Why call it art? The Aesthetics of Participation: Ancient Aesthetics
During Thanksgiving vacation, I was talking to my sister, Ellen Finkelpearl, who is a classicist. She had interesting things to say about how people looked at a work of art back in Classical Athens and Rome. In our conversations she said that two characteristics came immediately to mind in terms of how people thought about art in those days: realism (mimesis) and skill. These two qualities seem to be linked – she said that there are stories of an image so skillfully painted that a bird flew down trying to eat a (painted) grape, or a sculpture of a cow so perfectly realistic that a calf tried to suckle on its teat. These categories seem to correspond to what many people want today from an object in order to call it art. Skill is especially important. The ubiquitous and rarely correct assertion, “My three year old could do that!” appeals to an implicit assumption that artistic quality is a function of skill or “craft.” But realism also persists as a benchmark. The oft-repeated praise, “That painting was really great; it looked like a photograph!” appeals to the assumption that realism is an artistic virtue (and the questionable assumption that the height of realism is photography). She also mentioned the importance of Beauty for ancient Greeks.
Hey Tom, The Greeks had a lot to say about beauty (to kalon). Often in the abstract, but sometimes quite concretely and self-consciously. For example, a sculptor named Polykleitos who created the famous Doryphoros (spear-thrower) wrote a treatise about the correct proportions for making images of the human body. But I want to remind you that, although I’m a Classicist, Aesthetics is not my field; I’m a Latinist and I work on the ancient novel, so I’m sending you a link (below) to a review of a new book on ancient aesthetics. The review has a nice quote from Plotinus, a 3rd century AD neo-Platonist, about looking at the sun and beauty. “No eye ever saw the sun without becoming sun-like and no soul can see the beautiful without becoming beautiful. Let everyone first become godlike and beautiful, if he intends to look at God and beauty.”
The guy who wrote the review (Jim Porter) has a lot to say (in other works) about “synaesthesia:” the description of one art with terms that apply to another (I saw the beauty of that song… but more interestingly), indicating that a lot of aesthetic theory could cross generic boundaries
Tom, I want to add some other points we made during our conversation. I always like to say that there are many intersections between the pre-modern and the post-modern, and one of these lies in the more open way that ancient and contemporary audiences interact with “art”. In ancient Greece of the 5th century BC, objects that are now in museums were displayed in temples or theaters, in the marketplace, or on privately owned pots, which would be prizes for athletic victories or they might be commissioned for elite drinking parties. The friezes on the Parthenon were of course displayed way up high on a public temple and conveyed messages about Athenian identity and ritual, as well as the glory of the city of Athens. At the same time, people recognized that certain of these sculptures and friezes were extraordinary and kept copying them, also recording the names of the artists. A lot of Greek pots are signed by the artists, too. My friend Michelle, an archaeologist, points out to me that ancient people simultaneously recognized Phidias as the superb sculptor of the statue of Athena in the Parthenon, and also saw that sculpture as something sacred, to be worshipped. Insofar as there was anything like a museum, it would consist of a few paintings on the walls of a covered arcade, perhaps at a place of learning. But most ancient art is part of the community—which seems important for your purposes.
In Rome, several centuries later, rich elites like Cicero started collecting Greek sculptures, often by pillaging them from provinces they governed, so it was a mark of both taste and power to display a Greek marble sculpture in the courtyard of your house, and the whole city of Rome was peppered with artworks taken from abroad (starting with the sack of Corinth in 146BC). The rich patron, Maecenas, was known for his taste and collected a lot of Greek art. So, aesthetics were certainly very much involved, but this stuff was either public art of one sort or another or held in the homes of the elites. There was known to be sculpture displayed in the portico of Pompey’s theater (where prostitutes also hung out, it is said), but that’s the closest to what we might think of as a museum. And finally, let’s not forget about the Etruscans who collected all the best Greek vases and hid them away in their tombs!
Ellen later sent me a couple of Facebook messages following up on our conversation. Here, compressed into one statement is what she said:
Thinking more about the question of “what is art” in the ancient world, various things occur to me. First of all, Roman poets did ask “what is poetry?” in a way that I think artists did not ask “what is art?” Horace tries to distinguish his satires which he terms “conversations” from epic, and he goes into lots of detail about issues like vocabulary and word order to define what a real poet is and creates. In other words, there were questions floating around about what distinguishes mere writing or prose from artistic poetry. Where visual art is concerned, I just can’t think of any such discussion. But on the other hand, when I looked up some things on the internet on the question, it was clear that the standard line seems to be that Greeks didn’t have a real word for “art” but used “techne” which means “skill.” Some people seemed to distinguish techne from poiesis, which was alleged to be closer to “art” but I doubt that’s true since it basically means “making.” While I do think that the pre-modern and the post-modern always have many intersections, it would be a bit superficial to say that ancient Greeks didn’t distinguish technical skill from something more aesthetic and that therefore a post-modern opening-up of the definition of “art” would intersect with an ancient one–though I think there is some truth in that. Clearly, by the Hellenistic period and then in the Roman period, there was the beginning of the fetishizing of particular art objects, and, as one sees in Pliny the Elder, some kind of discussion of what makes them better than others–realism included. I’ve mentioned the Roman enthusiasm for collecting, and the rise of the collector and I’m thinking of picture galleries mentioned in several ancient novels. But when the characters look at the art, they tend to rhapsodize about their own lives (particularly their tragic love-life) rather than telling us what is great about the painting. I don’t think it was always about skill and mimesis, though. These characters in the ancient novels exhibit a lot of emotion and connection to the art works. Longinus “On the Sublime” talks about literature, and he mentions something pretty indefinable about the heightened state or transformative nature of really great art, literature, really.Relation to one’s life, though, certainly is a quality of visual art that one sees represented and admired in the ancient novel. Narrative quality might be another admired quality of some painting. One novel explicitly tries to rival a painting with words. I will let you know if I have other thoughts. Hope your refrigerator is okay.
More later. Love, Ellen
So, from this exchange forward, I initiated my conversations positing three traditional aesthetic virtues: Beauty, Realism, and Skill, and three postmodern virtues: Complexity, Transformation, and Relation to Tradition. When I showed this post to Ellen for her review before I put it online, she had one more comment to make:
I would tend to agree that two out of the three postmodern virtues that you mention are not central in ancient art, though I want to give “complexity” more thought. No question that complexity is important in literature. But certainly, “relation to tradition” is huge in ancient art, particularly in Roman art, though it seems to have a different function, not so much as a way to legitimize itself as an art object, but as a way to appeal to the viewer who expects certain kinds of art. Roman copies of Greek sculpture would fit into this category and Etruscan collectors of Greek pots. Visual art can make reference to older traditional material in order to depart from it, either wittily or as an artistic statement. In our myth class, my co-teacher who is an archaeologist showed how Apollo is often shown with a monstrous snake, the Python, whom he killed, but a Hellenistic statue shows a young ephebic Apollo confronting a lizard—a joke [pictured?]. So, I suppose we should think about the different ways that “relation to tradition” could play out in the premodern and postmodern world.
Okay – so back in classical times they did not have galleries or museums, and there was no isolated category of “fine art” but they still made amazing things and had a lot to say about aesthetics. Was this a healthier set-up? What if we simply had skillful makers (since the words for art back then had more to do with skill and making) and these skillful makers showed their creations in the public square, temple and homes? Or, something I think about all the time, how can museums open the door for practices that are more open than the traditional fine arts?