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Critical Analysis of Art Module III
The First Image
Today, we live in a world that is awash with images and, in general, we take them very much for granted. They form a part of our ordinary, everyday lives, and we barely spend a second thinking about them in their specificity as pictures. But images are not part of our natural environment. At some point in time, long ago, somebody had to pick up a tool and INVENT The First Image. We must therefore also pose a foundational question to accompany that first image — Why? Why pictures?
In pursuit of this question, we begin by examining the earliest artwork produced by humans, which is found largely in caves (Paleolithic art). Here we see the very first uses to which images are put, and the specific roles that they play within culture. We then turn to the art of peoples who are no longer nomadic, and who have settled into agriculture (Neolithic art), and finally, we examine the art of the first great literate societies in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China.
At each of these junctions we find that art is transformed, taking on new functions, and operating in radically different ways. Each of these cultures may be said to be inventing, and then re-inventing, the image, meditating on what pictures can do and what they can be used for.
As different as the art of each of these cultures is, however, there is one feature that they all have in common. All are opposed to one of the dominant conceptions of our contemporary age, which might be called the photographic model of images – the idea that pictures simply imitate or copy reality. In all the cultures that we examine, images are always considered to be much more than passive reflections of reality. Indeed, as we will see, they play active roles in defining what “reality” is, and in constituting the world as we know it. In this respect, the modes under which images operate in earlier cultures have enormous relevance for us today. All those modes are still very much with us, lurking beneath our conceptions of the unexceptional banality of images, still functioning and still producing a host of unexpected effects.
An understanding of these modes, in operation since the dawn of human activity, is essential for an understanding of our contemporary image-saturated culture as well. This course focuses primarily on detailed visual analysis and examines how artworks are structured in order to generate and convey their meaning.