Brian Reverman [ 9 FEB 2015 | Storytelling | 11:15 ] We often see films that say they are based on a true story. But whose stories are true? Are any stories free of bias and agenda?

There’s a long history of narrative in art.

Museums and art history books are filled with art that tells us a story of humanity.

But are all points of view included in this story?

Do the pictures we see give us the whole picture?

Why do we need stories?

Is it because they help ground us?

They’re how we learn about who we are and where we come from.

Some of the earliest art on our planet seems to tell a story – even if we’re not a hundred percent sure what that story means.

Later it becomes clear that art is trying to tell us something.

It might be about the gods or kings or heroes or maybe the daily life of ordinary people.

One thing is for sure.

Every culture on earth has its stories and art is one way they are told.


In our early history books were scarce.

Not many people were able to read.

People still needed to know about the morals, rituals and religious laws of their community – to reach nirvana or to be reincarnated favorably, or to be saved as it were from total damnation

Art was used to educate the masses in the tenets of their belief system.

We can see in the art of various people’s how this teaching was sometimes couched in compassion and sometimes couched in fear.

This was art that had a purpose.

It was not meant to be collected or exalted in its own right while artists and artisans may have been known by their workshop’s reputation

It wasn’t until the Renaissance period in Italy that artists began to be elevated to rock star status.

Wealthy patrons — either kings, Pope’s or merchants –would hire certain artists to help assure their own status as movers and shakers.

Michelangelo, Leonardo — along with Raphael — are perhaps the most widely known artists from this period.

When we enter the Age of Enlightenment, in the 18th century, the importance of religious art begins to give way to more secular themes.

But some artists continue to find inspiration from religious subjects.

Some modern artists have also been inspired by these religious stories.


Art has also told the story of history.

Whose history is the truth?

History is usually written by the winners not those who have been vanquished.

But the promotion of a one-sided story by the victors –whether to justify their actions, pacify their citizens or show the righteousness of their cause to the conquered.

It’s rarely an exercise in truthfulness.

It’s the politicians, who are not usually historians, who spin the tale.

The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of William Duke of Normandy and Harold Earl of Wessex and the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England.

It was made in England –in the 1070’s –but was kept in the Bayeux Cathedral in France — hence its name.

It is thought to have been commissioned by Bishop Odo, William’s half-brother.

It tells the story from the Norman point of view and some scholars question the historical accuracy of events portrayed in the embroidered cloth.


Are artist complicit when a white washing or romanticizing of history takes place?

Certainly when an artist is dependent for their living on the whims of their patrons.

There is pressure not to bite the hand that feeds them –and to make your patrons shine in a favorable light.

The work here by European painters of the 18th and 19th centuries essentially use events from their recent history to romanticize humanity’s conquest of nature.

The theme that helped justify colonization by European power.

Eugene Delacroix and Emanuel Leutze show the nobility of cause of the French the American Revolution respectively.

But their paintings ignore the ugliness of the subsequent reign of terror in France and the eradication of the Native American Way of life in North America.

Certainly these artists are products of their time

in an age where information was not as easily accessible as it is today, is it asking too much of them to have a worldview different from the prevailing view of their culture?

But as democratic ideals from the Age of Enlightenment started to change the political landscape in many parts of the world artists became independent from the patronage of Monarchs.

While this meant that it was harder to make a living as an artist — it gave them a certain freedom to choose their own subject.

Soon artists began to take on this one-dimensional view of war and document the tragedy and injustice that exists inside history as well.


Once conquest has been accomplished power becomes entrenched.

The spoils of war bring privilege and wealth to the victor.

While perhaps not content with the experience of this privilege, those in power sometimes turn to art to immortalize their accomplishments and status.

The painter was often a member at the Royal Court -there to record the majesty and value of their majesty.


But the only constant is change.

When the fall from grace happens, art is also there to record events.


Real power is economic in nature.

In 1932, painter Diego Rivera was commissioned to paint a series of frescoes at the Detroit Art Institute that would reflect Detroit as an industrial powerhouse.

Rivera’s mural showed the work force of people and machine in dynamic action.

Rivera was truly impressed with Detroit’s industrial prowess but his work on the murals overlapped with the Great Depression and in a strike against the Ford Motor Company some workers were killed.

Rivera was a known Marxist and some in Detroit felt the murals were communist propaganda and unamerican –and wanted the murals destroyed.

Ironically, Edsel Ford, owner of the Ford plant and a quintessential capitalist, defended the murals as showing the power of capitalism in a positive light.


Unfortunately it seems to be a part of human nature that when there is a group in power there must be some group oppressed — even in the 21st century people struggle in many places to have their story heard.

Some artists have come forward, sometimes putting their own livelihood in jeopardy, to tell the story of social injustice.

Whether this oppression stems from racial or ethnic prejudices, political ideologies or economic inequality those people struggling for basic human rights can be given voice through art.

Some artists tell the story of others to right a wrong view of history.

Some artists tell their own story to make known the current state of affairs.

These stories of those wronged by society are excluded from access to power and privilege can only become liberating when they are known.

Although as we can see here and these posters by the Guerrilla Girls those in power will not share their spotlight readily.

A type of social criticism known as structuralism postulates that the absence of a voice and our social structures implies that the voice that is heard is the more legitimate one therefore those whose voices we don’t hear on a regular basis are somehow deserving of their secondary status.

Sometimes our sense of nationalism, cultural affiliations and even sense of self is derived from the stories we are told.

Because we only hear certain stories we naturally assume they are correct.

But as more and more artists from outlier groups gain access to public forums their stories will be elevated to the same level in the cultural dialogue as the stories of conquest and power we already know and a potential for change becomes more palpable.


When we study the past in school often these events of war and conquest are the markers of human history.

But most of the time it is the day-to-day activities of normal life that define art systems.

While sometimes mundane, these activities also give us joy, purpose and a sense of comfort.

We’re social beings and we feel secure and safe when we know that customs and language of our community

art also narrates the stories of community.

It can help us identify our values and values of people like us

Song Dong’s installation Waste Not narrates our human story in a different way.

Dong’s mother had grown up in poverty during the 50s and 60s in China.

Dong displayed over 10,000 items that his mother had hoarded over the years.

The display of these items without comment – that was a story both personal and universal.

We see history in the item and it speaks to Dawn’s personal story.

But we also recognize and experience our own memories of home throughout the object

in both private and public spaces, These stories of community remind us of the bonds that unite us.

These bonds are where truth strength and resilience come from – which allow us to endure when times are hard and celebrate together when times are good.

Can an image ever be neutral or does it always carry the implication that one idea is superior to another?

Art is communication.

While it can show us the best of what it means to be human, it can however also be used by some groups to point out differences and justify discrimination.

How can we know which stories to believe?

Perhaps we need to look at all art with a critical eye towards the context in which it was made – to determine which art will elevate us and which will diminish us.

Maybe then these stories will tell us that we are more alike than different after all.

The Narrative in Art
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