“Oh, you’re an Art History major…good luck with that!”

If I had a penny for every time I got this line at a party, family gathering, or other social event, I would graduate debt-free with two degrees from my atrociously expensive University.

Art history is a field of study that is simply overlooked these days as esoteric and archaic…essentially elitist and old. Before I embark on my mission to inject a little bit of insight into the blogosphere about what I think is culturally significant, I thought that I should first explain why artistic culture, at all, is important to me, and hopefully, to you.

You do not need to go to a gallery or a museum to see art. It is literally impossible to look around you and not see something that art hasn’t inspired in some way. A few of the more obvious examples: magazine covers and billboards.

Photo: Annie Leibovitz, 2008.

Size zero women grace the covers of magazines like Vogue, and in this case, accompanying muscular, athletically capable men, suggesting to everyone that sees this issue: look at how successful these two people are; you should want to be just like them! In our culture, celebrities are nearly deified, and certainly idolized by onlookers because they have everything that we are supposed to want: money, beauty and fame. When we see beautiful women like Gisele and hundreds of others with her body type normalized in thousands upon thousands of images every day, from billboards, to magazine covers, to E! True Hollywood stories, to commercials…we tend to internalize their characteristics as “ideal,” and therefore strive to be like them. The same goes for men. How many short, bald, skinny or plump men do you see in advertisements? Usually, the “ideal man” is as the cliche states: tall, dark and handsome, not to mention, surrounded by women who look like Gisele. So, what do we have to thank for our body image issues? Visual Culture.

All of this may seem fairly commonplace to anyone reading this: blame the media for our eating disorders and odd ideals of bodily perfection. But do you think this is a new idea? Do you really think that someone in the 20th century just decided one day to put a skinny blond chick on a magazine cover and BAM! bulemia, anorexia, and steroid use strike??

Visual culture is NOT a phenomenon born with the digital age, with photography, nor with the Mona Lisa (although, we’re getting warmer). Visual culture has been alive since the day that Caveman #1 decided to mark his hunting and gathering patterns on a wall, and has been evolving ever since.

Jan van Eyck, 1434, oil on wood panel, 80cm x 60cm

Take the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait for example (above), painted in 1434 by Jan van Eyck. At first glance, you see a man and a woman holding hands and might guess, from the title, that they are in fact married. From our point of view in the 21st century, you might assume that she’s pregnant (when I actually saw this painting in London, I overheard a woman tell her mother with certainty that, without a doubt, Giovanna was with child), and overlook seemingly minute details such as the dog’s place between the couple as a symbol of fidelity, and the absurd amount of detail in the chandelier and mirror in the background.

But for the sake of comparison between the Arnolfini Wedding portrait and the Vogue magazine cover, let’s look at gender roles and the notion of “success.” Do you think that it is a coincidence that Mrs. Arnolfini is placed deepest inside the domestic space, and near the bed? That Mr. Arnolfini is closest to the window, which serves as the room’s only outlet to the outside world? Certainly not. 15th century viewers would have seen this as a confirmation that both Mr. and Mrs. Arnolfini were accomplishing their societally required gender roles (not too different from those of the 1950s, I might add): the woman as the passive caretaker and baby maker, and the man as the provider and the family’s face in the outside world.

Mr. Arnolfini boldly stares outward towards the viewer, acknowledging our presence and establishing his own. Mrs. Arnolfini, however, looks away from us, in the direction of her husband, suggesting that he holds the power and that her presence is less important. The folds and folds of green fabric, and the large amount of expensive green pigment used, as well as Mr. Arnolfini’s long fur coat and suave, velvet (and hilariously cheesy-looking) hat illustrate to viewers, even today, the vast wealth that these people had. (The folds of Mrs. Arnolfini’s dress serve to illustrate abundance of wealth and perhaps fertility, not pregnancy)

I am not suggesting that Gisele and LeBron are necessarily here to reinforce 15th century gender stereotypes, although I would argue that they are certainly reinforcing today’s gender stereotypes. What I am saying is that visual culture has the same type of affect on us now as it did then: it shows us what is supposedly ideal. This greatly affects the masses in terms of our motivations, goals, likes and dislikes, and we have the history of art and visual culture to thank for a large part of that!

So, are art and culture relevant today? I certainly think so. After all, I didn’t pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into a liberal arts education if I didn’t see any intrinsic value to it. My plan for this blog is to post something artistically/culturally/cinematically/visually cool or pertinent as often as possible, and hopefully get (at least a few) people to open their eyes to the importance of being even just slightly culturally and visually savvy. If you aren’t convinced yet, stay tuned.

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