Without getting into any esoteric exploration of the nature or meaning of art, it's safe to say that artists have always played a crucial role in human society and civilization. We aren't even talking about the broad spectrum of artists here: surely this would be true if we included poets, composers, actors, and concert pianists, but it's equally true when "artist" is limited to painters and sculptors.
The men responsible for overseeing the construction of the Tabernacle of the Jews, Bezalel and Oholiab, can rightly be described as visual artists. It's interesting that in the ancient world artists were considered manual laborers, that they had none of the glory attributed them by modern cultures, that instead of idle bohemians they were hard workers who put in long hours and earned their bread by the sweat of their brow.
If you told a Hebrew or Greek that painters were somehow spiritually or intellectually enlightened oracles, they wouldn't understand. Even during the Renaissance, when the bourgeois reverence of "Art" was born, painters and sculptors were simply advanced craftsmen—gifted in their fields, but not the set-apart breed later generations would consider them to be.
Modern critics like to talk about the "surprisingly advanced understanding of human nature" evidenced by ancient paintings and statuary. Those artists were simply representing what they saw: much of what interpreters think they see now in those reflections is simply the result of their own over-intellectualized approach rooted in Enlightenment ideas of evolution and human progress. The ancient artists undertook to present and interpret life as they knew it, not to represent some philosophically-based school of thought or technique.
To suppose that an artist's life is of no consequence or likely uninteresting, however, is not a defensible assumption. Rembrandt's biography may not be any more interesting or compelling than yours or mine, but given the mark he made on Western civilization through his paintings, it might be more valuable reading, at least from an educational perspective.
Also, artists since the Renaissance have been in the business of making statements through their art, and understanding what their lives were like can be helpful on two levels—it lets us see if their lives were consistent with the ideals they championed, and it demonstrates that, as people, they were just as much products of their environment as those of us who've never picked up a paint brush or chisel. The following biographies show both sides, as well as helping us toward a greater appreciation of the paintings, sketches, drawings and sculpture they left behind.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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