Contrary to common belief, art is not a material thing. There are no traits that an object has to posses to be deemed a work of art. But, that doesn’t mean that art does not need to be embodied in an object.
If we look at the lineage of how artists understood and created artistic objects, we can find a clear line going from the beginning of time; first people didn’t make art, because, well, there were no people to make art at all — best case scenario in my opinion was that a bunch of semi-evolved chimps on bone-marrow diets ate a bunch of magic mushrooms and eventually kickstarted the evolution of man. Of course, there might have been aliens involved, but at this very point, we cannot say for certain.
These early “people” didn’t really make art, they were more concerned with not being eaten by a wild beast. But we do have traces of some primordial artistic expression, going back quite a long time — like the cave drawings in Altamira and Lascaux. Though, whether such traces are actually considered art or craftsmanship is up for debate.
The problem is that, like the story of Stalin’s portrait that is slowly loosing all ideological context and will eventually become just another painting of an “old dude”, these paintings are about as foreign to our mindsets as if we tried to imagine what it’s like to be a dung beetle — you could try, but I bet none of us is able to really get the joy and purpose such a creature must feel towards rolling up other being’s poop in order to “get some” (the one with the biggest poop ball gets to mate).
As we have no real connection with the mindsets of the people or “almost-people” of that time — we did evolve considerably since our cave people times — at the most, our ideas of what the purpose of such paintings was is an educated guess. For all we know, they could’ve been made by a talented but misunderstood caveman as studies for the cave person Academy of wall art and stick design.
The point is, we just don’t know.
After that, art obviously evolved considerably and many of the periods that came after the first traces of expression, that we have uncovered, do give us much more information about the sort of people that made them and what their motivations were when making the art that we now all know and love.
But the main point is, while painted pottery, old christian icons and various temples and churches are understood as art pieces today, they weren’t art at the time of their conception. They were artisan objects and nothing more.
Pottery was scarce and a bit harder to make in Ancient Greece than it is now, so of course the pieces that were created were given a lot of attention and love — especially those that served some religious purpose, like burial rituals or sacrifices to the gods.
Churches and temples needed to be houses of the various gods that lived inside them so the only logical thing was to get a better interior decorator for your god than you did for yourself — even people in 14th century Europe understood this as a fact, and these were people that considered washing ones body with water to be toxic and as such only to be done a few times a year, and even then only if deemed really necessary (god knows on what merit).
The point is, most of the beautiful things we now know and love as humanity’s greatest artistic masterpieces, weren’t made to be art. Even the idea contemporary idea of being an artist took thousands of years to evolve — in old gothic times for example, a painter commissioned to make paintings for a church was equal in status to anyone else that was involved with building the church.
Even the stonemasons had more freedom to claim the ownership of their work by each having a special symbol for their own guild and engraving it on every stone that was produced for the building — the painters on the other hand weren’t even allowed to sign their work.
You can actually see a few rebel painters (usually master-apprentice type of guilds, not individuals) in various European gothic churches, where the master secretly hid his initials inside the painting or sometimes even his portrait on motifs where there were a lot of people that needed to be painted generically.
The idea of the artist as individual didn’t really start to take roots until the 18th century, when individualism started to flourish in Europe and people unknowingly began building the bedrock of the 2010 special snowflake revolution, that we are now experiencing ourselves.
The point to take home is, that the idea of art really isn’t that old — especially the way we now look at art and artists is extremely contemporary. And tomorrow we’ll continue this line of though into the modern era.