This One Old Painting Changed the World in the Way You’d Least Expect


“I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in
a casket, my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight, every gesture I make is blind and aimless. My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself. My painting is dead. I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.” Would it surprise you if I told you that these
lines were scribed by none other than Michelangelo, painter of the Sistine Chapel? We often gaze upon masterpieces so miraculous
as this and imagine it as a piece born from a desire to create great art, with passion
pouring from the artist’s every pore. Michelangelo in fact, hated his grand epitome
of human creation, finding it quite the bore. Yet over five million people flock to admire
it every year. Michelangelo loathed every minute of its creation,
so much so that he wrote the preceding poem. So then why did he do it? Well, he was being paid by the church. And as we all know, enough money will make
a man sell his soul, or paint a giant fresco on the Pope’s ceiling, either are just as
likely. ‘A picture paints a thousand words’ this
well-known idiom reveals the most important aspect of artwork, that it is potentially
the most powerful medium we have to record and be able to reflect on history in a visual
way. Today every relevant and far more often irrelevant
moment of human creation is captured in photography, frequently archived publically for the world
to view. When Apollo 11 landed the first two men on
the moon in 1969 it was captured fantastically on film and broadcast for the world to see. We can all observe in precise detail what
happened in that momentous moment. But until the advent of photography, we had
to rely on two mediums to guide us through the triumphs and tribulations of times gone
by, writing and illustration. When Leonardo Da Vinci invented his flying
machine he probably would have really liked to make an obnoxiously gloat-filled Instagram
post, but he was thankfully resigned to drawing an impressively detailed yet beautifully artistic
sketch instead. Needless to say, writing is a powerful force
but only art can influence a nation with a single glance. Artwork drags us from the drudgery of our
pixel-perfect period in time and grants us a wonderfully dynamic perspective on the events
that changed our world. Artwork allows us to instantly visualise moments
such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the invention of Gutenberg’s
printing press, the French revolution, the protestant reformation, the fall of the Roman
Empire and that elusive period during the middle ages when the world was full of murderous
giant rabbits. And alike these freakishly satanic rabbits,
famous pieces of artwork aren’t always historically accurate, George Washington certainly didn’t
cross the Delaware like this. And Napoleon definitely didn’t look as fabulous
as this whilst crossing the Alps. For a start, he would have ridden a mule,
not a horse, as Paul Delaroche depicted in this far more realistic envisioning of the
event, painted in 1850. But, you know what? These inaccuracies don’t matter. The purpose of great art is not to provide
an exact recount of the event in question, we have historical textbooks for that. Instead, art provides a stylised, sometimes
idealised version of events that aids our imagination and with one glance transports
us to that precious moment in time. It is only through this spectacular visualisation
of art that allows it to perforate popular culture and bring history to the masses. It is not for us to imagine the ambience of
a cafe terrace in Southern France in the late evening of 1888, on this, Van Gogh has us
covered. Also in the late 19th century, one artist’s
paintings helped all of Europe visualise a new world and caused mass migration, thus
by no exaggeration, one man’s artwork built the American West. More specifically, German-American painter
Albert Bierstadt’s rich vistas of the living landscapes of the American West were brought
back to London in 1867 and exhibited to the masses, including a private exhibition for
Queen Victoria. So mesmerised by the idyllic freedom depicted
upon these canvases, so beautifully promised was the vast bounty of the free new world
laid bare to all, that British, German and Irish people packed up their lives and migrated
to America in their millions. It has been said that European migration to
the states was fueled by Bierstadt’s art. Art can and has been used to mobilise entire
nations into mass hysteria, into war, into peace or to simply mobilise them, to colonise
new lands. Art doesn’t just change what we do, it changes
how we think and what we think changes the type of images we prefer to look at. Psychological studies have demonstrated how
our personalities are reflected in the types of artwork we find pleasing to look at and
thus what we choose to hang on our walls. There is a very real and predictable positive
correlation between conservatives and highly representational artwork. In other words, people who have a more conservative
outlook on life prefer traditional artwork, artwork that looks like what it seeks to represent. For instance, when 19th-century Belgian Eugène
Joors set out to paint a man playing a guitar he, by some miracle of humanity, ended up
painting a man with a guitar. Meanwhile, at the same time in France, cubist
Georges Braque attempted the same feat, to paint a man with a guitar, yet somehow painted
a tear in the spacetime fabric. Conversely, liberals considerably prefer abstract
art forms such as cubism, surrealism and modern art. Such as Banett Newman’s Onement VI, alternatively
known as ‘blue square with line down the middle’, which recently sold for $43.8 million. But this is not nearly as ridiculous as the
‘artwork’ not on display at the Museum of Non-Visible Art. You heard that correctly, the Museum of Non-Visible
Art is exactly that, a gallery of empty rooms and empty walls. Each blank wall is accompanied by a title
and description card that describes the artwork you are supposedly ‘looking at’. It is up to your mind to imagine what the
art should look like. I’m sorry but if I p aid to see the latest
blockbuster at the cinema and I was told I have to imagine what the film looks like for
2 hours because it’s a ‘non-visible film’, it’s reasonable to say I would be beyond
pissed. Yet, most incredible of all, this gallery
made a sale, in 2011 a woman paid $10,000 for the piece titled ‘Fresh Air’. In return for her ten fat Gs she received
a card with a description of the artwork, which she could presumably stick to an empty
wall at home and have to describe to all her family and friends why there is a gaping white
space in her living room and an idiotically larger space in her wallet. An art magazine described the piece like so
‘A unique piece, only this one is for sale. The air you are purchasing is like buying
an endless tank of oxygen. No matter where you are, you always have the
ability to take a breath of the most delicious, clean-smelling air that the earth can produce. Every breath you take gives you endless peace
and health. This artwork is something to carry with you
if you own it. Because wherever you are, you can imagine
yourself getting the most beautiful taste of air that is from the mountain tops or fields
or from the ocean side; it is an endless supply.’ But how does art affect us in our modern day-to-day
lives? We see artwork everywhere we go, sometimes
in our homes, doctor’s waiting rooms, in the workplace. Whether it be a print of a beautiful renaissance
fresco by Raphael looming luxuriously behind a receptionist’s head or one of those bizarre
iron irrationalities of human form placed unaccountably on your mother’s coffee table
because she thinks it ‘adds a touch of class to the room’. Even if we pay little conscious attention
to any of these pieces positioned throughout our lives, they actually do affect us considerably
and the very presence of art changes the way we think and behave. Recent research by Exeter University’s School
of Psychology concluded that employees who work in an office decorated with art are 17%
more productive than those who work in a blank office space. Other research conducted by the University
of Westminster found that viewing art for a small amount of time each day reduces cortisol
(stress levels), increases our empathy towards others, releases dopamine, increases our critical
thinking abilities by up to 18% and it can also help to reduce mental exhaustion in the
exact same way that spending time outdoors does. So there you go, instead of going outside,
hang a picture of a field on your wall. A study in 2014 also found that creating or
viewing art increases long-term physical resilience and can actually delay ageing. Art is inextricably tangled with our humanity. We don’t only appreciate it when it’s
done well, we have an innate need, a desire to create and look at it. When our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors
crafted tools needed to survive, they took extra time to make them symmetrical and attractive. For no other reason than it gave them satisfaction
to use ascetically pleasing tools, rather than ugly ones, also because they had bugger
all else to do. Throughout modernity, in building our houses
and public spaces, all civilisations the world over have spent huge amounts of extra money,
time and manpower to make them visually appealing. In a YouGov poll, 77% of respondents said
they prefer traditional architecture, with its ornate beauty over cold contemporary buildings,
with their hostile steel and glass facades. The data shows that across the UK buildings
with traditional architecture and even neo-traditional architecture sell for 15 per cent more than
modern housing. London houses built before the first world
war, you know when new builds were actually attractive still, went up in value 465 per
cent over the past thirty years. Whereas their newer, post-war counterparts,
well their value rose by only 255 per cent in the same period. People pay a huge premium for beauty and good
architecture is art. Why do we pay so much more, for a few details
in our brickwork and around our window frames? Because humans are hard-wired to seek out
and derive pleasure from beauty. The research on this is clear and substantive,
living in a beautiful area, amongst beautiful houses, which one could equate to living in
a piece of artwork, makes us happier, less stressed and healthier. And bringing that beauty into your home, whether
its a painting that brings you joy or a sculpture you admire, will only increase these effects. So why don’t you seek to bring happiness
to others and change the world by creating your own art to be admired by society. Whether your dream is to paint, illustrate
stories or comics, create sculptures or work with clay, there is only one place on the
internet I would recommend to help you fulfil these dreams, Skillshare. Skillshare is an online learning community
for creators, with more than 25,000 classes in design, art, illustration and much more. Premium Membership gives you unlimited access,
so you can join the classes and communities that are just right for you. You may want to fuel your curiosity, creativity,
or even career, whichever it is Skillshare is the perfect place to keep you learning
and thriving. If you’re thinking about picking up fine
art as a new hobby I highly recommend the Skillshare course “Modern Watercolor Techniques:
Beginner’s Level”. If illustration is more your thing, then you
have to watch “Ink Drawing Techniques: Brush, Nib, and Pen Style” it’s such a fun and
unique course that will give you a huge headstart. Skillshare is also super affordable: an annual
subscription is less than $10 a month. Over 7 million creators like you have already
joined and the first 500 of my subscribers to use the link in the description will get
a free 2 month trial of Skillshare Premium.

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