Georgia O'Keeffe's painting Black Iris, Michelangelo's sculpture David, and Robert Mapplethorpe's photograph Fish all express the diversity of the visual arts. Today, visual arts include not only the traditional fields of painting, drawing, and sculpture, but also illustration, photography, filmmaking, computer animation, needlework, as well as many other art fields. Works of art are wonderful to look at, and they enhance our lives and help us understand ourselves and our societies. They inspire us, comfort us, touch us. They reflect our imagination and excite our vision.
Many of the visual arts have their origins in prehistoric times, and we know by looking at artifacts that the visual arts have been important in virtually every human society. World cultures offer an abundance of styles and media in the visual arts.
The earliest examples of Western painting are found not on the walls of elegant museums but on the walls of caves in southern Europe. Famous ancient cave art is found at Lascaux in southwestern France and Altamira in northern Spain. It is believed that some 20,000 years ago, humans painted pictures of animals, such as bison, horses, and deer, on cave walls as part of magic rituals to benefit their hunting trips. Scientists have determined that their paint was made of various minerals mixed with animal fat, egg whites, plant juices, fish glue, or blood, and the first paintbrushes were made of twigs and reeds. Prehistoric sculpture is represented by small animal figures and fertility statuettes, such as the Venus of Willendorf. These are found from Eastern Europe to Siberia but mainly in Austria, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.
Egyptians around 3000 B.C. used visual art to honor their pharaohs. They painted the walls of their tombs with mythological figures and depictions of everyday activities, such as hunting, fishing, and banquets. Minoans (ancestors of the Greeks) of the 1500s B.C. left paintings on the walls of palaces in Crete and on pottery. The Romans adopted many Greek artistic techniques, decorating their floors with mosaics and creating wall frescoes that portrayed rituals, myths, landscapes, and scenes of daily life.
In the thousands of years since the ancient Romans and Greeks, some aspects of the visual arts have remained constant while others have changed. In wealthy societies certain classes of people are able to pay professional artists, as Sumerian priests and Renaissance princes did, and as art collectors and corporations do today.
The physical resources of a society have always affected the medium in which an artist works. In Mesopotamia, Sumerian architects built with brick because stone was not available. Nomadic Asian herders wove wool from their flocks into rugs. Medieval European painters worked on wood panels, plaster walls, and stained-glass windows, and calligraphers drew letters on parchment in an era before paper was known in the West. Because of mass production and world trade, modern artists have an enormous range of materials from which to choose. Today, anything goes—artists create works not only with paint and paper but with metals, glass, fabric, and even household appliances.
Local tradition also affects art styles. Pottery design in one area and period may be geometric; in another, naturalistic. Because of Indian traditions, artists depicted the Buddha with tightly curled hair. Western tradition decreed that the Madonna be shown with a blue robe. Eastern artists seem to have disregarded scientific perspective, which was a major concern of painters in the European Renaissance. In ancient Egyptian culture, which was dominated by the state and religion, painting, sculpture, and architecture glorified the pharaoh and life after death. In pious medieval Europe, most visual arts had Christian themes. In 20th-century totalitarian countries, art served the state. In most Western countries, artists have great freedom to choose the subjects that they desire to explore and express. In the 21st century, the Internet, mass media, and social media have contributed to greater interconnectivity among people around the world. Today's artists have more information than ever before about social and political issues in other countries, and they can also quickly and easily share their work and ideas, and create dialogues, with a global audience.
Art movements, or schools of thought, are numerous: impressionism, postimpressionism, expressionism, surrealism, cubism, Dadaism, fauvism, futurism, abstract expressionism, and minimalism, to name a few. These movements change with time and space, but visual art continues to be a power that confronts us, challenges us, and allows us to comment on life in expressive ways.