Olympics Special – The function of Artists in Society

Since the greek days, artworks carefully documented the spirit of the Olympic Games and its athletes. While some artists produced their artworks because of their innate connection to the Games, others were commissioned and heavily watched by their country’s government.

Above, the famous discus-thrower was probably one of the sculptures most linked to the Olympic Games. The high energy, the curves, the human determination and sporting spirit draws us to Myron’s work. He captured the moment in a perfect example of rhythmos, harmony and balance.

Art was used by the society to capture the athletic moment and spirit. Olympic victories were depicted in stamps, statues, paintings and medals.

Has the function of artists in society changed over the years?

There’s a Sudjojono exhibition at Singapore’s NUS Museum that questions the function of the artist in society.

An art lecture here too discusses the changing function of artists.

In the classical times, skilled labourers who mastered artistic skills were called artisans. They worked for the courts, for the church and they were designated jobs as painters, sculptors and craftsmen. “Little or no attention was paid to artistic expression. No one, including the artist thought the artisan’s personal feelings were of particular interest.” Therefore the function of artisans then was just to do the job, without injecting emotions or self-thought ideas.

In fact, it was only later on in the Renaissance period that the concept of ‘genius’ was used to describe skilled artisans as “one whose work develops from inner ideas and self-directed effort.” As genuises were discovered, so too brought the prominence of art patrons. Patrons were learned people of power in the society – poets, philosophers, mathematicians and scholars.

Patrons often sponsored an artist’s work by providing them the materials needed or the funds needed for the work. In return, the patron gained recognition as the masterpiece was seen as a symbol of their power.

Since artworks were often commisioned by these patrons, artists had to meet the basic requirements that would please the patron. Only after that were they able to fuse their own creativity, subtle messages and other ideas.

The Old and Modern-day Court Artists

The court artist’s main function was to portray the royals in a dignified and authoritative manner. They could not afford to delve into the abstract; they had to pay close attention to details such as an extra lace at the hem of the lady’s gown that would add an air of feminity and softness to the portraiture. The political function of court art made the artist “unite the prevailing idea of authority with a ruler’s idealized image.” Even if the ruler was ugly, he had to be depicted as flawless and all-powerful. There was no room for honesty or the voice of the artist. After all, their stay as a courtier depended on how pleased the royals were with their portraits.

Times have changed and now we no longer want to see idealised images of celebrities. The paparazzi would be the perfect example of modern day court artists. We want to see celebrities in their ‘human’ moments – going to the supermarket in shorts and t-shirts, sending their kids to school by bus and seen outside without make-up.

Remember the exposure of Beckham and Rebecca Loos? That was the work of 39-year-old Australian, Darryn Lyons. In fact, he owns one of the world’s biggest paparazzi photo agencies.

We want to see them as real, and less remote. There is a quality of informality because the camera is democratic – it makes us all equal. Anyone with a camera can catch a great person unawares.

A camera is seen as democratic as it can’t lie nor hide the truth. (unless it is photoshopped of course) However, do artists of today experience that same freedom?

Voice of the artist, Voice of the People or the Government?

An exhibition took place in Australia within the first week of the Olympic Games’ opening. The exhibition was described to be a “no-frills” view of China. Take a look at a NDT News video of the exhibition.

Artists, inspired by the Olympics and China, took this opportunity to let their voices to heard through their works. They were unafraid to show their views.

On the other hand, a street wall art in Beijing sparked news reports debating if the paintings on the wall were closely watched and censored by the government.

Paul Dixon of The Guardian UK explains the significance of this street art.

“It is the longest piece of street art (at least in China). Stretching 200 metres down the western flank of the Beijing Institute of Technology, the Olympic Culture Wall displays over 80 images inspired by the forthcoming Games, all created by university students and local residents,” says Dixon in The Guardian‘s artsite.

He goes on to explain that “the wall is a rare sight: the Chinese Communist Party strictly controls public expression on topics with political connotations. Quite obviously, even organised street art is usually out of the question unless there is full approval from layers of government reaching into the higher echelons of the Ministry of Propaganda. I looked at the wall with an English student from the prestigious Beijing University.

He told me: “I think it is a kind of propaganda in light of all the negative headlines in western media over the course of the Olympic torch relay. The government will have monitored what went on this wall, carefully checking the artists’ sketches.”

So is China’s street art propaganda or the artists’ pure celebration of the Games?

Art and the Olympics

For years, artists around the world continue creating beautiful artworks commerating the Olympics.

Artworks that depict the victories of each country’s team are countless. So too are artworks that spoof the Olympic Games. Pieta Wooley reports on the dispute over the 2010 Winter Olympics.

“It didn’t take long for Vancouver artists to start spoofing the 2010 Winter Olympics. Within days of the unveiling of Illanaaq, the happy inukshuk, two graphic designers sent their parodies to the Straight. Vancouver artist Craig Calvert redesigned the logo as Pac-Man, a hockey goalie, and Terrence from South Park.

Both Calvert and Strom did their jobs as artists: they parodied a cultural symbol to encourage viewers to reconsider its meaning. It sounds innocuous, but in fact, it may be illegal.

There restrictions on unauthorized use of Olympic symbols, including the rings, the torch, and other images. Trademarked words and phrases include Olympics, Olympiad, Olympian, Vancouver 2010, Canada 2010, 2010 Games, Countdown to 2010, and even the number 2010 itself.

Before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Australian art lawyer Sally McCausland grew concerned that Olympic trademark law limits the freedom of artists. McCausland related that an artist had “distributed free t-shirts on behalf of Animal Liberation Tasmania. The t-shirts carried a design ‘depicting a hen in a cage with five eggs….’ SOCOG [the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games] sought and obtained an injunction restraining any further reproduction or sale of the design, and delivery up of all the remaining t-shirts. The fact that the t-shirts were distributed free for ‘donations’ was not a defence.”

This is bad news for artists. No one will argue that artists can criticize governments. Using trademark laws, however, corporations can effectively curtail public criticism.

What should be considered as fair comment?
What is YOUR role as an artist in today’s society?

Something to think about.

– Valerie Oliveiro

This feature is part of the Olympics Special by ArtZine.
Part 2: Olympic Stamps and their artwork. Read about it HERE.

4 thoughts on “Olympics Special – The function of Artists in Society

  1. Pingback: Olympics Special - The function of Artists in Society

  2. Pingback: Celebs » Blog Archive » Olympics Special - The function of Artists in Society

  3. Pingback: Olympics Special! - Stamps Feature « ArtZine

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