To put Ruskin into context regarding the purpose of art, it has to be recognised that art has had a didactic purpose for thousands of years since the very origins of art. Prehistoric cave paintings almost certainly had a ceremonial or spiritual purpose. Some are in such dark inaccessible tunnels that they must have had a ritual meaning. [They were not ‘on show’ as in a public space.]
Religious art has always been made to communicate and promote the doctrines of the religion. On a more sinister note, totalitarian states have used art as propaganda.
The earliest Christian art is to be seen in the catacombs of Rome, dating from the third century. These are underground tombs where families buried their dead. There are over one hundred images of the ‘good shepherd’ in these catacombs; probably influenced by earlier Roman and Greek images. In the Christian tradition it is a symbol of protection in the afterlife.
Later on Christian art was made for cathedrals, churches, palaces, public spaces and private homes. And we mustn’t forget the rich tradition of Illuminated manuscripts. Not so well know is the fact that Illuminated manuscripts were also made to illustrate secular subjects, such as fables or medicinal cures; and there is even one illustrating a game of chess.
In the Mediaeval Period books were hand-made to prepare people for death. They were actually called The Art of Dying manuals! In them, the dying person had to look at pictures representing temptations and, each day, determine to overcome them in order for their souls to ascend to Heaven.
It is often said that Christian imagery in churches are ‘books for the illiterate.’ The origin of the idea, when the majority of the population was illiterate, goes back to Pope Gregory the Great (590 – 604). He wrote a letter to Bishop Serenus in which he says, ‘ What writing does for the literate, a picture does for the illiterate looking at it.’ and ‘Painted likenesses are made for the instruction of the ignorant so they may understand the stories and so learn what occurred.’
As Christianity developed elaborate altarpieces were constructed and painted for churches. They usually had side panels and predellas (a panel beneath the main picture-panel) so that the whole Christian narrative could be told by opening and closing certain panels on different occasions. Private homes would have smaller versions for private contemplation.
Buddhism, particularly Mahayana Buddhism, is rich in iconography. Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism has a large cast of Bodhisattvas, each representing a particular spiritual virtue such as compassion, wisdom or determination. Again, many Buddhists have altars in their homes with a Buddha statue as a central focus to aid meditation.
Let us return to the Ruskin quote. He does say that art is there to ‘please.’ so he isn’t saying all art should be didactic. However, he does say it should ‘exalt and refine.’ Now a quick look in my Oxford dictionary has this entry for ‘exalt.’ 1, praise or regard highly. 2. raise to a higher rank or position. 3. make noble in character; dignify. Now, one phrase which has characterised modernity is ‘the disenchantment of the world.’ [I forget who coined it] The idea is that with the ‘death of God’, and the moral vacuum left, the world has fragmented and art inevitably depicts the subsequent anxiety and alienation. All well and good; we can all respond to Munch’s Scream. However, the danger is that the status of the human being is diminished, we become cogs in an impersonal machine. To go back to that little word, ‘exalt’. One thing most of us will agree about is that we don’t dignify what it is to be human; we hardly ‘raise to a higher rank’ or ‘make noble’ our humanity. If we think of Tracy Emin’s Bed, for example, we can see that we ‘make ignoble’. Many artists glorify, or seem to celebrate our depravity; our various hatreds, greeds and delusions. Ruskin would despair if he returned to our times.
So, what am I suggesting? Is there a place in the twenty first century for a didactic art with a moral purpose? I definitely suggest that there might be. The challenge could hardly be greater. Annihilation of vast numbers of the global population through climate change. Can artists address this problem? Why not? There could even be a ‘re-enchantment of the world’ if such a movement went hand in hand with practical/political change.
Christianity managed to convey a unifying message with its millions of art works created throughout two millennia. Imagine if artists now united under a banner of ‘artists against climate catastrophe’ – how energising and positive such a project would be.