Once upon a time, mankind recorded history through pictorial expressions in caves and walls, and through oral traditions that are still practised in many cultures. Many would rightly argue that digital media, literature and entertainment now perform those same functions that ancient art and oral traditions once did. Ancient societies were able to communicate to future generations through a so-called primitive art form. Ironically, the ancient man did not view it as mere ‘art’ (the output of human creativity or transcendental thinking) but rather as a form of storytelling and a means to communicate with their descendants using the available instruments to record and document their history.
The oldest cave painting known until now is a 40,800-year-old red disk from El Castillo, in northern Spain. We are also familiar with wall paintings and sculptures created in ancient Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Aztec, Greece, Rome and Ethiopia and so on that encapsulated their society, culture, history and traditions.
In many societies of the world today, communities still gather around the fire to exchange oral folktales and pass on ancient learnings that still very much informs, governs and guide their societies. For these societies, their stories are as unique and distinguishable from other societies and cultures as one's fingerprint is a unique identifier of a person. As such, uniqueness is celebrated and revered as it sets one apart, bringing with it the colour, personality and dynamism which is a core essence of the human spirit. In many ways, social media performs almost identical functions today for some people as art did for the man of antiquity. Both ancient and present man sought to document and record their lives - an act and innate desire to ‘share’ with others one's very existence.
I originally trained as a visual artist. Art still very much informs my thinking and influences my perception of the reality that we inhabit. Art is the foundation of all creative endeavours. The purists believe that one who considers themselves a ‘visual artist’ must first learn how to create and interpret objective reality using only simple tools such as a pencil and paper or canvas before advancing to develop one's own language of visual abstraction (subjects deconstructed, simplified and reimagined to create new meaning). Repeatedly casting one’s gaze between the canvas and objective reality, capturing as best as one can the scenery ahead of them with the stroke of a pencil. Wrestling with one’s mental dialogue as to the accuracy of the depicted reality whilst simultaneously being all too cognizant of one’s limitations in the endeavour. It is a melody of creativity and objectivity, subjectivity and emotionality, reason and inspiration all wrapped up in the expressed depiction and arduous yet rewarding process of creative learning and training. Since the advent of photography, this learning discipline has become less of a prerequisite and more of a personal preference. Today, whether one has this skill or not is mostly irrelevant. Success is not dependent on it.
In the past, to say one was an artist without having gone through this basic of training would cause the greats like Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalì, Henri Matisse, Vincent Van Gogh, and so many others that came before and after them to turn with disdain from their place of rest and provide a stern rebuke against the desecration of their practice.
However, like all things, change happens. When photography was first introduced to the world in 1839, few then could have foreseen its potential. Fewer could have imagined that it would replace their version of art as the primary means of recording history and capturing lasting moments that immortalised their subjects. To be an artist was a noble endeavour. A rather unique group of people who can articulate the human experience with the stroke of a brush or through the manipulation of materials and objects. To be an artist of old is comparable to being a musician in today’s terms. You were often a struggling artist. If chance and luck were favourable to you, you would make it and reach heights of fame and notoriety that many admired and envied in equal measures. However, more often than not, poverty and non-recognition were truer reflections of their destiny. Still, some took their chances and followed their passion rather than succumb to what could be perceived as the mundane existence of conformity and uniformity in non-creative pursuits.
Speeding things along, eventually, photography replaced modern art. Artists redefined art in order to create for it a place in the new world that they found themselves in. Art went through several iterations and identity transformation before landing at what we today call ‘modern or contemporary art.’ One can argue with conviction that the very term ‘art’ has lost its core purpose (compelling and provocative storytelling). In recent history, some people have been guilty of propagating a version of art that is pretentious and sometimes vacuous. Art became elitist and often inaccessible. Perhaps it sought to recreate its lost mystique, value and relevance in an era that had evolved without it. For more information, watch below Jessica Backus (Director of Gallery and Art Fair Relations at Artsy) talk on - Why You Don’t Get Contemporary Art.
Today, art is popular culture (pop art) with multiple dimensions. Whilst it is still very much alive in galleries, and on the streets in the form of graffiti, it has also taken on a new and different form, confidently expressing itself through social media in rich and imaginative ways. Although it is ubiquitous and incredibly accessible, it is now also highly disposable. The storytelling ability of the artists of old that connected with the human soul is competing with seconds of video clips and memes that sometimes boils down the human experience into a parody of itself. From a commercial perspective, it has given rise to the social ‘influencer’ culture who through their popularity and large audience base are targeted by marketers as sales instruments to an ever-expanding digital social ‘tribes’ of niche consumer groups.
One cannot speak about visual art and neglect to honour its cousin - the majestic, magnetic, riveting and poise of contemporary ballet. Equally, it would be a travesty of epic proportion not to indulge for a fleeting moment in the breathtaking ingenuity of Shakespeare’s timeless playwright body of work and similar stage plays that carry the depth of quality and humanity within its artistic dramatisation. Although I am diverting somewhat now, it would be unforgivable to neglect the emotive art form of music (and poetry) and its power to elevate consciousness to great heights. Its endearment lies in its unparalleled power to melt even the hardest of hearts with its enchanting melodies and seductive beats, reducing otherwise self-controlled and respectable folks to lose all inhibitions to freely rock to the rhythm of the beat.
Artists, musicians and creatives - individuals and communities of people who choose to exist to elevate human thinking, and storytellers who through their unique view of the world impact hearts and minds, taking us to places we did not know existed and longed to return to - will always have a place in the heart of man. They hold a unique responsibility to connect us to one another and enable us to experience a multitude of emotions and intellectual stimulus that informs, educates, provokes and challenges a response.
As we rapidly move into the age of big data, predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation, robotics and the digitisation of everything, what role will art play in this new reality and can it re-emerge once again as a distinct storytelling instrument that reconnects the past to the present, touching hearts and souls for generations to come? I believe so. Art is telling new stores in pixels, creating new melodies with digital noise, and it continues to perpetually transform itself.
Advertisers and marketers have always profited from using art to sell products. Consumers want to engage with brands that have a compelling value proposition and brand narrative. Brands that are clear on their reason for existing and solving a genuine problem for consumers, brands that can succinctly articulate their value that is beyond just commercial success but rather is driven by a greater purpose that resonates with the hearts and minds of their audience (customers). Such brands can successfully tap into the current trends but are not driven by them, instead, they leverage them to strengthen an already strong value proposition. The aforementioned brands are driven by a higher and less fleeting purpose. Such purposes are rooted in sustainability, ethical practices, courage to do the right thing for the right reasons and at the right time, fairness, honesty and decency. It is not just a case of using art to sell, but rather, art elegantly encapsulates the intangibles of that brand's purpose. It becomes the vehicle that connects the brand to its audience, reinforcing both parties values and surfacing both parties shared vision. For example, Project JUST (www.linkedin.com/company/just-project-just-/) empowers consumers to make informed decisions (around sustainability and ethics) about the clothes they buy, so they can align their purchases with their values.
Art will continue to evolve and leverage maturing and new technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR) and haptic technology to discover new ways to narrate the human story and to solve complex problems in an ever more contextually relevant, personal and immersive experiences.
Consumers continue to demand and expect delightful brand moments that are highly personal, engaging and sprinkled with pleasant surprises. Some brands are using art and technology to deepen their customer relationship and build lasting loyalty. The road ahead is filled with wonder and many Alice in Wonderland moments for brands and consumers alike.