Example of essay on interactions with media

When most Westerners think about engaging with art, they think about heading to a museum and looking at an exhibition that has been put on display for them. The important works of an artist or group of artists, at least important in the terms of the curator or collector, have been arranged at the curator’s discretion. The works have also received a label telling viewers the title, artist and medium. Each label also contains information about that work that the curator believes is significant for understanding the work. The end result is a work of art that the viewer receives, prepackaged, for consumption. There might even be an audio tour that has a stop at this particular work, with further explanation from a recorded voice. Either way, the viewer already has a significant semiotic filter through which to view this work of art. For viewers that are happy with a definition of art as creative pieces that serve particular religious and/or political agendas that may or may not be the actual opinion of the artist himself, because the artist’s lifestyle has been funded by income from patrons who are looking for works of art with particular viewpoints, then this encounter with art will be satisfying to them. After all, this is how art has worked for the vast majority of history. Whether the work is Bernini’s temple doors or Michelangelo’s David, the vast majority of what one sees in museums, billed as Western art, was completed to suit the order of a patron. The person who views art in this way pays scant attention to the work itself, because he is still paying attention to the information he received about that art.
If you take a look at more ancient art forms, though, you can see that many of the objects that have been preserved for display performed basic household functions. There are pitchers, plates and vases, each of which has been decorated with a religious figure, an important historical theme, or other device that makes it clear that there is some sort of cultural significance to the piece beyond the function. In ancient times, religious beliefs tended to be more animistic and pantheistic, with people believing that the gods were (or were not) at work in the very minutiae of their lives. This is why primitive cultures featured household gods that performed different tasks; even one of the highest points of ancient culture, the Egyptian empire, still featured a strong faith in gods associated with the preservation of agriculture, such as Ra, the sun god. So very early in human history, art was something that people not only touched but used on a regular basis. This means that texture has been an important element of engagement with art for centuries, even if the museum experience has taken that out of the situation.
The thinking of Vladimir Tatlin shows just some of the ways in which the modernist/avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century sought to redefine the ways in which people engage with art. Between 1923 and 1930, he worked in several different art programs in post-Revolution Soviet Russia. He and his students took many different functional objects and gave them new designs “ in answer to pressing basic needs of everyday life.” Taken in comparison with the wealth of beauty that marked Russian art in the era prior to the Communist Revolution, this appears to be a major shift. If you take a stroll through a Russian Orthodox church and look at the robust detailing on the icons, or you walk through the streets of St. Petersburg and take in the massive care that was taken to make the architecture of the skyline fit a particular aesthetic, functionalism appears to reflect the same 180-degree shift in outlook that the change from government by the Tsars to government by the Supreme Soviet brought to Russia. However, it is important to remember that one of the Soviets’ earliest actions was to try to silence the church and give the entire country a functionalist sheen. On another level, the work of Tatlin also showed that the need to make art was “ ancient and their forms reveal a loyalty to antecedent aesthetic and mystical traditions.” The artisanal influence in Russia, as in other parts of the world, goes back centuries, and Tatlin’s transformations of, say, the teapot, are another step in that grand tradition.
The death mask is a tradition that comes across as creepy to many modern sensibilities but at one time served an important function. The death masks of Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth of York, both sitting behind glass in Westminster Abbey, look a lot more like props to the modern mind. Even though the “[g]lass eyes, real human hair and appropriate costume made these figures virtual animate presences long after the ruler had died,” that is no longer the effect that those materials have. Obviously, these items are kept behind glass and away from human touch, because of the damage that exposure would bring to them. However, it is difficult to imagine that touching these objects would bring one any closer to a sense of understanding those two monarchs, or reliving any part of their reign. Instead, touching those objects feels a lot more like a dare someone would take inside a haunted house sometime around Halloween.
The advent of collage as an art form in the twentieth century brings another element of intrigue to the discussion of material. If anything that you can find can become a work of art, then engagement with any substance can potentially be engagement with art. Whether it’s headlines from newspapers or shards of old glass or cups, literally anything is in play as far as becoming art. This radically shifts the relationship between the viewer and art, even in the present day. When one gets the idea that it doesn’t take familiarity with oil pants or chipping grand statues out of marble or bronze to make art, then art becomes a lot easier to imagine making – and to make. The implications of this shift are enormous, because it means that suddenly there are a lot more artists and a lot fewer consumers. The more people view art as a social opportunity rather than as something to be prepackaged and viewed, the more voices a society has – a trend which can only be positive.

Works Cited

Fredrickson, Laurel. “ Vision and Material Practice: Vladimir Tatlin and the Design of Objects.” Design Issues 15(1): 49-74.
Harrison, ??????. An Introduction to Art. CITY OF PUBLICATION: PUBLISHER, DATE.
Paoletti, John T. “ Wooden Sculpture in Italy as Sacral Presence.” Artibus et Historiae 13(26): 85-100.