Meaning and Purpose: Chapter 2

Traditional Subjects


What painters represented in times past quite certainly indicates what was considered important. The mere survival of these works of art testify to their lasting might:

–The beasts whose power we fear, beasts whose flesh we eat, as represented by the rock painting of bison discovered in the caves at Lascaux, Dordogne, France, dating back to 17,000 BC.

–God or gods whose power we fear, whose protection we depend on, depicted almost without ceasing, such as the image of the Assyrian winged god Nisroch carrying the pine cone symbol of regeneration in the relief excavated at Nimrod, in the 19th century.1

–The rulers whose power we fear and whom we obey, whose visages were made from miniature to monumental proportions, such as that of John II, ‘the Good,’ 1319-64, still visible at the Louvre.

–The nature of the world we live in, a subject approached with greater and greater sophistication, perhaps reaching a pinnacle with The Artist’s Studio painted by Jan Vermeer 1665-66, a masterpiece on view at the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna. That this work is also known as The Allegory of Painting speaks to the special qualities of observation with which Vermeer created his works.

–The nature of the world to come, a shining example among many having been provided by Hubert and Jan Van Eyck in the Ghent Altarpiece, completed in 1432 for the St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium.

–The people we love, immortalized as Leonardo da Vinci did the Mona Lisa in oil on panel from 1503-06, now forever drawing crowds in the Louvre.

In the choice of subject matter, art claimed moral authority, a quality greatly lacking in the 21st century. Oh, but these subjects from the past were mere expressions of the structure of power, the postmodernists would argue2 , and I wonder if there was something more, perhaps evocations of another kind of power, unseen power.

Gravity Fanatic, 2005, Dana Schutz (b. 1976), private collection. Courtesy of the author and Petzel, New York

After all, gravity exerts a power that was unknown to the painters of these earlier eras.

  1. The excavation site is located in present day Iraq on the Tigris river southeast of Mosul, a place name becoming synonymous with embattled belief, as Sunni extremists destroy ancient religious sites there.
  2. Michael J. Lewis, “How Art Became Irrelevant: A Chronological Survey of the Demise of Art,” Commentary Magazine, July 1, 2015, accessed October 15, 2015, Lewis explains that it was “Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida who said that art and literature were best understood as expressions of a structure of power. Better to eliminate altogether the word art, which evokes unhappy images of dominant cultures expressing their hegemony, in favor of the aesthetically neutral term visual culture….”