Art is defined as the human ability to make things; it is the creativity of man as distinguished from the world of nature. Although it may be distinguished from nature, it clearly reflects it. Art from different cultures of the world incorporates its environment into its art; classical European art like the impressionist Monet; American web-artist Mark Napier; the art of the Yoruba in southwest Nigeria; all employ their respective environments in creating their art. Monet used water lilies and other natural settings in his art. Napier uses his digital landscape to create an environment to display his art. The Yoruba create their art to worship their main god, who happens to be the earth. And yet, while these three vastly different art forms are inspired similarly, the end results differ incredibly. All three come from cultures that are different from the one which this is being written from, a Midwestern background with an education that has sometimes treated the appreciation of art as a secondary goal in the education process. Each one inspires a different reaction, and each piece of art is looked at with a slightly different bias. This paper will try to explain what these reactions and biases are, relating them to cultural differences and similarities. It will compare and contrast these art forms in various ways, contrasting the old and the new and seeing what one draws from the other. Monet s work is perhaps the closest cultural work, in relation to the author, that is examined here. In American culture, Monet is a highly regarded impressionist. His works sell for millions of dollars and are known across the culture. He is studied in schools and even children can identify his most famous pieces of art, like Water Lilies. Growing up in this culture, it is easy to understand and identify with his art. Monet s art is his own impression of the world around him; it is the way that he saw the world put down on canvas. He liked to capture light and vibrant color in his work, expressing his own outlook on the world. American children are taught all of these things; we are taught that he loved nature, and that he even created his own water garden in France when he grew wealthy, where he painted towards the end of his life. He was among Europe s leading artists during his life, a life that spanned the end of the European industrial revolution and the First World War. Monet s work is not very self-aware; Monet never even intended for much of his art to be seen by the public. His art reflected his own impressions of the world, but never in a way that made one aware of his own cultural biases and positions. The impressions he made through his art were ones of light and color, beauty and perception. His style of impressionism was certainly not as self-conscious as some of his contemporaries; Van Gogh for instance. Van Gogh drew a self-portrait of himself after cutting off his ear in an absinthe-induced state. Monet was never so bold or extreme. His work, therefore, is easily identified with by American culture; an impressionist whose impressions never varied too much from the norm. When these works were first painted, who the artist didn t matter nearly as much as the art did; the reverse is nearly true today, nearly a century later. If anyone else were paint an impressionist piece depicting water lilies in a garden, not even a ripple would be made in the western art world. If, however, a previously unknown piece of Monet s work were found, then the art world would be in chaos. Today the artist is just as important as the art, because the name is just as easily recognizable as the art, if not more so. As influential and important as Monet s work is to the art world, it is not necessarily as important to French culture. Although Monet would probably be included in a list of the most culturally important French men of all time, the French culture is an ancient one with kings, leaders, and war heroes who could all be considered much more culturally important than Monet. Impressionism itself was not an entirely French movement, and was not particularly important to their cultural identity. It had more to do with Europe as a whole than with France, but even on such a broader scale the movement was not as important to the world as the world was important to the movement. Impressionism was just another of western art form in a long line of art forms that reflected how the people of the times saw their country it is no more important than cubism or realism or any other art form that Europe has gone through in its history. Overall, Monet s art is easily identifiable and relative to a western observer; partly because we have grown up with it, and partly because we have evolved from the world in which it was cultivated. We understand impressionism because all the art that a typical student of western culture studies either leads up to it, or has followed from it. We relate to Monet because we understand the world in which he painted; we learn about it in history class and we hear stories about it from our grandparents. Most people in our culture understand more about this art than art of foreign cultures. The average person would have no idea what art looked like in Native American culture, or Aborigine culture. But the European standard is seen as the ideal, and so that is what is studied in our schools. It is ironic that the average American living in 1999 can relate more to Monet s art, painted almost a hundred years ago on a different continent, than we can to the art of the next artist, created in our time and in our nation s largest city. Welcome to the pure white space, the altar for display of the art object. The gallery space defines art by seperating it from the common, secular world, framing it in an uncommonly featureless, smudgeless, empty room. The web turns the gallery upside down. In the web ’space’ the physical world becomes almost alien — there is no object to hold onto. For me this new medium creates an interactive space of its own, providing a vantage point from which to take a fresh look at the physical space in which we live.
This narrative is from the first page of Mark Napier s web site, which also happens to be his gallery and his medium. It should come as no surprise that art is moving into the digital realm from the canvas and onto the web , as Napier describes it. The Internet is quickly becoming the one of the most important and influential media tools available. It is certainly the most powerful since the invention of television. American culture is all over the web you can find nearly anything there. There isn t a company, school, movie, or organization that doesn t have its own web site. People are coming together in chat rooms. Ideas are meeting from all over the world through the fiber optical cables of phone companies. You can shop, find entertainment, find friends, loved ones, send mail, and get the news all over the Internet. Why shouldn t you be able to appreciate art? And not necessarily art that was created in the physical world and is merely represented through pictures and words on a web site; art that was created specifically for and through the Internet. This is work that goes largely unappreciated; it is not studied in schools, it is not put on display in museums, and it is not talked about in our culture at large. Internet art could be the next big thing in the modern art scene, or it could be a joke at a cocktail party in a few months. Part of the problem is it is hard to know who is a serious artist and who is a joke there is no one regulating the web. Mark Napier, for example, apparently doesn t even own a spell check on his computer he spelled the word separate incorrectly on his art work . Anyone with some free time and a computer can have their own web site, free to say whatever they want, display whatever they deem appropriate, and anyone can find it. This is a medium in which in a few short years nearly all of the western world will be proficient in; as the younger generations who grew up with computers and on the web become the work force of the world, computers become more and more a necessity in today s western world. This would be the first time something like this could happen everyone will know who to work a computer art program. Never before has the majority of a large culture all been fluent in a particular art. Will this make the art generic and unappreciated? Or will it lead to a boom in the amount of art in the world? However tied to computers our culture is today, it has not yet accepted the Internet or a computer as viable methods to create appreciable art. This is a kind of subculture an art that right now is enjoyed by only a few. American mainstream culture does not recognize this art; many may not even be aware that it exists. This art form is more self-conscious than Monet s work, in that it is an abstract expression. In impressionism, although it may be the artist s impression of the world, it is an impression that we all most likely share. With Napier s abstract work, we are receiving a glimpse into the mind of one man what Napier thinks is art and how he chooses to express that thought is put down on the Internet. This is a new art and as such can go in any direction. It has not changed much and is not really of any cultural importance to mainstream society. Who can say what importance web art will take in coming years or what shapes and styles it will come in? The third style of art we will look at here is the most different the art of the Yoruba, which occurs in the mediums of wood and metal. There are serious rituals that go along with the creation of their art. The art is included in the religious rituals of the Yoruba. The Ogboni, a subculture of learned elders and holy men, require the art to perform their ceremonies, most of which involve reverence towards the earth. Staffs and various instruments are required to perform these ceremonies, and much of the art of these people focus around these traditional ceremonies. From an American point of view, there are obvious differences between what we consider to be the norm and Yoruba art. When an American thinks of art, they typically think of paintings and sculptures in clay or marble. Yoruba art consists of woodcarving, an art that many would consider reserved for the rustic element in America stereotypically the West Virginians or Kentucky native sitting on a front porch in a rocking chair with a pocketknife and a piece of cheap firewood. But in Yoruba society, woodcarving is a highly specialized and meaningful art, with certain practices one must follow and certain tools a craftsman must use to properly create the art. And when an American or westerner thinks of brass, we think of a cheap substitute for gold. Anyone can tell the difference between brass and gold gold is nice, and brass is merely second rate. Yet it Yoruba culture, brass in incorruptible; it is the medium through which they create their religious icons. And iron is another artistic tool for the artists of the Yoruba; in western culture it is mainly a functional metal one that we use to make fences and tools. Although the art of the Yoruba is not particularly self-conscious, the artist is definitely an important part in the creation of the piece. Their art cannot be created by any method the craftsman chooses; he must be highly trained and skilled to follow the practices of the culture that have been passed on for countless generations. This artistic expression is very important to the Yoruba s cultural identity their religion is a main inspiration in their art, and the religion of a culture is very central to their identity. The art of these three different cultures all reflect the world they were created in the world was not so much influenced by them as they were by the world. Some of this art is functional; some of it is cutting edge in its culture. All of it is art though, in that it is the creativity of the men who made it that distinguishes it from the world around it