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   Experiencing the Humanities

   A Web Textbook
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10. Visual Arts--
Feast for the Eyes


Chapter Ten of Experiencing the Humanities

by Richard Jewell



The visual arts are arts that we see. This category usually includes just things that we see and things that are flat or two-dimensional. Visual arts are things like paintings, drawings, visual designs, photography, and computer art.

Because "visual arts" means two-dimensional things, sculpture and architecture come under separate headings. Likewise, visual works of art stay in one place, unmoving, while we observe them. For this reason, performing arts-- stage, screen, music, and dance arts--also come under their own separate headings.

Remember that art is a language all of its own that is different from our normal spoken language. The language of the visual arts--like the other arts--is feeling: emotion, intuition, and form or idea without words. Through paintings, drawings, and other visual arts, we can discover worlds of experience that are all around us--or inside of us--that cannot be described quickly or easily with mere words. The visual arts can help us give meaning to what seems meaningless and help us recapture feelings and experiences that we have once had or would like to have again.

Powerful Paintings

The visual arts are especially powerful for most people.

They are powerful because, first, we are a very visual race. Human beings are primarily visual sensors of five- sense data. Second, so much of what we experience can be identified and recalled much more quickly with one picture-- "A picture," the old saying goes, "is worth a thousand words." And third, we have parts of our brains very well trained from infancy to absorb and process visual images, brain parts that are quite different from those that process verbal thinking. So we are very primed and ready for the visual stimulation of the visual arts.

When an artist creates a visual work of art such as a painting, he or she is communicating with us just as surely as if she were talking to us. Her "words," though, are not spoken things, but rather are color, line, shape, and texture. There are so very many things that go into making a visual art work what it is, and so very many different things an artist can say just by making the different combinations.

For example, what does red make us feel? What does grey? What does a bunch of sharp, jagged lines, as opposed to a series of gentle curves, make us feel, especially when they are drawn in forms we recognize such as sharp, jagged eyebrows or gently curving ones?

There are so many other ways, too, that an artist can "talk" to us. We are supposed to feel something when looking at a painting or other work of art: we are supposed to react to it, even if the painting makes us react with tears, anger, or discomfort. Paintings and works of art in general are meant to move us, especially in ways that words often can't. When we search for the meaning of a painting, we shouldn't be looking for some kind of abstract symbolic meaning or other intellectual idea. It may be there intellectually, or it may not. Either way, what really is there is feeling--that is what we should search for first in trying to figure out what a painting or photograph "means."

By letting ourselves aim to discover the feelings of a visual work of art, we can develop a more wide and far- seeing eye for what the artists really were trying to do.

Types of Visual Arts

Here is a list of some visual art forms (ones not considered as sculpture, plays, dance, or the like). They are listed by mediums--by the types of "canvas" and "paint" used to created them.

painting/drawing (2-dimensional medium)
carving/weaving (3-dimensional medium)
electronic art (light/digital medium)
pencil drawing
stained glass
stage setting
carved design or picture
computer art
abstract video
Web art
stage setting
light display
digitized video

Oils are oil-based paints. Today, most artists use synthetic oils known as acrylics. Charcoals and pastels are sticks of chalk-like substances that come in black (charcoals) and pastel colors (pastels). Watercolors are water-based paints.

Photographs, posters, and comics are images placed on paper from reality or from originals by a photocopying process. Sensitive chemicals react to different light, darkness, and colors to create copies of those shades and colors on paper. Modern newspapers and books are made by photocopying--use of light-sensitive chemicals. In older times, newspapers and books were made from engraved letters (see "engravings" below).

Lithographs are prints made when a flat stone or a sheet of metal is treated with chemicals that either hold ink or repel it. A picture is drawn with chemicals that hold ink, and the white or blank spaces in the picture are treated with chemicals that repel ink. Then the picture is inked and laid on paper so that the ink-holding parts leave an ink print on the paper. Many such prints often can be made from one original before the chemicals wear out.

Silk-screen prints are made when silk or other fine cloth is treated with ink-proof substances. The cloth is framed tightly, and then the parts that will be blank or white in the final print are treated with an impermeable chemical or substance that ink cannot go through. Then paper is laid under the silk-screen, and ink is forced through the part of the cloth that is untreated. The resulting image is called a silk-screen.

Engravings are prints made from hard surfaces--usually wood or metal--that have been carved. Some areas of the wood or metal are carved out, and others are left as they were. Then the wood or metal is given a coat of ink just on the outer surface of the carved areas--just on the remaining high parts--and laid on paper. The resulting print or "engraving" will show ink where the high parts are on the wood or metal, and the print will show white spaces where the carved out areas are on the wood or metal.

Imagine, for example, an alphabet block with the letter "A" carved into its surface. If the side of the block was inked and then laid on a piece of paper, the result would be an ink print that showed a black square with a white "A" inside of it.

Woodcuts and etchings are engravings made from wood (woodcuts or woodblocks), or metal plates and stone sheets (etchings). Etchings are so named because the metal plates or stone sheets are etched or carved chemically with acids instead of carved as is wood by hand or machine.

Stained glass is created by making colored sheets of glass, cutting them into pieces, and joining them together with thin lengths of lead.

Mosaics are made in similar ways, usually with tile or some other form of masonry, except that the pieces of tile are laid into a glue-like cement base.

Tapestries are, in a sense, cloth carvings. They are woven cloth designs and usually are meant for hanging on walls.

Electronic arts are relatively new to the human race. The visual arts forms of electronic arts include computer- generated designs, cartoons on TV and videos, and abstract videos--those with no real people or things in them. Videos and TV with real people and things usually are classified with the stage arts (the performing arts), along with plays, dance, and musical performances. Some of the more innovative video and stage shows also have very creative stage settings or light-show displays, and these probably are visual arts, too.  In most recent years, digitized photographs and sections of movies have developed, and this trend of digitizing visual images promises to become a dominant part of photography and movie making in the next few decades.

"Real" Versus "Abstract"

Another simple but important way to label or categorize the visual arts is not by medium, as above, but rather by how realist or abstract the artistic creations are. Some visual arts automatically are much more realistic (e.g. photography), while others are automatically abstract (e.g. light displays).

In fact, often we get a bit edgy when we hear about or see "abstract art." We wonder what others see in it, especially when it is so abstract that we cannot even see anything remotely like a person, place, or thing within it.

It might be helpful for us in such situations to remember that we already thoroughly enjoy some forms of so- called "abstract art." Music without words is abstract. So are the arches of MacDonald's hamburger stands and most other buildings modern and old. Light shows are abstract. So are natural sculptural forms that are pleasant to touch such as rocks pleasant to hold in the hand, fur that is pleasant to stroke, and the feel of different clothing on our skins.

All these experiences are abstract--without content. Some of them we enjoy and some we don't. So when we are confronted by abstract visual art, it may help us if we just let the visual forms and swirls and geometric patterns and colors fill up our eyes and our heads--will such a piece then affect us like being swept away by music or stroking fur? Or will it still leave us cold? This is a better way to approach abstract visual art--a way that can open some of it to us and help us understand why it does appeal to some people.

If we categorize the visual arts by how realistic or abstract they are, we end up creating a scale something like the one below. Some nonvisual types of arts are mentioned as helpful examples. Some of the names below are used in connection with types or "schools" of art, and several other common labels for art are used, too. The scale actually applies to all the arts, and not just the visual arts. Its starts with realistic art and moves downward to abstract art:

REAL -reality itself
Full of Subject--"Representational"
Without Subject--"Nonrepresentational"

Abstract Art
Nonobjective Abstract Art

--objective image of reality: photos

--as nearly detailed & accurate as photos

--easily identifiable: Mona Lisa, Last Supper

--main forms can be identified: Van Gogh, Picasso
--abstract, but a part is identifiable: Burger King's burger sign
--identifiable mainly as feelings or intensities of beauty: architecture

--not indentifiable

We can use this chart to put different kinds of art in perspective to--in comparison with--each other. We may find that we are more accustomed to some forms of abstract art than we had realized--and more ready to give other abstract art forms a chance.

Schools of Art

A "school of art" is a group of people who have done similar types of art during a period of history. They do not work in any school or place together, usually, and often they are not even found in the same city or state. They just happen to be working with similar types of mediums, subjects, styles, or plans such that they somehow can be fitted together as a single group.

Sometimes they associate with each other, help each other, and perhaps even purposely name their own group. At other times, it is art critics who group them together and give them a name. There are dozens of named groups or schools of art or artists throughout history, with various subgroups and even subgroups of subgroups. It is not important to know all of them. Knowing just a few of the major schools is enough to get a sense of the diversity and importance of visual arts.

Abstract Expressionism -- This school of artists likes to express emotion through color and abstract form. Abstract expressionists dominated the American art scene in the 1950s. Abstract painters such as Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock were part of this movement.

Baroque -- Baroque arts were popular in the seventeenth century and made use of dramatic scenes and characters, especially religious subjects. There were scenes of religious ecstasy and hellish despair, martyrdom, and conversion, with strong coloring and dramatic dark-light combinations of shading. The Dutch painter Rubens used a form of baroque style.

Classicism -- A classicist is an artist who creates like the Greeks and Romans did--with clear, simple, realistic lines, not emotionally but calmly and with reason, in an orderly, restrained, careful manner. (Compare "classicism" to its opposite, "romanticism," below.)

Cubism -- Cubist painters show the front, back, and sides of a subject at the same time in geometric patterns. All sides of the "cube" of space in which the subject rests are shown. Picasso (Guernica et al.) and Braque made cubist paintings and etchings.

Expressionism -- There are two meanings for this word. The main meaning is a general one: art that is emotional, intense, passionate. Expressionist art often uses intense color and presents disturbingly strong feelings. Such painters as Van Gogh and El Greco both are expressionistic. A second meaning of "expressionism" is a particular school of the arts, German expressionism, from the early part of the twentieth century.

Fauvism -- A small school of art that is similar to expressionism in that it encouraged intense colors, free form, and a strong decorative affect. The French painter Matisse was a fauvist.

Geometric Abstraction -- This kind of art shows pure geometric forms and colors that often look, on canvas, like black-lined "windows" with colorful top, bottom, and side panels. Mondrian was one such painter.

Impressionism -- Impressionists tend in our time to be among the most popular painters. They worked mostly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Names like Degas, Renoir, Manet, Monet (and in music Debussy and Ravel) are almost as recognizable to many people as the type of art they produced: vivid slice- of-life visual scenes that shimmer and dance with light and color, air, water, and land. (See also "postimpressionism" below.)

Minimalism -- In the visual arts, this has represented a movement in the mid-twentieth century to reduce painting to the minimum of elements--abstract geometric lines and basic colors.

Naturalism -- Naturalist painters of the twentieth century tried to show an almost photographic likeness of reality--all the details the eye might see from the given distance. Manet, Degas, and Harnett were naturalists. (Compare to "realism" below.)

Op Art -- Op art was a major art movement in the 1960s. Op artists show vivid, visually stimulating geometric forms and colors that repeat themselves, much like computerized geometric pattern drawings, overloading the senses and sometimes creating illusions. Mondrian and M.C. Escher are two examples of op artists.

Photo Realism -- Photo realism or "new realism" painters of the 1970s paint slice-of-life photos with great detail and with an emphasis of light or color of certain objects. We thus see reality in a new way, through the eyes of the artist, noticing things he or she sees but we don't. Often the new things we see are not pleasant. American Richard Estes is a photo realist.

Pointillism -- Pointillists worked in the early twentieth century. When one stands close to a pointillist painting, all one sees is dots of color. But when one stands back, the colors blend together in the eye to create an unusually precise, almost vibrating scene. Seurat and Monet were pointillists.

Pop Art -- Pop art often tries to reproduce objects-- especially advertising objects--accurately. Andy Warhol's paintings of Campbell's Soup cans and of Marilyn Monroe are good examples, as are the works of Roy Lichtenstein.

Postimpressionism -- Many artists in the early and middle twentieth century used impressionist painting styles to develop further styles. Renoir, Gaugin, and Van Gogh (see "expressionism" above) did this, as did Picasso (see "cubism"). Impressionists tried simply to show what the eye sees; postimpressionists also wished to convey some deeper personal message or meaning.

Realism -- Realists, twentieth-century painters, created scenes that were easily recognizable or realistic, and also showed the subject in both its attractive and unattractive lights. Realists, for example, might paint a scene of urban life that shows homeless and wealthy people side by side.

Romanticism -- Romantic painters paint joy, fear, anger, pride, hurt, and love. They prefer emotion to reason, freedom to constraint, and the personal to the universal. Romanticism is a self-expression movement in the arts. Romantic art makes strong, personal statements. (Compare "romanticism" to its opposite, "classicism," below.)

Street Art -- This can signify graffiti, murals painted by community members on community walls, or gang-related logos and messages painted symbolically. The term usually designates that the art is of or on the "street"--it comes out of an urban working class or poor environment and the artists have not had formal training.

Surrealism -- A mostly European between-world-wars art movement, surrealism emphasized dreamlike reality full of mysterious symbols and meanings. Salvador Dali is a well-known example of surrealism (see his modernistic Last Supper).


Exercise 1

Make a list of several of your all-time favorite visual works of art--whether they are paintings, drawings, prints, posters. Choose ones that appeal to you not because of subject matter alone, but rather also--or more importantly--the beauty or intensity of the line or color.

Now describe briefly what is special about each work of art.

Exercise 2

Describe an abstract "nonrepresentational" work of architecture that you like and tell why you like it. Then describe an abstract "nonrepresentational" painting, drawing, or visual design that you like and tell why you like it.

Exercise 3

Which of the schools of visual art do you think you might like best? Why? What are some examples you have seen from this school? Which do you think you might dislike the most? Why? What examples have you seen?

Exercise 4

In an art book, find several examples of several of the schools of art. Try especially to look for the ones you might like and/or dislike the most.

Textbook URL: http://www.umn.edu/home/jewel001/humanities/book/0contents    
Most Recent Revision:: 24 Aug. 2002.
All Rights Reserved.
Copyright 1987-1996 by Richard Jewell.
Contact the author: www.richard.jewell.net/contact.htm.