History of the Arts in Various Cultures: Role & Function

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  • 0:04 The Function of Art
  • 0:51 Art of Storytelling
  • 2:06 Art for Religion
  • 3:19 Art of Intellectual…
  • 4:02 Art for Personal Enjoyment
  • 5:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What good is art? Does art actually have a purpose? Yes, it does. In this lesson, we are going to explore the various roles of art across history and cultures, and see some of the ways art has been used by human societies.

The Function of Art

All art has a purpose. In the case of modern art at the downtown museum, the purpose is to make me look good on dates because we can say things like ''the abstract nature of the composition juxtaposed with the classical design elements embodies the essence of the artistic process.''

But beyond that, art has a real value to society, and every society makes art that has value. This means that art reflects culture. Why does our art look different from the art of ancient China or the art of medieval Africa? Different cultures use art differently because art has diverse roles in society. Let's look at some common uses of art across history, from recording history to appreciating a landscape to, yes, even getting dates.

Art of Storytelling

One of the most common uses of art throughout history and across cultures is the use of art to tell stories. Sometimes these stories are fictional, sometimes mythological, sometimes historical, but in every case, art is an important way for information to be recorded and preserved.

Look, for example, at the art of ancient Maya culture, or the dominant empire that existed in modern day Central America and Mexico from around 1200 BCE until 1697 CE. The Maya were the only culture of the Americas to have a true writing system, but much like Islamic kingdoms or Imperial China, writing was considered a form of art. In the case of the Maya, this is especially true considering that their art was based on images. So painting and writing were literally one in the same, used to record information.

Storytelling art can also be found in the paintings of 18th-century European emperors who commissioned masterpieces to capture victories in battle, or in the traditional Japanese Noh theater, a musical dance performance that combines various aspects of performance art, including the use of masks, to tell complex stories in Japanese mythology. Across cultures, storytelling is one of the primary functions of art.

Art for Religion

An often-related function is art for the sake of religion. Now, if you come from a Christian background, you're probably used to seeing depictions of religion in art, from paintings to crucifixes, but there are other ways that art and religion have been combined. For one, we can't ignore the role of architecture. The concept of turning a structure into a work of art is integral to worship practices the world over, from Catholic cathedrals to Islamic mosques to Buddhist temples.

But how about a more direct example? In many traditional African cultures, the world was believed to contain vast amounts of spiritual beings who could interfere in daily life. The people of the Congo dealt with these forces by carving nkisi, which were intricate statues that were inhabited by a spirit. Nkisi allowed people to communicate with spirits and dead ancestors to protect their villages, crops, and health, as well as occasionally send curses at enemies.

Another example of the link between art and religion can be seen in the dancing traditions of many Native Americans. Dancing is a complex form of art, and in the cosmology of groups like the Lakota Sioux, the act of communal dancing could produce spiritual, cosmological changes, generally by appealing to various spiritual beings.

Art for Intellectual Satisfaction

Now, not all art has such a distinct purpose. Sometimes the function of art is simply to be enjoyed, particularly among intellectual communities within a society. For the best examples of this, let's compare the ancient civilizations of Greece and China. Perhaps no other artists in the world were as obsessed with the idea of perfection than these cultures. Art was used to capture the very essence of something universally perfect, ideal, and true. In ancient Greece, we can see this through carved sculptures that mathematically reflected ideal ratios of the universe within the perfect human body. In China, we can look at ink brush landscape paintings that balanced complexity and simplicity as a pathway to achieving intellectual and spiritual perfection.

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