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Essay: The artist’s job is to be a witness to their time in history

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  • Subject area(s): Photography and arts essays
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  • Published: September 14, 2021*
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  • The artist's job is to be a witness to their time in history
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As said by Robert Rauschenberg, “The artists job is to be a witness to his time in history.”

Artists have been known to play the role of witness in their work, whereby their practice is characterised by the navigation of dramatic emotional states stemming from social commentary and emotions therefore experienced from both the subject and artist. Artists play the role of the observer within their work as it lets them explore their subject through an outside perspective. Caravaggio, Goya and Viola are all artists who play the role of the spectator within their work, through doing this, they are able to explore different concepts, primarily of life and death, and peace and violence. These artists are all documenting different events and subject matters, yet they all use confrontation as a way to take the attention of the audience and let them consider the role of the artist within creating this work. Although Caravaggio, Goya and Viola were all artists hundreds of years apart, they all use aspects of religion to convey their perspective. For example, crucifixion is an aspect of religion, that all these artists have incorporated in order to convey death and the different perceptions of death and the afterlife, as well as the drama that comes with it. Altogether, these artists use their work to explore the emotions that come with life and death, while playing the role of the witness to such vivid scenes, they are able to convey their own perception of these concepts. Caravaggio was a painter in the 1600’s who used his work to convey his perspective on Christianity and the events that transpired at the time.

Caravaggio was a painter known to play the role of the witness in his work, as he also used light to dramaticise the emotions present within his work. Caravaggio was a Catholic Italian painter during the end of the Renaissance and beginning of the Baroque period (1600’s), with his work displayed in churches such as the Santa Maria de Popolo in Rome. Caravaggio used his work to spread the word of Christianity and convey the emotions and experiences that came with Christianity. Caravaggio navigates the tendencies of peace and violence within the culture of Christianity through the use of body language of the subjects within his work. Through documenting parts of Christian culture, Caravaggio plays the observer and is able to bring these experiences to life through intense realism. Caravaggio documented scenes such as crucifixions, in order to convey the drama of life and death within Christianity. In his work The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, Caravaggio conveys the drama of the situation and the emotional states through the use of co-extensive space, as the work goes almost to the very edge of the painting, making the audience feel as if they are there seeing it happen, creating a confrontational nature that Caravaggio uses to convey the intensity of his documentation. Caravaggio’s use of composition – foreground, middleground and background – , as well as the intense use of chiaroscuro within the work created perspective and depth, as well as intense realism, leaving Caravaggio and the audience to feel as if they are witnessing these events in actuality. The light gives the subjects a sculptural form, creating realism as well as representing Saint Peter in a way that seems human, as a pose to the religious figure that he is, although the clear representation of Christianity is still present through symbols such as the nail in Saint Peters hand, similar to the crucifixion of Jesus. Similarly to Goya, Caravaggio uses the pose of the crucifixion to convey the main subject of his work, both these artists have used the religious ideals of death to convey the intense scene before death. Caravaggio also uses sombre colours to convey the emotional state of the work, the light leads the audiences eye immediately to Saint Peter, emphasising the contrast between the dramatic light shed on him and the dark background. Caravaggio also documented other parts of Christian life such as conversions and suppers. In his work Conversion of Saint Paul (1600-01), Caravaggio uses the violent direction of light to convey the importance of the events transpiring, as in Christian culture conversions are seen as a rebirth, which Caravaggio explores through the intense emotions, expressed through the use of chiaroscuro. Through the use of light as the subject matter and intense realism, Caravaggio conveys strong monumental figures that push against the canvas, through such realism, Caravaggio plays the role of the spectator as he captures the drama within the scene. Although the scene is hectic, Caravaggio used body language to express the rebirth of Saint Paul, as he is on the floor looking up to the source of the light shining down on him, metaphorically looking up to God. Through the use of realism and chiaroscuro in his work, Caravaggio is able to convey the intense emotions he is witnessing and exploring within pivotal parts of Christianity.

Francisco Goya was a Spanish court painter during the Age of Enlightenment (1800’s) and the end of Neo-Classicism period, as Napoleon took over the throne of Spain. Goya kept his job as the French came into power as he initially agreed with the French, until he saw the horror they inflicted, which therefore limited his work, as he was restricted to painting only for the French as to both keep his job and not be punished. Due to this, Goya was only able to create his documentation of the brutality of the French towards his people after the fall of the Napoleonic Empire in 1814. Goya created his oil on canvas The Second of May 1808, in 1814 – seven years after the event – depicting an event in which Spanish street fighters gathered and fought against the French, ultimately leading to a massacre of Spaniards by the Napoleonic guards the next day. Goya then documented his version of the massacre in his work The Third of May 1808. Within his work Goya plays the role of the witness, through the documentation of a massacre of Spaniards in the middle of town, in which conveys dramatic emotional states not only for the subjects but for him as an onlooker as he and others were unable to prevent the massacre. Within The Third of May many Spaniards that have been killed are recognisable as street fighters from The Second of May, this depiction of life and death creates strong emotions for both Goya as the witness, as well as the subjects, as it leaves the French with blood on their hands, and Spaniards such as Goya unable to do anything to stop the killing of his people. Goya documents this scene while exploring these emotions, as well as exploring the violence that has come with the Napoleonic Empire. Through shifting the vantage point, as so we more directly face the victims while the faces of the Napoleonic guards are obscured, Goya creates a sense of sympathy for the victims, as well as reflecting the emotions of the victims, through their clear surrender and frightened stance. Goya has also incorporated aspects of religion, as he personifies the main victim as a God like being, through his stance, which is as if he is on the cross, about to be crucified. Goya uses the source of light to represent the evident power dynamic as the French hold control of the light, making the lamp almost the bitter core of the painting. As the main victim is illuminated by this light, Goya draws our eyes immediately to him, this sharp contrast between the victim and the surrounding mountains, almost trapping them, intensifies the emotional pitch of the painting. Goya uses the large scale of this painting, to represent such a large event, as well as using a more impressionistic style with loose brushstrokes to convey a change in history as this event was such a turning point. Through this radical style shift, Goya rejects neo-classism and adopts the culture of the Age of Enlightenment. Through, this exploration of life and death, Goya was able to use his role of the witness to his work to convey the drama and emotions experienced for both the audience, himself and the subjects.

Bill Viola, a contemporary artist of the late 20th and early 21st century, uses his time-based forms to convey ideas of life and death, while also playing the witness to the transformative experiences conveyed within his work. Viola came to attention in the art world in the 1970’s, among a generation of experimental artists, in which he focused on enacting transcendent spiritual experiences. Viola uses his work as a way for him to show his perception of life and death, as well as the entering from death to the afterlife. In Viola’s work for the 2007 Venice Bienale Ocean Without a Shore, he created what could be seen as the intersection between life and death. Viola used the natural elements repeatedly throughout his work, representing the interaction between nature and death. Through Viola’s use of highly immersive mediums of electronic sound and image technology, he was able to create realism never before achieved with art, leaving his role as the observer being unparalleled. Through drawing on the New Media genre, Viola is able to clearly convey exaggerated emotions throughout the film through techniques such as using slow motion within the film. The confrontational nature of this work forces the audience to reflect on the human condition and our interaction with the universe, nature and death. The work was originally installed with existing architecture of the Church of Oratario San Gallo, in which Viola used alters as recesses for the screens, which added to the immersive experience of his work, giving himself and the audience the feeling of being witnesses within the experience. The altars are a symbolic structure employed in Christian faith to connect the living with the dead, which was an influence towards the work, as similar to both Goya and Caravaggio, ideals of death through Christianity is explored, as the bodies within the work are ghost-like and the posing similar to that of a crucifixion. Viola’s use of tableau vivant adds to his role as the onlooker, as he connected the experience’s he had as a child of a near death experience in which he was drowning, to the birth of a new life and the walk from death to the afterlife that the subjects are experiencing through water as the passageway. Viola uses water to symbolise the rebirth/transformation the subjects experience, as in Christian faith it symbolises baptism. Through the subjects walking through a wall of water, Viola conveys the emotions that come with having a spiritual experience when moving to the afterlife. He expresses this through the dead appearing far off in a dark murky place, as grey figures gradually walk towards the viewer, then crossing the threshold of water, that separates the dead from the living. Viola uses a contrast of technology to represent the change from death to the afterlife. Gritty, old, black and white security surveillance cameras with low quality film the subjects before they walk through the wall into the afterlife, in which there then is a seamless shift to high definition colour camera, capturing the dramatic emotions of the subjects after moving through the water. Viola’s symbolistic use of light during the subjects experience also represents the religious aspects of the intersection and ideals of life and death, similar to that of Caravaggio’s. Through the use of the subjects, a universal theme of humanity is present, which exists also within Goya and Caravaggio’s work, as the experiences they are witnessing are relevant to all of humanity, no matter age or gender. Overall, Viola’s use of cutting edge technology, allows him to play the spectator in such an immersive way, while navigating the emotions of the subjects and exploring his own emotions towards spiritual experiences.

Through artists playing the role of the witness, they are able to navigate dramatic emotions and experiences, in which they are able to express their own perspective. Goya, Caravaggio and Viola have used the exploration of life and death in order to convey their own experiences as well as ideas of death and the connotations it has. Through exploring death through aspects of Christianity, these artists have shown the relevance of religion at different times and influence it has on art and the concept of life and death. Through documenting their own perceptions and perspectives, these artists have been able to explore different ideals of what we believe of life and death.

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