The History of Western Art As An Ideological Endeavor

Written by Chun Park


Is art purely an act of personal and/or universal expression and creativity, or is there an ideology behind every kind of art? An image, a subcategory of which includes art, has traditionally been defined in opposition to words, whether written or spoken, as a visual description of a reality or an idea. The question of what an image is, has concerned philosophers and artists in the Western tradition since the days of the ancient Greeks. Examples of an image might include a photograph taken by a camera, a memory of a person or an event, an oil painting, or even a scientific diagram. Images are a reflection of the sociopolitical and cultural aspects of us humans and our societies, we are essentially servants to the images, as well as words that describe the ideological world view. How has Western art been a venue for ideological propaganda? What are the messages and codes of Western art, and how have they evolved over time?


The Greco Roman Tradition

Source: Wikipedia
Description: Acropolis in Athens

Throughout history, people have appropriated from other cultures certain visual aspects, as well as the political and cultural ideologies that accompany the visual aspects that include art and images. Through the process of appropriating and/or influencing, certain types of images and visual styles or traditions have propagated throughout history and the world.

For example, the Greeks of Athens, who were to start a Golden Age of great cultural achievements under the leadership of Pericles (495 – 429 BC), borrowed from the Egyptian architecture to build the Parthenon with the the Doric and Ionic orders (of the three orders or styles of Greek Architecture), with its columns, sacred altars, and sacred springs. During the Golden Age, a myriad of architectural projects were built, such as the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike at the Acropolis.

The Greeks also made great achievements in sculpture, with the marble works such as the Venus de Milo by Alexandros of Antioch (130~100 BC) and The Diadoumenos by Polykleitos (430 BC) show a sublime vision of the human nude, showing immense beauty, eroticism, and labor by the respective artists. Winged Victory of Samothrace by Pythokritos (220 ~ 185 BC) is another heavenly masterpiece showing a winged woman in robes as a metaphor for justice, peace, and vengeance.

The ancient Greeks were primarily concerned with the topic of mimesis, meaning “the representation or imitation.” Plato, an ancient Greek philosopher who was a student of Socrates and a teacher to Aristotle around 2300 to 2400 years ago, harshly remarked that art (such as a painting) could not contain the true image because they were merely imitations of the physical reality. To Plato, the physical reality was in fact just an imitation of the Form, which was the pure and permanent foundation of reality. For example, a painter who paints a warrior in battle merely understands the outer appearance of a warrior without understanding the inner way of being of the warrior.[2] Plato would establish a kind of disregard and skepticism of images for much of the Western world that echoed the eventual Christian belief condemning the worship of images seen as containing false gods. This attitude would pervade Europe until the Renaissance when a great revitalization of the arts and sciences would celebrate the great works of painting and portray the artists as being divinely inspired.


Source: Wikipedia
Description: Laocoon sculpture

Subsequently, the Romans, who conquered Greece from 275 to 146 BC, copied the Greek statues and architecture as they were in high demand by the upper class. It is said that, while the Romans defeated the Greeks militarily, the Greeks conquered the Romans culturally, and many works that were originally Greek were later found as Roman copies, such as the Laocoon and His Sons by Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus (around 200 BC) from the island of Rhodes, and the Discus Thrower by Myron (425 BC). The Romans’ desire of Greek art and architecture could be explained with the fact that the Greek works were more impactful and compelling in terms of aesthetics and vision than anything that the Romans had at the inception of the Greco-Roman wars.

With the ancient Greeks and Romans, an image of a Western identity was starting to be created based on not only the European identity but also cultural achievements and a distinct image based on art and architecture. This identity was fictional as was the division of the continents into Africa, Asia, and Europe by Herodotus writing in the fifth century BC. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher who lived in 384 – 322 BC, wrote that the Europeans “… are full of spirit but somewhat deficient in intelligence and skill, so that they continue comparatively free, but lacking in political organization and capacity to rule their neighbors… [whereas Asians]… are intelligent and skillful in temperament, but lack spirit, so that they are in continuous subjection and slavery.” The Greeks, according to Herodotus, however, occupied the middle position geographically and were endowed with both characters of being “spirited and intelligent” and had both political organizations and freedom.[1]

The Western identity is partly based on the art and architectural styles of the Greeks and the Romans, who had their monumental temples with columns and beautiful statues of gods and goddesses who were idealized in a realistically rendered style. Behind the art and images lay the Western values of freedom and democracy, which were in opposition to the political ideologies of most other nations ruled by kings and emperors. Within this theme of struggle for freedom against one-man rule, the Greeks would fight the Persian Empire, while the Romans would war Carthage. Recognizing the western theme of freedom, the United States, which is the world’s oldest modern democracy, would adopt the Greco Roman style of architecture in its government buildings.

Despite the immense achievements of the Greeks and the Romans, Western identity, based in the Greco-Roman tradition, can be exclusionary because it is specific to the Europeans in terms of aesthetics and the historical lineage. As aesthetics is relative and specific to a certain group of people, the Greeks and Romans saw beauty in their statues because they saw themselves in the statues.


The Christian Tradition

After the fall of the Roman Empire followed the Dark (or Middle) Ages in Europe, in which the only type of art involved Christian icons and symbols. Within the Romanesque and Gothic periods from 1000s to 1100s CE and 1100s to 1500s CE respectively, the main purpose of art was to support the world view of the Catholic church, and the pagan art (of the Greco-Roman tradition) was re-labeled as Christian art by imbuing them with Christian meanings. Because the knowledge of detailed anatomy was lost during the Middle Ages, the human figures in paintings and sculptures lacked rigor and accuracy in terms of the anatomy.

Source: Wikipedia
Description: Temptation of Eve


The artists of the Romanesque and Gothic periods included Giselbertus (French, 12th century CE) who sculpted “The Temptation of Eve” and Ambrogio Lorenzetti (Italian, 1290-1348 CE) who painted the frescoes titled, “Effects of Good Government on City Life.”

The Romanesque and Gothic periods were followed by the period of the Renaissance, involving the revitalization of the arts and sciences. During the Renaissance, the Roman approach to painting and sculpture was re-discovered, and, on top of this, an important discovery was made in the system of perspectives. With the newly discovered perspective system, the Renaissance artists were able to create the illusion of realistic space with immense depth as they allowed parallel objects to become smaller and smaller the further they were from the viewer, until the space converged diagonally to an infinitely small vanishing point. Idealization was another guiding principle of the Renaissance artists who believed that the ideal mathematical ratios were beautiful and represented a sign of divinity. While the Catholic priests “knew” that images were false illusions, the Catholic Church commissioned great works of art of Christian figures and stories as a propagandistic means of greatly inspiring the masses, who were in awe of the sculptures, architecture, and paintings.

During the Renaissance, the Christian theology came in conflict with pagan (or Greco-Roman) philosophy, which celebrated homoeroticism and polytheism, whereas Christianity condemned both as heresies. Therefore, art with pagan themes and/or philosophy were either married with or disguised as Christian theology, allowing the sculptures and paintings of Greco Roman gods and goddesses to be in high demand among the aristocracy. For example, the nude goddess in “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli (Italian, 1445 – 1510 CE) was also interpreted as Eve before her Fall in which she commits a sin and is expelled from the Garden of Eden with Adam.

Source: Wikipedia
Description: The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

The most renowned artists of the Renaissance included Leonardo da Vinci, known for the paintings titled, “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper;Michelangelo, known for sculpture “David” and the fresco paintings of the Sistine Chapel; and Raphael, known for the painting titled, “The School of Athens.”


The Modern Tradition

As the West entered the Modern Age, a new kind of art was necessary to forge a new Modern identity, and Modern Art would serve this purpose by showing new ways of seeing and understanding as availed by philosophy and the sciences. The Modernist painters would arrive at the essential forms and ideas underlying the surface or the appearance of reality through reduction, idealization, and abstraction. Modern Art was the clashing of various competing ideas and ideologies, with one movement replacing another in an almost linear development.

In 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen discovered the X-ray, which showed the limits of human vision. And Einstein had shown through his 1905 paper on Special Relativity and 1915 paper on General Relativity that time and space are not fixed, as time was dependent on the observer’s speed, and massive objects cause a distortion in space-time, felt as gravity.

Source: Wikipedia
Description: Painting (Femme tenant Une Mandoline) by Braque

Playing with abstract colors and forms, the Post-Impressionist painter, Paul Cezanne, would bend the rules of perspective to achieve a kind of painterly aesthetics. Furthermore, by amassing brushstrokes of color as estimates of the form, Cezanne would introduce uncertainty and relativity to the idea of perception and images. Cezanne’s achievements would eventually allow for the movement of Cubism, in which the leading artists such as Pablo Picasso and George Braques would approach still life painting through multiple perspectives and put them together into one single image of abstraction. Therefore, Picasso and Braque considered themselves realist painters, as they felt that their approach and vision were more real than the conventional perception of reality. In a similar vein, in his “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2,” the Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp, would show not only the singular totality of the subject through multiple perspectives as the Cubists but also show movement like the Futurists. The Futurists would also represent Albert Einstein’s conception of spacetime by showing the subject or the object moving in space at different points of time simultaneously.

On a different trajectory, the Expressionists would show the emotions of the subject matter beneath the outer appearance of things through the use of emotional and psychological colors and violently suggestive forms. Taking findings of Sigmeund Freud, the Surrealists would combine reality with the unconscious to produce a new kind of reality and reason against the rationalism of Europe prior to World War I. And the Abstract Expressionists (and, to a greater degree, the Suprematists) would bring the logical conclusion to Modern Art by doing away with representational form and achieving pure abstraction.

Abstract Expressionism is said to be the logical conclusion of Modern Art, as it attempted to strip the image of the reality it purported to represent and to do away with mimesis. Furthermore, it has become known that the CIA attempted to use Abstract Expressionism as a propaganda tool for exerting soft power by the West against the Soviets. The movement, with its creative energy expressed through paint on canvas and based in New York, was turned into an evidence of American ingenuity based on the freedom of ideas and a free market economy. The Congress For Cultural Freedom (CCF) was an indirect organization of the CIA that funded several exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism during the 1950s, including The New American Painting which toured Europe.[3]

In the 1900s, with his theories on the dialectical image, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin would create an alternative mode of images that would respond against Plato’s skepticism. Benjamin would advocate for the dialectical images that were not merely the superficial appearance of things “seen” but also the recognition or the understanding of reality. Rather than a stereotype or the visible reality on the surface, the dialectical image is essentially the archetype, meaning that it is the reality that is invisible beneath the surface. In the dialectical image, the idea or the essence of the depicted reality is perceived by their observer who has the intent to perceive and to “present” the reality to himself or herself. Benjamin uses the example of the constellation, in which the arrangement of the stars does not equate to a physical object, but rather the observer recognizes the constellation with intent.[4] Finally, the image had a way of containing the true reality similar to the form described by Plato.

Source: Wikipedia
Description: Painting (Head of EOW IV) by Frank Auerbach

Frank Auerbach, a Modern and early Contemporary painter, who was concerned with reducing the form to its essence from the observation of the people he knew, has been creating paintings for the past 70 years, which fit the description of the dialectical image by Walter Benjamin. Rather than being illustrational and carried away by the outer appearance of things, he would reduce the forms to their essence by thick and abstract brush strokes, in order to arrive at an internal and truthful kind of understanding of the subject.

Arriving at the essence of the figure rather than the outer appearance did not mean making things up for Auerbach; for example, he would still rely on how the light hits and articulates the basic anatomical features of the figure, but the entire image of the figure would be discernible only to those with the intent to observe the figure underneath the heavy, abstracted brushwork. Auerbach is described as seeking to define what it meant to be a British (as a Jewish immigrant from Nazi Germany), as a new kind of multicultural identity was being formed in postwar Britain, and British art in general is defined as being figurative in nature.

Auerbach and his artist friends (such as Francis Bacon) within the movement called the School of London were an anomaly in the world of Contemporary Art (with exceptions) that came after Modern Art, as Figurative works would go out of fashion from the 1970s until 2010s. Auerbach’s approach towards creating an image as an essence rather than a mimesis would provide a model for artists working in the modes of figurative abstraction.


The Contemporary Tradition

Source: Wikipedia
Description: A portrait of Felix Gonzales Torres

If humanism was in the center of Modern Art, which placed the (straight white) man in the center of the universe as God’s creation made in His image, the contemporary art tradition has evolved to be more inclusive of women, colored people, and lgbtqa+ people’s voices and perspectives. Feminist and woman artists such as Eva Hesse and Cindy Sherman explored what it meant to be female artists by exploring women’s issues and the stereotypes of women in the popular media, respectively. African American artists such as Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald would position the black experience and identity as beautiful and empowering by replacing white characters in positions of power or beauty with black figures and exploring the rich hues and nuances of the black skin, respectively. Gay artists would convey their experiences of love and loss in their work – for example, Felix Gonzalez-Torres would reference the loss of his partner to the AIDS crisis with two clocks that represent the lovers and eventually go out of sync.

At the center of the contemporary tradition is postmodernism, which is a reaction to modernism that took everything too seriously and believed that there was a unifying “center” or truth that explains all phenomena in the universe. Postmodernism rejects the structuralist theories (within modernism) that seek to impose structure and order on the cosmos, as well as rejecting the idea that there is a universal truth that is applicable to all people and their experiences. Postmodernism, which includes poststructuralism, rather investigates structures as social constructs based in language and how they are “produced and maintained through language and social interaction.”[5] For example, race/ ethnicity is primarily a social construct that has a limited basis in genetics, since there are greater genetic differences within a race/ethnicity than between the races/ethnicities. Being a social construct does not mean that race/ethnicity is not real. It is real to us humans, just as money and government are equally “real.”

The blessing and the curse of the Western tradition have been that the Western philosophy promises a universal right to democracy and freedom, but, in the past 600 years, Eurocentrism also excluded certain people from exercising their universal right through Colonialism (which involved directly taking the territories, the people, and the resources of other countries) and Neo-Colonialism (which indirectly exploit other countries’ resources and people through social, economic, and political means).

Exiting Eurocentrism in order to achieve a great inclusion of other peoples and perspectives has been the final chapter to Western art (and philosophy). Fighting Eurocentrism has allowed for the realization that there is no hierarchy that places Greco Roman art over Asian or African art – they are simply different from one another, and certain peoples and cultures were into producing marble sculptures and paintings, while others were into producing tapestries or ceramics. Exiting Eurocentrism will cure the West of its illness of Racism and allow for a more peaceful and equal world that is true to the original vision of Western philosophy.



Source: Wikipedia
Description: Black Lives Matter protestors

Western art and philosophy has arrived at the point of rejecting Eurocentrism and embracing a multiculturalist view of the world. In a way, this arrival might mean the end of “Western” art and the beginning of a cosmopolitan and multicultural contemporary tradition.

In the midst of the Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate movements, as well as rising Nationalism and Xenophobia in Europe and East Asia, it is hard to believe that such a tradition of art might be achieved. While the academic consensus has already settled for multicuralism, it is not certain whether the people around the globe will let go of their divisions and hatred, and embrace and accept this unifying vision for the world. I believe that, despite the challenges, the new kind of art must promote messages of transcendental peace and unity among the many tribes of people. Art is a universal language that beautifies our world and wins over hearts not through confrontation but through persuasion and empathy.


1: Aristotle. “Politics.”,0086,035:7:1327b

2: Clowney, David W. “Plato.”

3: Sooke, Alastair. “The Abstract Expressionists emerged from obscurity in the late 1940s to establish New York as the centre of the art world – but some say they became pawns of US spies in the Cold War. Alastair Sooke investigates.”

4: Frielander, Eli. “The Measure of the Contingent: Walter Benjamin’s Dialectical Image.”

5: Mease, Jennifer J. “Postmodern/Poststructural Approaches.”

Chun Park (Chunbum Park) was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1991. He came to the United States in 2000 and attended Montgomery Bell Academy for high school. He briefly attended University of Rochester and Bergen Community College from 2009 to 2011. Since 2011, he has aspired to become a practicing artist and studied at various schools, such as the Rhode Island School of Design, the Art Students League of NY, and the School of Visual Arts. He will receive his BFA from SVA in 2020.