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Art as a Representation of Culture

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  • 0:01 That's Art?
  • 0:49 Defining Art
  • 2:16 Religious Roots
  • 3:23 Cultural Catalyst
  • 4:15 The Next Generation
  • 6:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

Why do anthropologists care about art? This lesson examines different approaches to art and how these expressions of culture are passed on from one generation to the next.

That's Art?

Two friends are deep in an argument at an art museum, looking at a painting. One friend, David, says, 'That's not art!' His friend Li is floored. 'Oh yes, it is!', he exclaims. They have a similar argument riding home in the car, listening to music. David says, 'Now, this is a true art form!' Li can't believe it: this is beautiful to his friend's ears?

Between different tastes and different interpretations, who determines what is considered art in our society or in other cultures? There is no one answer to the question of what is art, yet the power of its influence is unmistakable.

In this lesson, you'll learn about what you consider art and how deeply these various forms of expression are connected with culture.

Defining Art

Artistic expressions come from a variety of different practices. Traditionally, crafts are items that are created that serve a function in society, such as pottery or clothing, though they may also be visually appealing or carry cultural meanings. Fine arts, on the other hand, are not typically created for their functional value but are created for their aesthetic beauty and meaning and also often require practice to develop skills. The fine arts include painting, sculpture, and photography, among others.

Another categorization, performing arts, are productions like music, theatre, and dance. There is also a range of other forms of art, as well as expressions that don't necessarily fit neatly into a category, or that overlap in categories.

What we now consider a form of art may not always have been seen that way by the public. For instance, David is a big comic book fan. Though comics were not considered fine arts in the past, now some universities offer Fine Arts degrees in Comic Art.

So, what do we know for sure about art? In every culture in the world, artistic expression has emerged to provide an outlet for thoughts, feelings, traditions, and beliefs. It's generally less important to define what art actually is and more useful that anthropologists look at the impact and meaning of a particular form of expression.

Religious Roots

Many famous works of art, such as paintings and sculptures, are rooted in religion. There is a long, historical tradition of expressing spiritual themes this way. Scenes important to the religion are often recreated, and important human figures or gods are depicted to tell the story of the faith. These religious recreations reinforce the emotional connection a worshiper has to the subject of the art. The art may provide a visual reminder of their spiritual beliefs and central figures, such as when a devout Catholic, like David, sees an image of Jesus or Mary, or when Li, who is Buddhist, interprets the hand gestures of a statue from his tradition.

Back in the art museum, David gets upset at what his friend Li thinks is art because he has a more traditional view of art. He sees it as conveying a particular meaning or story. To David, art is rooted in history, like religious artwork. For Li, art is open to a range of interpretations and doesn't have to tell a particular story to be beautiful and intriguing.

Cultural Catalyst

Art can be both rooted in history and a catalyst for change in a culture. It connects people of a culture to their past, and it suggests new ideas and insights. For instance, modern dancers in the 20th century departed from traditional forms of movement that were very structured and tried new ways of shifting their body. Though they were connected with some of the past traditions, these kinds of changes tended to go hand in hand with other shifts in society.

As a professional dancer himself, Li has noticed how new forms of dance can help usher in new ways of thinking, breaking out of old molds and traditions and trying new approaches. Yet there are often ties to the past that are honored as the art form evolves, such as when he choreographs dances that combine various forms of dance.

The Next Generation

How did you learn about different forms of art? Many children have art classes at school or participate in activities such as drawing and painting. You might also have had certain types of music playing in your household. Maybe you went to a dance at school or a party with dancing. You may also have been exposed to art in more informal settings, such as murals or graffiti in your neighborhood or street performances.

These are examples of ways that human beings share the cultural traditions of art from one generation to the next. A young person doesn't necessarily need to visit an art museum or be taught how to interpret art in order to participate and appreciate its expression, though these activities can also be beneficial.

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