The artistic expressions of Armenian culture are at the very heart of its identity. Whatever the medium, these artistic outlets tell the unique story of Armenian history and contemporary Armenian culture. It is through their architecture and sculpture, painting and pottery, music and dance, clothing and jewelry, literature and language, and textiles and weaving that one is able to gain an understanding of the Armenian people and the influences that have shaped their identity.
The culture of Armenia encompasses many elements that are based on the geography, literature, architecture, dance, and music of the people. The culture is similar to and yet distinct from many of the bordering countries like Georgia and Iran, as well as Mediterranean nations such as Greece and Cyprus.
In the republic of Armenia, following the policies put forth during the pre-Soviet and Soviet eras, the state has been supporting the arts and humanities. In recent years, because of economic difficulties, there has been a privatization trend. State support is diminishing. In the Diaspora, the arts and humanities rely on local fund-raising efforts, Armenian organizations, and the initiative of individuals. In the republic of Armenia, artists are engaged full time in their respective arts. In the Diaspora, however, artists are rarely self-supporting and rarely make a living through their art.
Armenians have a rich history of oral and written literature. Parts of the early oral literature was recorded by M. Khorenatsi, a fourth-century historian. During the nineteenth century, under the influence of a European interest in folklore and oral literature, a new movement started that led to the collection of oral epic poems, songs, myths, and stories.
The written literature has been divided into five main epochs: the fifth century golden age, or vosgetar following the adoption of the alphabet; the Middle Ages; the Armenian Renaissance (in the nineteenth century); modern literature of Armenia and Constantinople (Istanbul) at the turn of the twentieth century; and contemporary literature of Armenia and the Diaspora. The fifth century has been recognized internationally as a highly productive epoch. It was also known for its translations of various works, including the Bible. In fact, the clergy have been the main producers of Armenian literary works. One of the most well-known early works is Gregory Narekatzi’s Lamentations. During medieval times, a tradition of popular literature and poetry gradually emerged. By the nineteenth century, the vernacular of eastern (Russian and Iranian) Armenia became the literary language of the east, and the vernacular of Istanbul and western (Ottoman Turkish) Armenia became the basis of the literary rebirth for Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire.
Armenian literature has been influenced by European literary styles and movements. It also reflects the tragic history of its people. The 1915 genocide led to the death of the great majority of the Armenian writers of the time. The period immediately after the genocide was marked by a silence. Eventually there emerged a Diaspora literature with centers in Paris, Aleppo, and Beirut. In Soviet Armenia, the literary tradition followed the trends in Russia with a recognizable Armenian voice. Literature received the support of the Soviet state. A writers union was established. At the time of glasnost and perestroika, the emerging leaders belonged to the writer’s union.
Historically, Armenian art has been associated with architecture, bas-reliefs, stone engravings, steles, illuminated manuscripts, and tapestry. Since the Armenian Renaissance during the nineteenth century, interest in drawing, painting, sculpture, textiles, pottery, needlework, and lace has intensified. During the Soviet period, graphic arts were particularly encouraged. A new Armenian style of bright colors emerged in painting. An interest in landscape painting, rustic images, a focus on rural life, and ethnographic genre paintings were noticeable in Soviet Armenia. A national art gallery houses the works of Sarian, M. Avedissian, Hagopian, Soureniantz, and other artists of the Soviet epoch. In the current republic, there are outdoor exhibits of newly emerging painters, and new private initiatives are being made.
Armenia has a long tradition of musical art, dating back to prehistoric times, and Armenian musicians played a fundamental role in the modernization of oriental music during the nineteenth century. Armenian traditional music differs from its oriental counterparts by its sobriety.
The republic of Armenia has thus far continued the trend set in Soviet years. The opera house, the theaters, and the concert halls are the pride of Armenians and have remained highly accessible to the general public. Armenian folk, classic, and religious music, as well as its composers, such as Komitas and A. Khatchadourian, have been known throughout the world. The folk-dance ensembles have also been participating in various international festivals.