completely formed in that period.
Rapidly, humans started glorifying the elements that visually appeared to them as commanding the phenomena that directly impacted their survival: the sun, the moon, the animals and plants. This phase of belief called animism shall be supplanted by the invention of the gods and the development of religions.
Some very fine visual art works of that period have been preserved, mostly in the form of cave paintings and of objects of daily use. On December 24th, the Boston Globe gave an excellent piece, The spark of the artist, showing that from their art works we can deduce that "... Primitives weren't so primitive" after all. "The three tiny ivory carvings - of a bird, a horse's head, and a figure that is part lion and part man - are 30,000 years old, according to archaeologist Nicholas Conrad of the University of Tubingen in Germany, who published his findings in the journal Nature last week. The discovery of what appear to be among the world's oldest figurines reveals craftsmanship and artistic expression comparable to those of the modern-day artist. ... The urge - and skill - to create something beautiful just might be hard-wired into the human psyche. The modern-day notion is that ancient cultures must have been far too focused on survival to have time for art. But maybe the truth is that they had more time, and more quiet, in which to hear the song of the earth."
I follow the conclusion of the article, "... maybe the truth is that they had more time, and more quiet, in which to hear the song of the earth."
As I already stated it, under animist beliefs, art served as production of representations of the elements that humans thought were commanding the phenomena that directly impacted their survival: the sun, the moon, the animals and plants. Survival was indeed central for them and those representations were signs of their profound respect for the elements and of their humble acceptance of the ways of nature.
The legacy of animist societies is a philosophy stressing the understanding of the workings of their natural environment from which they derived a kind of natural respect for all other forms of life. Art in those societies has to be understood as an extension of their philosophical understandings. And yes, perhaps "the urge - and skill - to create something beautiful just might be hard-wired into the human psyche".
2. The Gods of religions.
The transition to the human creation of gods takes place at different times for each center of civilization (*). China and Sumer invent their first gods sometime 5-6000 years ago or earlier. Other centers will follow up later on. Some ethnic groups are even living in animist cultures till today. All that shows us a deep differentiation between the people of this earth in their levels of societal development.
So the historical phase of religious domination of the minds starts sometime 5-6000 years ago for the most advanced societies of that time, China and the Middle East, and reaches its zenith around 500 BC in China, the 18th-20th centuries in Western Europe. Most other societies remain firmly entrenched in their religious beliefs as of today.
In religious times, art and design over time will come to serve as advertisement techniques for the religious power. Visual arts, in societies under religious ideology, are a non stop succession of images illustrating the content of religion. Architecture and music serve to impress the population, that is largely uneducated, in order to instill fear in the small individual for the power of those representing those grandiose architectural constructions and the music served in them. In other words, grandiose religious architecture has to serve the grandeur of the religious authority. The same kind of reasoning is valid equally when applied to the aristocracy.
3. The enlightenment.
From the 18th to 20th centuries, European minds are enlightened by rationalism that develops as an ideological extension of capitalism and industrialism. The function of visual arts is now the decoration of the mansions of the aristocracy and of the new rich. Portraits and landscapes are the subjects of most painters. The size of paintings is reduced to adapt to their new architectural destinations.
The enlightenment goes hand in hand with the generalization of the decorating function of visual arts. The idea of beautifying living spaces has indeed been adopted by ever larger segments of the populations and today is absolutely generalized.
The development of capitalism in its phase of consumerism forces everyone in industrialized nations into deeper and deeper individualism. In other words, the market imposes its offers to every single individual in the form of a creation of new needs adapted to the financial capabilities of all. From being reserved for the aristocracy and the new rich who were the only ones who could afford to pay for paintings, architectural constructions, rich furnishings and accessories; visual arts will gradually be offered in cheaper forms in the market. The conception of those cheaper forms has gradually given rise to specialized jobs: designers, marketers, researchers.
As illustration of this idea, let's look at how the visual arts form painting will be "democratized".
- In a first phase lithographic limited editions prints serving the same function as paintings will expand the market base.
- Then, following the economic development of Western societies, higher incomes will also allow for an expansion of the customer base for paintings.
- The ultimate expansion of the consumer base for prints will be reached with the advent of offset printing presses that could churn out very large quantities of prints for a very low unit cost. Paintings by famous artists will be reproduced in unlimited quantities and the sheer size of this market was calling for specialized answers that will take the form of graphic design.
- Finally, paintings themselves will be chain produced for the same market expansion reason. And today chain production in Western workshops of landscape paintings has been delocalized to cheap wage countries.
It makes no doubt to me that, in this maelstrom of a few centuries of economic and technological changes, painter artists have been in Western societies, the group of individuals that most interiorized the impact of those changes. Through the effect of such a profound interiorization process, though they have been reduced to society's marginality, they also have been recognized as special. Notwithstanding that their visions were not understood, they nevertheless were accepted. Van Gogh and others were surely not understood by many of their contemporaries but they have been accepted, their strangeness has been tolerated, only the market had no place for them. But again, in finale, the market gradually will absorb even that strangeness. Fortunes have been disbursed, for works of contemporary art in the 20th century, that appeared totally incomprehensible to their buyers. In this process, art marketers succeeded in convincing some buyers that pieces of garbage were pieces of art. Art marketers succeeded this extraordinary feet at rendering art absolutely hermetic to normal comprehension by imposing their so called art specialist knowledge and in the process they gained the control over wide financial speculative movements. The acceptance by society at large during the second part of the 20th century that art was hermetic to normal comprehension led to the worse. That's how I could associate myself in my post "Art and art critics." with Roger Kimball's fundamental rejection of art critics' productions in his piece "The rape of the masters" without in any way following him in his ideological conclusions.
4. The great atomization.
Consumerism and the expansion of merchandization towards absolutely everything relating to humans has reduced the individuals in the advanced countries to salary dependents. The competition for salaries makes it indispensable now for humans to develop knowledge and skills adapted to the new needs of the economy. As an irony the subsequent human individualism will transfer the biggest power of all, knowledge, in the hands of the mass of individuals. Entering the realm of knowledge and understanding everyone starts to develop his own idea about everything, ideologies and common beliefs are on the wane.
This great atomization is the story of the 21st century, first and foremost it is the story of artists, thinkers and scientists who are sprinting through the gates towards the world of knowledge and understanding opened by the market.
When it's quest is let free, I believe that knowledge fragments. What I mean is that the totality that is our universe is so large that there is absolutely no way to come up with a single explanation covering everything. Statistically it is an impossibility, indeed we are no gods! It's kind of a supreme irony that in fine the market's radical search for freedom of understanding, of knowledge leads to exactly the opposite of what it was looking for: the end of history or the acceptance of the market as the exclusive human way.
Ideology is the outcome, in terms of ideas, of a society that is force fed a message, a vision by institutions that are imposed upon all by an authority that uses this ideology as a kind of social super glue guaranteeing ultimately its own preservation. The market is the social super glue binding all individuals into acceptance of the logic of capital and rationality that is given as its absolute ideology. The only problem with this kind of rationality is it's bulk system nature that appears more and more being assaulted by the ultimate human fragmentation of knowledge.
Going from one historical reality to the next generates frictions.
The transition times have shorten and the shock of the future is becoming always heavier to assume. At the turn of the 21st century, artists, scientists and thinkers in the US and the EU discover a new road at the periphery of the enlightenment through rationality. The shock is quite severe, we have indeed not been prepared for atomization
In visual arts this shock materialized in the "everything is possible" and led to complete loss of sense. It was marketing that gave its imprimatur to what had to be considered as art. Instantly, garbage became art. In this process, art and thought have been totally devalued. Every time an extreme is reached it is superseded by its opposite. Today, the opposite of "non sense" is "no non sense" but there is no guaranteed road, path to "no non sense". That's what renders the artists and thinkers' roads so much more arduous.
(*) Culture and civilization:
Culture is the representation of the ways of behaving and of doing by societies at a given time. For example, present day culture is our present day ways of life: consumerism, mass market, merchandization of all that touches human live and dependence on salary. This implies that culture is kind of a historic snaphot of the ways of a society.
Civilization is the build up of culture snapshots through history, it is the addition of the successive cultural moments of a society. In that sense, the civilization of a given society can encompass a very large variety of cultural values and behaviors. It can even encompass what appears as opposite values: one extreme pole on the ladder of behavioral possibilities at a given time and the other extreme pole at an other given time.