What is Art? Lecture


The What is Art? Lecture invites students to think about the many ways that creativity, in art forms, is a part of everyone’s social and cultural world.  Cultural anthropology is interested in human creativity; because cross-cultural studies of art tells much about the lives of the people who created the art.

Most of the time we associate art with paintings, museum exhibits, sculptures, woven tapestries, jewelry, etc., but art is not just for exhibition. It serves culture in many ways.  Art can be discovered in myths, songs, rhythms, dance, apparel, dwellings, religion, spiritual beliefs, funerary rituals, and utility objects to name a few.  All of these things involve creativity; but all are not for exhibition only.  Some are not meant for exhibition at all.

We briefly mentioned frescoes at the beginning of this lesson, a kind of art that human creativity has been involved in for thousands of years.   Art historians often say, “. . . the history of fresco painting is closely related to, and a reflection of, the history of art generally.”  Fresco-type painting was a highly developed art form of both the Greek and Roman eras and reflects the societies and cultures that it was created for.

In Roman times, the elites liked to surround themselves with realistic scenes from nature.  The fresco, above, demonstrates exactly that.  Frescoes were first painted in caves as long ago as 30,000 years ago by applying earth’s natural pigments directly to cave walls. Anthropologists cannot know exactly why people began to paint on cave walls; but culture shows us that people need to be creative and expressive. The ancient Chavet cave paintings in France exhibit a high level of creativity and expression.

Today, we don’t see many Frescoes because we have other types of wall coverings, paints, and decorative art to enhance the walls of our homes and other structures.

As cultures have become more complex, from the days of cave paintings, art has also evolved complexity. Even without a written language, we can discover cultural changes, noticeable within artistic patterns. Some may argue that artistic changes occur after culture changes have already begun.  Either or might be the case.   The reasons for artistic creativity are many, but human beings have an innate need to be able to express ideas and feelings in symbolic and creative ways. From the earliest days of cave art, creativity is just one of the many ways we are different from all other organisms.

The following clip, “How Art Gives Shape to Cultural Change,” gives you a viewpoint from a contemporary artist historian.  Thelma Golden, curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York show you how art can contribute to cultural dialogue.

This course examines cultural changes where art has been a main player.  Culture changes in one culture region often leads to the same changes in other culture regions.  An example to cite is the “hippie culture” of the 1960’s in the United States.  It began in San Francisco, but spread to other culture regions quite rapidly.  Art was a main player in this cultural movement.  The following video on Hippies Remember The Glory Days,  in “Making Sense of the 60’s,” will give you a glimpse into the hippie culture, which ushered in cultural changes in many parts of the world.  You may need to copy (Control C) or paste (Control V) the following link into your browser.


We will examine Arembepe, a small village in Brazil, to see how even a remote population can be affected by culture changes elsewhere in the world. The following clip, filled with hippie nudity, is not about sensuality.  The Blues Brothers song, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” is the background to an invasion of hippies upon Arembepe.

In order to gain a perspective about this film,  understand that Arembepe, Brazil in the 1960’s was a small and insignificant fishing village without electricity, motorized transportation, refrigeration, or television.  Wealthy young college students descended upon this remote paradise, which had very different religious, traditional, and family values than what the hippies brought.  Arembepe had a small population that was mostly [glossary]egalitarian[/glossary].  Try to imagine how the demonstrations in the film might have affected such a population.  What kind of culture shock might they have experienced?

Today, Arembepe is a completely changed community and they have television, refrigeration and motorized transportation.  In today’s world such a crowd of tourists, like the hippies would not have been quite the shock it was in that era.  Today’s technology, which allows for a faster and easier way of communicating in the world of art can change cultures without the actually visitation of people – so many things can now be experienced in virtual worlds.

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