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Spanish Artistic Baccalaureate Curriculum
Grade: 12
Time: 2 months project

The goal of this lesson is to empower students to analyze art history through masterpieces from different points of view to challenge stereotypes and re-write history from a contemporary context while developing painting and drawing skills.

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Contemporary Art, Art History and Advertising – How do aesthetics choices influence our art? 

In this century, “selfism” has turned our egos into a sort of fetish because we live in a visual culture and advertising bombards us with messages to consume tempting brands. As a former advertising creative, I can state that these campaigns are carefully designed by understanding audience’s social behavior so the effectiveness of being hooked is assured. Then, an idea is created and an aesthetic choice is made by art directors who look for inspiration mainly in art. After the campaign is produced, the message is published, broadcasted repetitively to assure its successful impact on the audience. Now, as a former advertising creative and visual art educator, I decided to look back in art history and found that only advertising creates trends, but also, art did it in the past when creating a sense of social values which persisted in time. These values represented by forms (connections of images, time and signs) generated sensations that stood for freedom, but also, other aesthetic choices supported invented forms that created distance and indifference (J. Rancière) as domesticity. Indeed, social statuses, which produced audiences that marketing and advertising need to start a campaign, were the result of framed spatial settings (J. Rancière). I am convinced that those who held the power, and in compliance with artists used art to design social identities. 

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 10.31.38 PM.pngMadonnas

Then, the use of repetition of a theme in the past resembles to the idea of mass produced images because although each painting at museums is physically unique, the repeated images of virgins is an easy-to-share image like photography does today. Therefore, in these project I used contemporary art as way to connect the past with the present, “making fictions” (J. Rancière) to start unraveling the ropes that makes of society’s web. I want to expose what’s underneath ourselves as beings playing social roles with benefits, and from whom advertising takes advantage by nurturing our egos when bombarding us through media, daily. At this point, I agree with author Astra Taylor when she states at “People’s Platform”, that corporate interests are distorting our culture. I strongly believe that “history” through art and like corporations today, has been creating identities that supported social statuses and roles. For example, many women of my generation, and going back up to my grandmothers, were taught to behave and look as pure beings whose main role was to become docile wives. This thematic is exposed at the film “Revolutionary Road” (Sam Mendes, 2008)Where does this social identity that bias domesticity started? I started to ask women from latin social background and they agreed that while attending to religious schools or event through patriarchy rooted in their families, were taught to be -and follow the example- of virgin Mary. Personally, I believe there’s nothing wrong but the opposite to be a pure being in spirit. The problem of Virgin Mary’s images interpretation lies in the fact that because of the blinding beauty that art masters developed through their realistic portraits, being spiritual got lost in translation. I believe this idea is linked to the aesthetic choice that artists made in the past and influenced art because they created beauty standards from which later advertising nurtured the aesthetics of women’s products campaigns.

After some research to see how to start producing critical art in response to these “politics of aesthetics” (J. Rancière), I started to connect where this came from. Briefly, the story begins at some point during the 9th century, where a religious conflict took place at the core of the church which got split into two different groups. Among other reasons, one of the triggers was that part of this power structure stated that visual iconography, when taken into the realistic representation, was leading to confusion of the faithful who were embracing the new christian faith. Before this happened, instead of realistic images, the icon was used in prayer. (But today this practice is not common with the exception of some christian orthodox groups.) During prayer, the believer prays in the presence of the “icon”, but they do not pray to the it. It is worshiped, respected, but it is not adored. As a result, “making fiction”(J. Rancière) rearticulated the connection between sign and images in a negative way. Madonnas became then one of the most relevant and repeated themes in the visual art history, determining that women will be inspired by Mary’s image during centuries. Ironically, artists in the past got inspired in ancient middle east goddesses to represent the first madonnas. But, it took few time to promote the idea of a pure white weak being exposing her suffering in european settings, quite distant from the middle east context where Mary lived. If as author Astra Taylor (2014) states that “corporate interests distort our culture and drown out democracy in pursuit of profit” (as cited in People’s Platform): What are the other values that these images are promoting? What are we, as culture, buying? How did these images promoted stereotypes that made people judge others for its appearance? Indeed, some women are saints because they are tolerant and patient, yet, the female role should not be understood as martyrs by accepting social oppression that happens even today. No matter at what painting we are looking at, the way women has been depicted throughout history sticks to few roles: virgin, goddess, queen, mythical being, spirit, evil, prostitute. With the exception of Joan d’Arc and Saint Helen who are depicting carrying swords.

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“The School of Athens” Rafael Sanzio da Urbino (ca. 1509)

What’s more, most of them with the following characteristics: pure, white and naked. Nevertheless, I own my respects to the technical mastery of artists Giorgione, Tiziano, and Velázquez, among otheres. It is important to mention that Raphael, beside depicting many virgins, paid tribute to an important greek woman, Hypathia, who was included as a character in his masterpiece “The School of Athens” (ca. 1509). Hypathia was a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who lived in Egypt during the 5th century. In the present, artist Anselm Kiefer also created in his artwork “Women of Antiquity” (2002) a visual response to investigate strong women of the past whose intellectual capacities had been determinant in human progress but erased from the big history book that we have been told. The aesthetic choice he made by using context related elements such as a palm tree and dresses, enhance the message by turning dead objects alive. Digital techniques for reproducing images are mixed with other medias such as painting and sculpture. An earth color palette for some works exposes a sensation of the cycle of life, while for the second work the choice of white freezes the objects and communicates a sensation of absence and death.

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Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 10.27.13 PM“Women of Antiquity”. Anselm Kiefer.

Finally, going back to the starting point of how art communicates values and social behaviors, I want to state that I believe in the spiritual principles that religions promote to enhance human values such as equality and love, yet, we are far to tie off our egos from the branded perception that power structures created and we have been exposed for centuries. So, as a response to the creation of these oppressive beauty standards that I mentioned before, I made a selection of makeup campaigns where international brands are selling their product as a mean to have a pure angel face. By using the digital technique I made a photo collage replacing celebrities for some famous madonnas and angels taken from paintings all throughout history. When making the photo collage, I discovered that even the words that these brands are using, matched with the virginal attitude that women were supposed to have in the past.

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Another example of how the beauty standards that promote purity are used can be found in the current political propaganda. Candidates like Donald Trump, as part of his marketing strategy, surrounds himself of stereotyped angel face women. Why are we so use to believe that what is desirable, is good? Unlike the past, and most of the women who were taught at religious schools and through cultural heritages, we have internet as a space to create new platforms for people to exchange information. It is true that technology is supporting corporate interests that impact in our culture, but also using these partial democratic spaces to teach about media literacy is important. For example, exposing structures of how power operates, helps people understand important messages such as the fact that being among “angel face humans” will not assure that the main character in the picture is a saint.

Letizia Balzi

Sources:
Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics – Jacques Ranciere
People’s Platform Astra Taylor