about this series
The human impulse to create art is universal. Art has been has been a way to communicate beliefs and express ideas about the human experience throughout all stages of civilization and in every region of the world. As cultural documents, works of art provide important insights into past and existing cultures, helping us to understand how others have lived and what they valued.
Art Through Time: A Global View, featuring thirteen half-hour programs, a guide, text, and other Web resources, takes a thematic approach to art history and appreciation. Rather than a linear chronology, the materials explore connections in Western and non-Western art, illuminating the breadth, complexity, and beauty of works produced around the world and at different periods of time.
In each program focusing on a particular theme, a diverse group of leading experts, together with a living artist, contextualize and connect featured works from different cultures and eras. The Web site, guide, and text provide a variety of opportunities to learn more.
Throughout history, economic needs, material desires, and political ambitions have brought people from different cultures and communities into contact, sometimes across great distances. Whether clashes or cooperative endeavors, these convergences have brought about the exchange of knowledge and ideas. In the visual arts, they have led to creative juxtapositions, hybrid styles, innovative forms, and the reinterpretation of traditional signs and symbols.
Art, of course, is about seeing. But it is not always about representing the world as it exists, and sometimes it can allow us to see with more than our eyes. From Aboriginal artists who paint the unseen forces of the universe to Surrealists who looked into the recesses of the unconscious mind for inspiration, people have found many ways to record ephemeral feelings, unknowable mysteries, personal fantasies, and inner visions. At the same time, art has been used as a tool to inspire and guide dreams and visions, both secular and spiritual.
Art has been a medium through which people have not only documented, but also shaped history—both past and future. Periodically, individuals, groups, and societies have also drawn on or appropriated artistic forms of the past to make statements in and about the present. Art can commemorate existence, achievements, and failures, and it can be used to record and create communal as well as personal memories.
People across the world engage in a wide range of ceremonial rites and spectacles. Some of these are religious, others political or social. Through these practices and the arts that accompany them—costumes, masks, vessels, ancestor figurines, altarpieces, staffs, and other objects and images—people across cultures define identity, build community, express belief, negotiate power, and attend to the physical and spiritual well-being of both individuals and societies.
In all cultures, people strive to understand their reason for being and their place in the universe. Art can be an instrument for not only recording spiritual beliefs, but also for creating myths, defining the realms of mortal and immortal, communing with ancestors, channeling forces of good, and repelling those of evil.
Death is one of the few experiences common to all people and all societies. But how different people have conceived of death and how those conceptions have shaped their behaviors and practices has varied over time and across cultures. Through art, people have expressed attitudes toward death that are in some respects universal, while in others personally and culturally specific. They have, moreover, used a wide range of objects, images, and structures to negotiate the processes of aging and dying, grieving, and commemorating.
From furniture and tapestries to bowls and baskets, art has figured prominently in domestic life for thousands of years. Within the space of the home—be it a palace or a hut—aesthetically and culturally significant objects have fulfilled purposes both mundane (e.g., storage and service) and transcendent (e.g., the facilitation of prayer). Moreover, the activities and events taking place within these domestic spaces have been the inspiration for countless artists. Their depictions of everyday life are best understood as complex documents melding real-world observations with ideal social expectations.
Images and words are symbols that both denote actual things, like people, objects, and places, and connote more abstract ideas, feelings, concepts, and theories. Given this shared function, it makes sense that the boundaries between words and images often overlap and that the two are so frequently juxtaposed. Since the dawn of civilization the relationship between written words and pictures has been manipulated to communicate ideas. It has also inspired countless artists around the globe, whose works demonstrate how text and image can enhance, supplement, complicate, or even undermine each other’s meanings.
Throughout history and across cultures, people have shown a fascination with faces, and in turn, with portrait representation. The depiction of an individual likeness is about identification, but more than that, it is a record of an interaction between an artist and a sitter, both of whom contribute to the portrait’s form and content. Far from being mirror reflections, portraits are complex constructions of identity that serve a range of functions from expressing power and declaring status to making larger statements about society at a given point in history.
From the earliest times, people have found sustenance and solace, challenge and mystery in the natural world. From representations of animal and vegetable life to landscapes and earthworks, art has been a means by which humans have expressed their awe of, communion with, dependence on, and isolation from nature. Of course, art is never a mere transcription of reality. Every rendering of the natural world is, ultimately, a construction, in which nature is translated through the filter of our own interests, values, and desires.
For thousands of years cities have been hubs of activity, centers of industry, and places from which new aesthetic trends originate, evolve, and spread. The creative visions of planners, painters, architects, and sculptors have shaped the development of cities around the world. In turn, the urban experience has inspired the creation of artwork depicting aspects of city life.
Throughout history, groups and individuals have sought not only to maintain control over their own lives, but also to assert their power over the lives of others. Visual art has played an important role in documenting such conflict and resistance. It also has served as a means for expressing personal views on politics, war, social inequities, and the human condition.
From painting to sculpture, body art to performance art, the body has figured prominently in the creative expression of nearly all cultures from the beginning of civilization. Through art, the body becomes a site for defining individual identity, constructing sex and gender ideals, negotiating power, and experimenting with the nature of representation itself.