Every culture is unique on its own. It comprises a language that includes verbal or written cues for any sort of communication within the culture. However, the communication does not end here. The language of a culture is a concept that that allows members to embody a unique identity of their culture, but also meet on common grounds with other cultures. This is primarily one of the reasons one human can belong to different cultures. They express their identity or identity culture through the way they speak, the way they dress, the food they eat, as well as the art, architecture and politics that appeals most to them.
An extremely popular abstract artist, Perviz Tanavoli, is one that belongs to many cultures. This Iranian artist is most popular for his tall, majestic sculptures that are called ‘heech’ in Persian that transliterate to “nothing.” He has made approximately a few hundred heeches that take shape through calligraphic abstractions of the word, are made of materials such as metal, wood, plastic and take all sorts of sizes. He identifies with the Iranian and Canadian culture through which he has been inspired to create his art. However, most importantly, it is through this multi-culturalism that he was able to create the culture of abstract form – one that is a distinguished element within the arts motivated through his vast lifestyle and country of origin.
Following Tanavoli’s example, we concur that art can be expressed through a variety of cultures that influence and motivate the artwork. If we look at each culture individualistically, art has the ability to create a sense of understanding and empathy towards a specific culture. And it is this expressionism and understanding that connects us as humans. Hence, by definition, cultural art cannot be detached from art narratives solely because they are a fundamental part of understanding local diversity and creating that relationship within cultures.
How Does Art Help Us Understand Different Cultures
To recognize the role art plays in understanding different cultures, it is vital to look at a number of different factors. For starters, we can understand human nature and culture by reading works of art historians throughout the years. Contrastingly, we can also delve into the visual images and illustrations of a specific culture, concentrating on the artistic features, such as style, size, date of creation, physical location etc.
The importance of artistic features contributes to the overall creation of art. While the artist is to be credited for their masterpiece, the inherent motivations and influences stem from their culture, community and the way they perceive their surroundings.
Examples throughout history have allowed us to understand how art plays an enormous role in cultural communication. For instance, the Paleolithic Era, also called the Old Stone Age, had few written records. However, we were able to learn more about that era and culture through archeological and ethnographic artefacts. The Chauvet and Lascaux Cave paintings in South and South-West France, and Altamira in North Spain showcase animals, human figures and abstract symbols. Researchers and historians suggest that such forms of artwork depicted the calculations of successful hunting excursions, or perhaps even religious rituals practiced during those times.
Old Egyptian art was also created to understand the dynamics during that era. Drawings and carvings show that they were in peaceful ties with neighboring lands since the king was brought presents for trade purposes. Other than political expression, drawings and sculptures depicted the daily life of locals as well. In this sense, one does not need to know the technical aspects of Hieroglyphics to interpret the artwork presented to them.
Art history cannot be alienated from subjects such as politics, geography or society. It is within the depiction of historical arts that we were able to understand human culture and the way historical societies functioned. For example, we cannot mention the Second World War without mentioning the Fluxus group. This was an interdisciplinary group of artists, composers, designers and poets who engaged in art expression through performances during the 1900’s. Collectively, their ideas about art were influenced through war-related events and politics occurring during that time. The Fluxus group treated the art medium as the most accessible form of communication and showcased their feelings, emotions, thoughts and general aura of societies during the Second World War through their works.
Abstract Art Through the Centuries
Abstract art during the prehistoric, or early human era, used simple, geometric and linear lines on pottery, textiles, stones for symbolic or decorative purposes. Within this interpretation, it is the abstraction that communicates the ultimate purpose of art. For instance, early Chinese or Islamic calligraphy cannot really be understood by an outsider, however the aesthetics of it can still be appreciated within the form of creation.
The Tang Dynasty which ruled China from the years 618 to 907 is known to introduce early forms of abstract art. The painter, Wang Mo, who was a part of this dynasty used splashed-ink painting style that was seen to be passed down Song Dynasty that ruled China from 960 to 1279.
A painter from the Song Dynasty, Yu Jian, used the splashed-ink technique to create a series of landscapes that inspired many other Japanese Zen painters. His paintings depict misty mountains in which the shapes used are barely visible and he used abstraction to highlight a landscape.
Chinese painter, Zhu Derun’s Cosmic Circle during the late 13th century is another instance of early abstract painting. The artwork is a depiction of Taoism metaphysics as using pine tree the branches of which extend out to the right side of the canvas.
Two pieces of rock engraved with abstract art were also found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa. The emergence of red-ochre dots and hand stencils soon emerged after this among the El Castillo cave paintings, the Neanderthal engravings in the Gorham Cave located in Gibraltar, and the club-shaped claviform image in the Altamira Cave. Such cave paintings marked the introduction of abstract symbols that were used to study the different cultures and geographies they emerged from.
The 19th century marked the emergence of three different types of art movements; Romanticism, Impressionism and Expressionism. Each of these is important, and cannot be studied autonomously since they drew from and influenced one another. Expressionist abstract painters used distortion and extreme colors as a primary mode of presenting artwork. Their work represented directed reactions to Impressionism art style and concentrated on the psychological states of a human.
With the emergence of religious philosophy in Eastern Europe during this time, Helena Blavatsky, a Russian occultist and philosopher, had major influences on popular artists such as Himla af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky. Using early forms of geometric abstraction through moral philosophy, the painters were able to draw influences from various mediums of one culture.
The 19th century marked all the artistic revolutions that took place in the 20th century. Even if the emergence of abstract art wasn’t very noticeable and distinct during this time, major influences are noticed from the Art Nouveau movement. This art style formed as a reaction to 19th century dominant art styles of historicism and neo-classicism, and showcased art through everyday life and setting. The idea was to concentrate on any object that played a part in one’s daily life, and not overlook an object based on how ‘unimportant’ it may seem. It was so revolutionary that it influenced arenas of art, architecture, fine art, decorative art etc.
Post-impressionism was the highlight of 20th century artwork. Popular artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne and Georges Seurat were able to pave way to modern art techniques which took form towards the end of the century.
The beginning of the 20th century marked famous artists such as Henri Matisse revolutionizing the Paris art world by using extreme colors, figure paintings and landscapes to generate an abstract art form called Fauvism.
Along with Fauvism, Cubism also took shape within this century. Pablo Picasso was the first cubist who was influenced by Cezanne’s idea of depicting nature using simple solid shapes. Using such mediums, Picasso was known for controversial paintings of depicting a raw, primitive brothel with five prostitutes based in Africa.
The 20th century also marked major connections between prominent European cities. Cultures diverged and artists began to note each other’s work across borders by the means of artist books, exhibitions and manifestos. This convergence formed the basis of discussion, experimentation and diversity within abstract art.
A book written by Susan P. Compton, The World Backwards, highlights the connectedness between cultures. The book reads: “David Burliuk's knowledge of modern art movements must have been extremely up-to-date, for the second Knave of Diamonds exhibition, held in January 1912 (in Moscow) included not only paintings sent from Munich, but some members of the German Die Brücke group, while from Paris came work by Robert Delaunay, Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger, as well as Picasso. During the Spring David Burliuk gave two lectures on cubism and planned a polemical publication, which the Knave of Diamonds was to finance. He went abroad in May and came back determined to rival the almanac Der Blaue Reiter which had emerged from the printers while he was in Germany.”
Postmodernist Abstract Art
Postmodernist Art is a category of art that emerged in the late 20th century, after the 1970’s. This art form has developed in modern times based on the new technologies that develop with it. It breaks contemporary art into smaller fragments, breaking away from the 20th century art grandeur.
If one needs to describe postmodernist art, it can be termed as, “A style of post-1960s art which rejected the traditional values and politically conservative assumptions of its predecessors, in favor of a wider, more entertaining concept of art, using new artistic forms enriched by video and computer-based technology.”
In practice, it does not differ from contemporary art as such. However, in theory, postmodernist art was a direct reaction to the 20th century art that was seen to evolve into this whereas contemporary art is more ‘modern’ compared to its predecessor.
Cultural relativeness in postmodernist art forms have appeared in the way the art is created. Many artists moving towards digital means using high-tech software, computers and machines that develop digital abstract art to express their views. However, others have continued to stick with previous forms using brushes or the canvas to express their relatedness to the art.
Abstract Art Within Countries
Many abstract artists in Russia became Constructivists and surrounded their whole life with art, instead of making it just one aspect of their lives. Vladimir Tatlin, Russian and Soviet painter and architect, embodied the slogan “Art Into Life.” This meant that artists in this geography learned the tools to creating art and the means of production of artistic pieces.
According to Russian Constructivists, art was a spiritual activity that allowed one to move away from the materialistic and practical reality of life. Some went so far as to migrate from Russia only because they disliked the materialistic production of art there.
The Bauhaus Art School in Germany
This was a German art school founded in Weimar in 1919. It’s underlying philosophy lay in the unity of all artists and art thinkers from painters to architectures – basically any one who was even interested in art. Popular teachers in the school were Paul Lee, Wassily Kandinsky, Anni Albers etc. until the school was closed during Nazi rule.
Many artists fled Europe in the 20th century on account of Nazi disapproval of art, and arrived in the United States, where they continued their art work. By the mid 20th century, mainstream abstract art movements had seeped into the streets of New York and rich cultural influences were noted within a short time.
Art galleries that concentrated on European migrants gave space to American artists who were beginning to take a fond interest in the growing arts culture. Some of their talent synthesized in pure abstraction and they soon became known as Abstract Expressionists and the New York School. Popular names such as Hans Hofmann bridged the connectivity between artists arriving from Europe and young talent emerging in the United States. It is to this day that New York remains the epicenter of pure art forms and remains rich in abstract styles that continue to evolve.