Who, What, Where, and Why: The Importance of Culture on Formation of Artistic Expression

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“Art” and “culture” are, in many minds, essentially all but synonymous. It is no real secret that art does not (and cannot) exist in a vacuum. Art holds meaning. It holds a deep and personal meaning for individuals, and equally significant meaning for an entire people group. This does not only mean that art shapes the culture in which it is produced, or that culture is the product of artistic expression. This is true to a certain extent. But the reverse is equally true. The surrounding culture and preexisting societal pressures often, if not always, shape art and artistic expression.

Art holds meaning because it is filled by the culture around it. There is a sort of giving and take – art shapes the culture, but in turn, culture shapes the art. This holds true across many known cultures and societies, both present and past. But perhaps it will become most clear by comparing similar types of art across cultures. Two works of art particularly exemplify the effect that culture has on artistic expression. Both are woodcut (or woodblock) prints produced during the 16th century but are found in very different contexts. The first, Albrecht Dürer’s Apocalypse series, is found in the artistic tradition of Western Civilization, while the other, Hishikawa Moronobu’s The Sake Drinking Boy, is found in the beginnings of modern Japanese culture.

A short examination of each of these works will reveal that cultural tradition resulted in differing artistic expressions – that is, both were products of their culture. Japan’s ideal of hedonism made the space for Moronobu to produce simple depictions of the “good life” or “floating world”, whereas the Reformation in Western Europe made apocalyptic art an admirable (and profitable) pursuit for Durer. There are several differences in the works that exemplify this.

First, what each of the artists chose to depict is an important indicator of the culture that they found themselves in. Albrecht Dürer, a German painter and printmaker, became famous for his Apocalypse series. The series of woodcut prints depict various scenes from Revelation – the most famous being a depiction of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. As Giulia Bartrum tells us, these woodcut prints were originally produced to accompany a new version of St. John’s Revelation, but have, to this day, “been among the most admired and reproduced works of northern art” (124). This shows just how important these works are for the Western tradition, as well as their culture at the time.

The actual portrayal in these prints is quite dramatic and visual – for example, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse depicts four horsemen, representing war, plague, death, and famine. The print shows them driving across from left to right, over the poor specimens of common humanity who are being crushed beneath the hooves of the horses. The series essentially shows the importance that Western Europe put on Revelation and its prophecies. In fact, the publication of the new edition of St. John’s Revelation coincided with return of fear of the end of the world, as many in the period believed that the judgment day was to come in 1500 (Bartrum). As the art was produced during the time of the Reformation, it is understandable that Dürer focused on religious themes and motifs.

In contrast, Hishikawa Moronobu’s woodblock prints, particularly those depicting the popular Japanese story of the Sake Drinking Boy, have a much more secular influence – and therefore, representation. Moronobu was the first Japanese artist to fall under the genre of ukiyo-e – or, literally “pictures of the floating world” (Denny, 98). This “floating world” usually refers to an impermanent realm, separated from the “every day”. To gain a fuller picture of this concept, we can look to a writer contemporary to the time period. Asai Ryoi wrote about the floating world:

Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; ... refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world” (Denny, 98).

These “pictures” are reflective of the Japanese culture at the time, like many other works of art in Asian art collections. As Denny goes on to describe, it was a culture of “dreamy hedonism” established in Japan’s capital after it was rebuilt in the second half of the 17th century (99). This is the context in which Moronobu began producing his woodblock prints on a large scale. It was a visual, here-and-now sort of culture, with a focus on fleeting beauty and on mankind – especially in contrast with the Reformation culture in Western Europe around the same time. Most ukiyo-e art depicts natural and town scenes, with a focus on the beautiful and the exciting – for example, Moronobu’s Sake Drinking Boy shows scenes from the famous story of men hunting down and killing a demon. While the difference in subject matter is perhaps the clearest difference in artistic expression stemming from cultural traditions, there are more that are important to note.

The style that each artist worked with also gives a clear understanding of the different influencing cultures. Even though both artists used woodblock printing as their method, their styles differed greatly. Albrecht Dürer’s work produces a powerful rendition of Biblical imagery, leaving us with illustrations that we could look at for hours. The detail, expression, and complexity all combine to create a very real sense of urgency and fear. As Bartrum says, “The punctilious attention to detail and the sureness of line are astonishing. Everything is perfectly physically realized, and yet is a realization of pure, Bible-driven flights of fancy” (106). Dürer ultimately created a potent imagining of what the prophecies could look like; he transformed what had been a relatively familiar and unthreatening image into a climactic moment with the visual effect of motion and impression of danger.

The style particular to Dürer’s Apocalypse series reflects a culture wrapped up in doomsday prophecies and Biblical determinism. As the new (17th) century came close, the people of Western Europe began thinking that the end was near. Dürer’s work spoke to this fascination, complementing the Biblical texts being produced. In the century before Dürer’s work, Biblical art like the sixteenth-century Adoration of the Magi, was influenced by a culture that was still romanticizing the most-enduring tales from the Bible.

Almost completely opposite of this style is Moronobu’s art. Instead of being extremely detail-oriented, Moronobu focuses on the basics, using clean and uniform lines and space. Instead of depicting emotion through motion or expression, Moronobu lets the scene speak for itself. As Denny says, “Unlike the largely insipid western art of the period, there is no concern with fidelity to the surfaces of an ‘objective world,” Denny says. “Using strong black lines and bright simple colors….invented a realm from which all imperfections seem to have been burnt away to leave a luminous essence of movement, pattern, and form” (99). Denny deems this “strong simplicity”, a form that embodies characters with liveliness without expression, and action without motion.

This style reflects the Japanese culture of ukiyo-e, discussed earlier. Even if the depicted scene is intense, the simplicity makes for almost comic relief. This falls into the ukiyo-e idea of a carefree yet adventurous lifestyle. The empty spaces in Moronobu’s depictions bring the scene forward in its simplest form, focusing on the story rather than the “objective forms”, as Denny discussed above. The form and style are very clearly influenced by the culture in which it was employed, fitting in with the consumer’s expectations of what art to depict, and how it ought to depict it. Ukiyo-e sought something of a fleeting adventure, and the Japanese people found it in Moronobu’s art.

A final difference between Dürer and Moronobu is their motivation for pursuing woodblock prints as a viable form of art. They are two artists, separated by half a world, opposing cultures, and more than a century of development, yet employed the same method (if not style). Given the fact that woodblock prints meant mass production of their work, it is not overly pessimistic to say that the artists’ reasoning was economic – the motivation just came out differently, given their surrounding societal demands.

Dürer’s inherent motivation was that he could enter his artwork as illustrations in books. In fact, that is how his woodblock drawings first appeared – as an illustration to Revelation, and other Biblical books, as seen earlier. According to Bartrum, the layout of these editions suggests that the illustrations themselves were considered more central and important than the text (124). The series (in book form) is what brought Dürer to prominence in Western Europe, giving him fame and wealth that provided him with some freedom from patronage. This, in turn, allowed him further autonomy. Placing his drawings into book form, it seemed, was the best economic choice for Dürer.

Moronobu, in his own turn, also did well with the opportunities that woodblock drawings brought him. Ukiyo-e woodblock prints essentially followed urbanization in Japan. The method increased because it was cheap enough to “suit the needs of the growing and art-hungry merchant class” (Denny, 98). The prints were affordable because they could be mass-produced. They were mainly meant for townsmen, who were generally not wealthy enough to afford an original painting. They were produced as small, cheap prints, as well as reproduced in books. This was all good news for Moronobu, who essentially began the ukiyo-e genre. He mass-produced his work to the extent that he became quite popular even in his own contemporary time period. For both Dürer and Moronobu, woodblock drawings were an expanding their artistic influence, while at the same time securing themselves to pursue what liked.

Besides the method for creating the art, there could be nothing different than the works produced by Albrecht Dürer and Hishikawa Moronobu. One was created in response to religious revival; the other was a continuation of secular and hedonistic culture. One is detailed and expressive, moving the viewer to a place of antagonism. The other is designed only to tell a story, worrying very little about reflecting the true form of objects. One stayed elite, designed to accompany books, while the other was an opportunity for the middle-class to have access to fine art.

All of this makes it quite clear that art is often influenced, one way or another, by the culture that surrounds it, as part of the “give and take” discussed earlier. In this particular case, the cultural traditions of Western Europe and Japan respectively shaped the final outcome of two talented and otherwise autonomous artists.

Works Cited

Bartrum, Giulia. Albrecht Dürer and his Legacy. British Museum Press, 2002.

Denny, Ned. “Lightness of Being.” New Statesman. 17 Dec 2001: 98-99. Electronic.

Lane, Richard. Images from the Floating World. Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky & Konecky, 1978.