Art in Ireland

Scope of Art

For centuries, there have been debates about the meaning and purpose of art, and what the term covers. While contemporary thinking is open to including all forms of visual culture, from graffiti to oil paintings, this has not always been the case. At various stages through the history of art, there have been shifts of emphasis as artefacts were created in response to the different social and artistic environments. Generally, the role of art is seen as either a reflection of society or a means of challenging it, and it is in this sense that art has tended to be distinguished from a purely decorative function.

The earliest surviving mark making, such as that at the ancient tomb at Newgrange, is understood to have had a primarily ritualistic purpose and to have been valued accordingly.   Up to the end of the Middle Ages the regard for art objects was based on a combination of the worth of the materials, the meaning or function of an object (such as a Gospel book or brooch) and   the quality of the craftsmanship. The name of the artist was seldom recorded.

The Renaissance in Europe marked the emergence of the idea of ‘fine art’ as distinct from craft. Art was judged by the artist’s skill of illusion and imaginative creativity, rather than by the monetary value of the materials from which an artwork was made.   It took some time longer for this concept to become established in Ireland , and it is associated with the requirement for art in aristocratic houses and public institutions, and the consequent establishment of the academic system of training artists in Ireland from the eighteenth century.   Since then, fine art – picture painting (primarily oil on canvas) and sculpture (mainly in stone or bronze) – has, until recently, remained the predominant form of art in terms of prestige.  

Since the late twentieth century, this hierarchy has been questioned, and new forms and materials have been explored. The distinction between painting and sculpture has been eroded, and any material, however unlikely, can be used to make art. In addition, technological developments have enabled the combination of ‘performance’ with photographic, digital and video formats under the heading of ‘new media’.   While art training, as well as galleries and art museums, provide for such experimental forms, the art market and the commercial galleries are still dominated by traditional materials and methods, largely in the interests of practicality and of durability for display in the home, commercial and institutional environments.

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