For tens of thousands of years humans have expressed themselves through works of art. Human predecessors such as the Neanderthals developed the capacity to make and use tools, but this capacity was limited to practical purposes, such as hunting. As Neanderthals were supplanted by Cro-Magnons, and later by Homo sapiens, the capacity for making and using tools was developed beyond simple practicality. These early humans and their Cro-Magnon predecessors used their tool-making capability to create paintings, sculptures, and architectural works. I see all three of these as forms of artistic expression. With the development of artistry, humans were able to express ideas and emotions that transcended the immediate physical world. Whether the form is sculpture, painting, architecture, or other more contemporary forms, art provides a means for expressing the ideas and emotions that define what it means to be human.
Whether the form of artistic expression is a small and simple carving or a grand and elaborate architectural creation, each work captures the intention of the artists or artists, and signals to those who view it or who make use of it messages about both the individuals and the culture that produced it. One of the earliest known sculptural works that still exists today is a small carved figurine representing a stylized female form known as the Venus of Willendorf. This carving is believed to be more than 20,000 years old, and clearly shows that artists of the era were able to represent the human form in a realistic manner. This figure of a large-breasted and full-figure female is believed to represent fertility (Strickland and Boswell, 2007. p.4); my impression of this figure is that it may not only represent literal fertility associated with pregnancy and child-birth, but it may represent fertility as associated with health, vitality, and abundance. The female form is well-rounded, but she does not necessarily appear to be pregnant; she may just appear to be well-fed. In time when the challenges of life would have made it difficult for hunter-gatherers to always maintain a steady food supply, it may have been unlikely that many actual women would develop such proportions. In that sense, then, this figure might have represented an ideal, rather than serving as a realistic depiction of the human form.
From the palm-sized fertility idol the Roman Colosseum, works of art have assumed countless forms, shapes, and sizes. The Colosseum was built for the practical purposes of hosting gladiatorial combat and other events, but it was not designed solely with such practical purposes in mind. While the Colosseum’s design was remarkably efficient, and allowed tens of thousands of people to quickly enter and exit the building (Strickland and Boswell, 2007, p.18), it was also crafted with aesthetic beauty. The Romans developed the capacity to build arches and other architectural features for a variety of uses, and I am just as impressed by the beauty and symmetry of these designs as I am by their functionality and practicality. The Colosseum uses a variety of arches in its design, serving to highlight the significance of the arch to the Romans. The Romans saw the arch as a powerful symbol, infused with “magic” (Strickland and Handy, 2001, n.p.); conquering generals returning from battle would pass through one of these magical arches to “purge themselves of hostility” (Strickland and Handy, 2001, n.p.) as they prepared to leave their military lives behind them. I cannot help but see a connection between the practical, physical strength of the Roman arches and the manner in which they resonated on an emotional level for the Romans, as if their ability to support things in the physical world was mirrored by the manner in which they supported the spiritual and magical components of the Roman culture and imagination.
Strickland and Handy (2001, p.x) state that “the story of architecture is also the story of human history,” an assertion which only reinforces my sense that art forms such as painting and sculpture are not separate from architecture; rather, all three are simply different forms of art. If architecture is the “story of human history,” so too is the ability to carve fertility idols or paint scenes of hunting expeditions on cave walls. In each of these various forms of art, human beings have expressed their capacity to transcend the moment, and to connect with something larger than themselves. It is this capacity for transcendence that makes us, in fact, human.
Strickland, Carol, and John Boswell. The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History, from Prehistoric to Post-Modern. Kansas City, Mo: Andrews McMeel, 2007. Print.
Strickland, Carol, and Amy Handy. The Annotated Arch: A Crash Course in the History of Architecture. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Pub, 2001. Print.