On Art and Culture [Short Essay]

Art communicates what is in the soul of the artist; it expresses that which cannot easily be articulated outside of spiritual language. Art also further reveals the context within which the artist creates; the social values, affections, and history which inform his work. For this reason, Art has been a primary channel through which societies have communicated their unique character and story to their outside world since time immemorial.  Christopher Dawson, in his work, Dynamics of World History, thus rightly states, “Social activity is of its very nature artistic” and adds, “it is indeed difficult to separate the beginnings of Art from the beginnings of human culture.”

The inseparability of the two can be seen through numerous examples throughout world history. The Egyptian pyramids and traditional homesteads of many African traditions, for instance, or as Dawson notes, the churches of Ravenna that perhaps, introduce the Byzantine world to us best. The collective soul of the peoples of these cultures, through their artistic creations, has revealed the face of their collective soul. In fact, it is true that an artistic record of the human race is the source of almost all that we know regarding cultures of prehistoric times. Indeed, art expresses man’s psychic life and his relation to his cultural environment, beliefs and social practices.

For a man who originates outside of a given environment and culture to truly understand a new one, an appreciation of the art is almost inevitable in his responsiveness to the new experience. A certain adaptation to seeing beauty in the details that make up this new society occurs. However, because the “natural man” is himself formed largely by his own cultural beliefs and surroundings, adaptation to a new one – which requires a certain detachment from ones inherited teachings, practices and subconscious influences- is significantly challenging. This, as Dawson asserts, is where Art comes in as the, “great bridge between mutual incomprehension of cultures.”

There is little to doubt about how strongly culture is imprinted in the work of artisans across the world so much so that we can almost, for a moment, relive past eras by way of meditation upon artistic works created during those times. We can celebrate these eras as if they were the present.

Among the performing Arts, theatre exemplifies this quite well. Imagination draws audiences into the fictional (or non-fictional) world of characters, allowing each member of the audience to have a personal “taste” of the cultural context that the characters portray. This “taste” is that through which audiences feel the joys, sorrows, celebrations, political struggles…experienced by the characters and by extension, the real societies they portray.

~NM

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