Memento Vita: Remembrances and Gratitude

My very first post here on Scoutie Girl asked the age old question, “What is Art?” It started an interesting conversation in the comments. In the seven or so months since, I am still exploring that question, or rather a derivative of it.

What is art good for?

I carry a moleskine or the like wherever I go to jot down ideas, or take notes on what I see and hear. Last week when I was going through some I found notes I’d written in response to a Renoir show at the Philadelphia Art Museum over a year ago. I have never been a huge fan of Renoir. His work all looks alike to me and is somehow too pretty. What I learned at the exhibit surprised me and helped me understand why he worked as he did, and why I was not in love with it.

Renoir began drawing and painting as a child working in a porcelain factory, creating decorative china. Discovering a talent for painting, he went on to become a painter of great acclaim, but he never lost the idea of art as decoration.

The purpose of painting is to enliven the walls.

Now I am not sure all his contemporaries would agree, but it is true that he lived in a time when art had become something for the privileged, and held an elitist place in society. Renoir was determined not to intellectualize art, but I believe he was unusual in that.

My art history is rusty, but I believe this began during the mid to late Renaissance and continues to this day. What is interesting to me is that for the larger part of history, art had a purpose in function and informing. The earliest art we know of – that of cave dwellers – had a purpose that is uncertain, but certainly a purpose beyond decoration.

The purpose of the paleolithic cave paintings is not known. The evidence suggests that they were not merely decorations of living areas, since the caves in which they have been found do not have signs of ongoing habitation. Also, they are often in areas of caves that are not easily accessed. Some theories hold that they may have been a way of communicating with others, while other theories ascribe to them a religious or ceremonial purpose.

Later, in Egyptian art, we see great luxury going into decorative arts, but also there was purpose to much of it, and so it goes until around the 1500s. Even during the Middle Ages, when some great cathedrals were built, the elaborate decoration was representative of the Glory of God. Stained glass scenes were illustrations of Bible stories to teach the illiterate.

So, what does all this mean you might ask? We live in a time where some art still has a place in high esteem and intellectual theory, and where more people than ever are creating some kind of art. Supplies are available and affordable, and digital photography has opened that field to the masses.

I think that indicates it is time to bring some function back to the arts.

Much of my searching and writing here has been about how to do that.

The past month gifted me with an opportunity to try an idea out and I think I am on to something. I had been thinking about offering personalized images for significant events or celebrations. A woman I know had asked me to personalize one of my tree pieces with names and date for a wedding gift. This made me think about how to take it further and actually create a piece with images that would mean something to the recipient.

My dear friend John lost his uncle last month. They had been really close and he was pretty torn up about it. He sent me some photos he’d taken in fall which he and his uncle both loved. He also told me he was working on a poem to honor his uncle and wondered if I could somehow do something with this. What a coincidence, I have been thinking about doing this exactly!

The result is what you see above, and my new service is called Memento Vita, Remember Life, because even at a memorial service I believe we should celebrate a life rather than mourn a death.

In my never ending concern for the life of the planet, I created this awareness piece yesterday. I plan to do a series with crows as I have an inexplicable fondness for them.

Art with a purpose. What do you think? How else might we create art to have a function at a time when we desperately need change?

18 thoughts on “Memento Vita: Remembrances and Gratitude

  1. I love reading Scoutie Girl articles and read them on a very regular basis since signing up a few weeks ago.

    Today’s article is interesting and I enjoyed the ideas it explored about the purpose of art. I do not wish to take anything away from the author of the article, however she did misspell the artist’s (Renoir) name several times over and for some reason that really stuck with me. I looked for a way to contact the editor of Scoutie Girl so that I might send a private email regarding this matter but couldn’t find one. :(

    1. Thank you for pointing out the error Michele. It has been corrected. If you want to contact Scoutie Girl privately there is a contact form under about in the menu at the top of the page.

      We hope you will continue to enjoy our articles and appreciate feedback.

  2. Thought-provoking! In fact, the word ‘art’ didn’t exist for the ancient Egyptians. What we call their art, was a manifestation of the sacred, and so it was for the art or imagery of many cultures before the renaissance, when the individual artist became recognized as such.

    What I dislike about the division between Art and craft (Art contests modern society’s values and incites intellectual debate whereas craft is ‘just’ decoration) is that it denies people’s desire to possess, hold, touch and interact with images of the sacred. If an image, 2 dimensional or 3 dimensional, or whatever, inspires someone, comforts someone, affirms another’s faith, etc, that is its function or purpose and if it is life-affirming…to me it’s sacred and valuable, and Art.

    I love your crow piece, can’t wait to see more!

  3. As a Baby Boomer, I can remember how the music (art) of the 60s sent a powerful anti-war message that impacted those of us who didn’t take to the streets in protest.

    The Take Back Wall Street movement does not have an artistic component that I’ve seen or heard. Where is the music? Where are the posters? Where is the art?

    1. Thank You LeAnn! That is what I have been thinking. I was a kid in the 60s but can clearly remember the posters and music.

      I have been seriously considering some anti shopping art (posters) that I could print cheaply and distribute free before the holidays. Now even more so.

  4. You make an excellent point Laura about the definition of art as we know it compared to the Egyptians etc. I would like to bring back art a a cultural norm whether sacred or no.

    As for art vs craft (I don’t believe in a division) we don’t have time for that discussion here :-)

    I enjoy intellectualizing art at times, I also believe in its power as a tool for inspiration, healing, and connection to the sacred. What I failed to mention above is that the Renoir exhibit made me appreciate his work even if it would not be my choice of decor. That he chose to love art merely for beauty, rather than intellectual or philosophical fodder is something I can relate to.

  5. ok, gwyn micheal, ya finally got me. for months i’ve read your posts, smiling, nodding, thinking we might be related, and finally today i had to respond.

    yes, yes, and yes again to art with a purpose. while i appreciate art on an academic, make-the-gray-cells-wake-up because of what i see level, i believe that art that sings most compellingly to me is very experiential, and thus functional. i love looking and my eyes never tire of seeing, but functional art also allows me to touch, move through, wear, invent, use, taste (yay for food), hear and smell the world in fresh ways.

    my small contribution to creating art for change is two-fold. 1) i resurrect old things, furniture especially, through paint. joy and surprise characterize this work. 2) i’ve also begun moving into more traditional forms, using paint on canvas and other flat surfaces. this work has been personal and transformational, a sort of recovery therapy process that allows my heart and mind to transmit messages beyond words through my arm and out the end of my paint brush.

    both of these approaches are my way to let my light shine. to make my corner of the universe brighter, nurture the best in myself and others, and lighten the burden we each carry.

    1. Thank you Rebecca for the heartfelt comment! I too do some personal work in the form of healing art. I think we all need a creative outlet to sooth our souls in this crazy, busy, and often frightening world.

      You say:
      “both of these approaches are my way to let my light shine. to make my corner of the universe brighter, nurture the best in myself and others, and lighten the burden we each carry.”

      Yes, yes, and yes again!

  6. I’ve always believed art is only “good art” if it serves a purpose. But I typically think that purpose is very open-ended. And usually, emotional or mental. All my work seeks to make the viewer delve into their soul and bring out deep-set emotion. I enjoyed reading this article, despite the awful attempt at spelling poor Renoir’s name. 😉

  7. Gwyn, what a thought provoking post. I think you are on to something as well. What art is good for, for one person can mean something totally different to another. I own a little studio called Homespun: Houston Handmade and through taking in different pieces of art, I have started to learn the stories of the artists. I am actually working on a special project in order to bring these stories together (not finished yet though!). One example I have encountered is a mother who had to sell her hair salon business because her son was born with MANY different illnesses. She had no time to run a hair salon because she had too many doctor’s appointments to keep up with. She now illustrates these whimsical, fun pictures that also inspire giving thanks. Every print that is bought goes towards their medical expenses. She has been hesitant to share her story. But had I not known the story behind her art, I would have never understood it to be honest. They are definitely cute, but since I know the background I bought one myself. After I told my mother-in-law her story while she was visiting the studio, she bought a print on the spot also. What I have found is that sharing the “why” behind art creates a greater value in it to anyone looking at the piece.

  8. Excellent point Bri. The why is very important. I think I need to make that information more prominent on my website.

    I love the story you tell and how that changed your view of the work. Much like learning about Renoir changed my opinion of his work. I didn’t necessarily like the style better, but I got it and that made me appreciate it.

  9. As some have already stated, art means different things to different people. I have collected some decorative art, functional art and sentimental art. But art that comes with a great story is art with value added, especially if it resonates within my heart. I think, though, the most interesting art are the pieces that cause me to have visceral response — the crow piece for example.** This type of art can bridge gaps and allow for the creation of pathways for better understanding. The Occupy movement needs some strong art to help communicate their messages. Best wishes for your new venture.

    **Crows are know to be very smart, quick-learning problem solvers. They are very social — family/community oriented. Also they are the ideal observers of us humans.

    1. Thank You Maureen. Your responses are always thoughtful.
      That visceral response is why I think of art, and images as a language of their own, one that does bring messages and understanding!

      Crows! You like them too :-)

  10. I also often fall in love with an artist and their story before I fall in love with their art. Understanding the context of a piece and what it means to the person who created it gives the art more meaning, regardless of what form the piece actually takes. It’s why I still hang on to some of my own earlier pieces. Regardless of their technical merit (or lack there-of) the symbolism is still there and still resonates with me.

    1. Thanks Diane,

      It is true that story can change or add to the way we view a piece of art, and an image does not have to be beautiful, or perfect to illicit a meaningful response.

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