So long have historians traced the beginnings of man, so long have they found the traces of art alongside him. The story of art can also be seen as being that of man, both go hand in hand, where we find art, we also find man. Art alongside language seem to be the original mysteries that we have yet to pierce, they seem to be the impulses of a mystical nature which has bestowed on us humans a higher level of self, giving us a special place in the realm of beings, somewhere between the eternal and the temporary, the absolute and the null, the lofty and the earthly. A special medium which civilization has forever struggled to understand and maintain, we swing from extreme to another like a pendulum that cannot escape its inherent condition.
In this article, I suggest that we retrace the story of Art so as to understand that nobler part of man, that which he can call his own and by which nature bestows on him the divine properties of reason and freedom. Let us begin with a narration of art that takes us back to the first cave paintings during the prehistoric era and move forward to the ensuing civilizations to better understand the common thread that links the notion of art from peoples past to our day.
Art in the Prehistoric age
The earliest traces of art are found among the prehistoric peoples who inhabited the lands as far back as 30,000 to 80,000 years ago, these traces are scattered in the diverse regions inhabited by those early humans, from the Lascaux caves of France to the Blombos cave in South Africa, the T-shaped stone pillars of the Göbekli Tepe site in southern Turkey to the caves in the remote jungles of the Borneo islands of Indonesia. All these sites reveal the first traces of figurative paintings and carvings that we could categorize under the subset of Art. These figurines where not the sophisticated or transcendent works represented by the Hellenic age of Greece, nor were they the mesmerizing architecture of the Romans, these were primitive etchings by those early humans that we now label as hunter gatherers. The importance of these prehistoric paintings does not lie in their beauty but in their symbolism, those hunter gatherers did not view these drawings as fulfilling a mere pleasurable experience but served a definite functional task, just like the shelters they built whose function was to protect them against winds and rain, these paintings served a similar functional purpose.
The Lascaux cave paintings were not intended to be exhibited since they were found hidden deep in the caves of the Montignac area in Southwest France, their significance was more intrinsic and existential in nature, a belief by those early peoples in the power of images, a symbolic power that would protect them against the ills of nature. Whether that vague notion of magic was placed in the artwork itself, the act of drawing the work or a transcendent power revealed through the figurine is not the importance, what mattered is that they could fathom the idea of the divine. Even those prehistoric, pre-civilized nomadic tribes seemed to have understood the power of symbolism and shown an ability to fathom the notion of an outer world, a higher one, one detached from the sensual realm, exhibiting a sense of the extraordinary to which we, mere humans, can communicate and influence. Therein lies the secret to the Arts, bestowed to us humans, carrying a whiff of the godly: the Promethean. The whole history of the arts seems to have emerged from these roots, whether still primitive and basic such as the cave images, or more complex and intricate, they all reveal some unity founded in the ability of mankind to fathom the notion of the divine.
The story of art as a continuous effort does not begin in the Lascaux caves but with the advent of civilization. Civilization brought forth the notion of continuity, perfectibility and tradition and with it we can venture into the story of current day art. Art can thus retrace its steps back to the Egyptians as being the first civilization to have set forth this direct tradition, a chain that carries works from master to pupil all the way down to our modern age. There is much in the Egyptian conception that brought forth a new matrix for the arts, this new conception portrayed orderliness, geometrical regularity and a keen observation of nature which up to then was not to be found. The famous pyramids and temples were signs which conveyed the seriousness to which Egyptians attended to the notion of the afterlife. The pyramids were constructed as a resting place for the mighty Egyptian rulers, the insides were adorned with art forms which were meant to accompany the ruler into the afterlife so as to perpetuate all the comforts they enjoyed in their worldly existence. These artworks would have consisted of pictures of servants, gardens and ponds or other items they wished to carry with them into the afterlife. The works of art by the Egyptians were concerned with clarity and distinction in the individual figures and a holistic sense of completeness to the artwork, they were not as much concerned with prettiness as they were with completeness and regularity.
If we were to observe an Egyptian portrait, we would always notice that the face was drawn sideways, the eyes on the other hand were depicted as though viewed from the front and collated to the sideways painted face, the torso was also drawn from a frontal facing perspective and the feet were always depicted sideways. These rules were used because each body part would individually be depicted with most clarity from such a given angle. In light of the fact that the objective of Egyptian artists was to relay earthly forms that the rulers wished to carry along with them to the afterlife, they did so by making sure that each individual subset was depicted as clearly and distinctly as possible. Even though the Egyptians’ conception of Art brought forth a transformation in the artistic landscape with the advent of definite forms and figures, representational accuracy and a very strong sense of order and stylistic measure, they nevertheless experienced a continued stagnation because they were more interested in making sure that rules are perpetuated rather than fostering an innovative and individually driven landscape. Outside of the stylistic reforms that came out of Egypt, another character to remark upon, having influenced later civilizations, was the notion of afterlife through the ascension of the body to the eternal realm symbolized by the pyramids. Such an ascension also brought forth the notion of the soul and the body, the eternal and the temporary, the transient and the earthly which was deeply intertwined with the Egyptian culture. Although these notions were widely held, the Egyptians did not venture into deepening such a narrative by shedding upon it the light of reason or the rigor of philosophy, instead they looked upon it as an undeniable concept. The Egyptian civilization was based on a very rigid set of rules whose end was to serve the monarchs by maintaining and perpetuating their widely held beliefs, as such the good Egyptian artist was the one who copied these rules as closely as possible instead of deviating from them. This rigidity melted into freedom once the Greeks took the helm.
The Greeks were a mighty civilization in all respects, till our day we are taken and mesmerized by their brilliance and sophistication, they were in all manner our forefathers and teachers, giving birth to a universal outlook which not only was to shape all of western culture, but narrate an outlook through which all of humankind could perceive the glory of man. Their art a reflection of their culture, knew how to balance the extremes, they were not too rigid so as to be called barbarians nor were they libertines so as to descend into savagery or indulge in pure instinct, they fostered the beauty of Apollo through the principle of individual form without completely disregarding the primal urges of the Dionysian. In this careful balance of form and function the Greeks brought forth the most glorious of ages, whose fruits, almost 30 centuries later are yet to be completely savored. If we are to talk about the Greeks while continuing down the path we have so far trod, we ought to first continue from our previous point by comparing Egyptian art to that of the Greeks before focusing more singularly on the Greeks themselves.
The Greeks who occupied the Grecian peninsula as well as a small part of the coast of Asia minor, first saw the imprint of art in the island of Crete before its shift to the mainland where it would take hub in Athens at the height of the Hellenic period. The Greek peninsula was divided into numerous little states, now known to us as city states, each maintaining a certain independence in regards to their neighbor. The social and political landscape which allowed for the formation of city states had the advantage of giving a sense of independence and autonomy enjoyed by each state which in turn injected a healthy dose of competition between each member. The beginnings of Greek art resembled a lot that of the Egyptians, they had borrowed and learned much from the Egyptian ways, in fact, some of their early artworks were so similar to the Egyptians that we might inadvertently mistake it for the work of an Egyptian artist. The early potters worked with the Egyptian blueprint, copying the geometrical rigidity and stylistic methods of the Egyptians, the importance of clarity for individual parts was still maintained, but with time, thanks in part to the social and political landscape, the Greeks wanting to outdo one another, dared to experiment by breaking parts of the original rule. A figure’s individual parts no longer had to be drawn as clearly as possible so long as the whole figure flowed naturally, the whole now took premise over the part. Each part of the figure was dictated a stance by the governing idea held in the artists mind, to such an end would the part mold itself, in correct proportion and measure, each played its role respectfully so as to reconcile the figure to the harmonious law of nature. Such a shift in thinking, which took the artist from one narrowly viewing his object through a chromatic lens, to one, who able to transcend the individual aspect of a figure, was guided by the hands of nature to shape each part according to the merits of its law. The beginning of such a shift in perspective could be seen in the early work of The Warrior’s Leavetaking.
The pottery depicts a young warrior standing confidently preparing for battle besides his parents’ inspecting and caring eyes, his hands proudly bent and his left leg defiantly facing the viewer. These changes marked the initial phase where the artist wondered off the beaten path, he had for object to depict a young warrior preparing for his first combat and thus molded the whole figure to suit such an end. The left leg was foreshortened and the hand given freedom to meet the artists personal conception of the figure. These were still the earl stages of Greek art, the Greek would have still largely depended on the overall rules of the Egyptians but dared to experiment and change. Like a young fledgling who before gaining full autonomy has to rely on its mothers’ nest, but with restlessness and determination it seizes independence once reason has given way to freedom. These initial wanderings by the Greeks would have been unthinkable to the Egyptian artist, his end would not have been freedom through self determination and personal conception but adherence to the absolute rule of the Pharaohs. This shift from rigidity and angularity was one directed towards freedom, the world of art had opened Pandora's box and guided men down the path to dominate the realm of time, space and movement. Such a transformation was not isolated, it permeated all of society with Philosophy, the Sciences, Politics and Architecture all falling to the spell of Apollo’s grace.
Art in Greece fueled by the individual artist, striving to represent the expressions of the dominant Homeric myths, represented them through a personal interpretation, displaying mythical narratives by filtering their eternal truths to crystallize them by faithful rendition in the heft of matter. As such those diverging renditions of artworks through individual styles brought forth the notion of “schools”, each artist developing their style in a thought process that cemented their viewpoint in a rigorous and thoughtful stance. Art became a topic of conversation between the literary and philosophic circles in Athens. Thinkers would freely discuss the merits of individual artworks and would diverge in their ideas but be reconciled by their faithfulness in the existence of an objective Truth. Let us look at some of the works so as to better understand them.
In architecture, different orders emerged, chiefly among them is the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian order. Each order represented a certain tone or color in Greek architecture, each was subject to uniform established proportions, regulated by the office that each part had to perform. The Doric column for example, carried a ratio of seven diameters high, the ratio being calculated as the proportion of width to height of each column, it was different to the Ionic and the Corinthian columns. Those differing orders would shape the tone and give a particular color to the building. Akin to the tonality of a classical piece of music, the order of an architectural work would be established by certain modules and raise the expectation of the viewer to meet such a language. A beautiful building for the Greek was a matter of universal proportions, those proportions whether in architecture, sculpture or music, governed the idealized human figure.
In regards to pictures and sculptures, by the time of the 4th century BC, the works being produced were a mastery of human ingenuity. The sculptures depicted a certain grace and dignity not seen ever since. The Greek masters avoided doing harm to the overall shape while succeeding in bringing to light the expressions they wished to convey, they sought for a sense of illusion to their work that gracefully pulled all the environing factors into imitating the expressions the artist sought to convey.
If we look at the Apollo Belvedere, we see the Greek god striding forth with ease, the whole figure moving seamlessly with such fluidity and freedom, there are no hinges or awkward angularities to be found while a sense of confidence and self assurance pervades the whole statue. Every part of the body seems to be in perfect proportion and symmetry to one another, nothing is out of line or excessive. The length of each part: the foot, the leg, the torso and the head seem to have been put together in such perfect measure that we could say a divine ratio governed the figure. The left leg is reared and elevated, not too much so as to disbalance the figure nor too little that the overall zeal is sapped. The silk that covers Apollo almost transforms him by elevating his sense of majesty, assurance and grace. How real seem to us the rendition of the silk covering, each line adding a sense of weight which is counterbalanced by the arm and shoulder of the God, it gives the illusion of a force exerted by Apollo which grounds him by a delicate illusion. The height and dignity of classical Greece is depicted in this figure. The Greek artists were not content with merely copying a figurine or any item placed in front of them, they wanted to represent the working of the soul by accurately obeying the way feelings affect the body. In such a conception, the realm of the physiognomy could also be said to have first emerged.
The art of Greece was not there to serve any particular purpose or to be bent by any particular interest, it was truly free, beauty was an end in itself and the arts always had beauty in mind. This was a time when the schism between truth and beauty were yet to be drawn and unity was to prevail. The artists were not isolated into their own corner, combating or wanting to impose their will on other parts of culture, all was harmonious, the arts held hands with the sciences who were guided by the soft touch of the Gods. This was a period that had unknowingly left their imprint on all other periods to come: the Romans were jealous of the ease and simplicity of their forebearers, the Christians had adopted much of the Platonic conceptions on aesthetics and the transcendental qualities found in Greek art, the middle ages were grieving for the lost world of the Greeks and the Renaissance succeeded in reviving the eternal Greek spirit which was thought to be dead. Such was the influence of the Greeks.
Having rightly attributed a large portion of the article to the Greeks, I would like to now proceed by a leap in history to look at art under the moderns. After doing so, we could then recall some of the comments mentioned so far regarding Greek art and draw an appropriate comparison before venturing into some final thoughts regarding the trajectory of the arts.
The moderns are a race of men that have been born from the tumults of the late 18th century revolutionary age, the noise of the industrial age, the perceived weight of history and generations past, the critiques of Kant, the instinct of rebellion, the urge to non-conformism, the decline of handiwork, the death of workshops and the rise of technological reproductions. All these forces and more can somehow begin to give a blurry resemblance of what spirit resided in the advent of modernism. This was an age which wanted to recreate itself anew, it sought to get rid of preconceived notions where reason was no more sufficient to satisfy inquisitiveness and nature was sought for as an antidote. Artists wanted to “free” themselves from different styles and the notion of artistic orders held since Brunelleschi was to be rid off. As a result the modern age also brought with it the many -isms which competed against each other for supremacy and rightfulness. Perception became the new motif, artists were no more the spiritual philosophers who were trying to recreate eternal truths here on earth in the manner of Raphael, Michelangelo or Da Vinci, they wanted to perceive nature as it was and depict it as they saw it to be. This attention and reverence to nature also gave way to the romantic notion of the heroic who embodied the willful individual defying all odds, rising out of the tides of nature, behind him the strength of the sublime carrying him towards the stars. The Napoleonic paintings or those artists depicting the defiant George Washington have traits exhibiting the Heroic individual.
Let us look at some of the artworks of this period to better understand the big strokes behind the period.
In the figure above, a work by Caspar David Friedrich labelled the Wanderer above the Mist depicts a man looking from the edge of a mountain summit, seemingly having reached the zenith, contemplates the grandeur of nature’s mist which he looks at from an equally high footing. This picture resonates with the Heroic ideal that we mentioned briefly above. Most if not all of Caspar Friedrich’s works resonate with the awesomeness of nature in front of men who sit marveling at its power.
Moving on to Emile Friant’s La Discussion Politique where we see a lively discussion between laborers on the banks of the Meurte. Friant manages to depict a glimpse into the daily life of laborers in late 19th century France, they are in a lively political argument, each is independent to bear his own ideas and outlook on life. These men who not so long ago would be regarded as serfs under the old order, oblivious to the notion of universal political participation are now showing a newfound place in the world.
Moving to the last picture which is that of Van Gogh’s portrait of Père Tanguy, drawn in 1887, at the dusk of the century, it shows the portrait of a man sitting on a chair behind what seems to be an arrière-plan of Japanese styled paintings. There is something clumsy, almost stupid about the man, both his eyes slightly apart with an awkwardly balanced head in relation to a not so fitting body. The colors of the background and those depicting the man are the same, if we really wanted, we can almost make him vanish into the background.
The style of Van Gogh was to open the doors to a more extreme form of the absurd and the maladjusted during the 20th century. We begin to see in Van Gogh the signs of schizophrenia which was to take hold of the arts in the proceeding century. The good would soon become the bad and vice versa, beauty will have no meaning anymore and art was not obliged to represent the beautiful. Most of 19th century art, even though triggered by the forces of rebellion and a desire for a new order was still behaved compared to the 20th century. The 19th century had justly desired for the emancipation of the individual from long held rigid political structures, the new political freedom found by the layman was supported by the establishment of a universal educational system which was to teach the individual to discern for himself the right from the wrong. Freedom and equality for the individual were key themes for the 19th century person but they also understood that freedom could easily fall into instinct driven savagery if desire for change becomes radical. As such for most of the 19th century, the arts still had certain precepts by which to abide to, paintings still had to be beautiful to be recognized as art, even though this beauty took many shapes and could also portray anguish or violence, it nonetheless maintained an ingrained sense for an objective truth and valued human dignity. Standards had changed but the radical had not yet taken a hold, universal qualities were still binding until the advent of the 20th century.
Picasso’s The Weeping Woman
The focus of 20th century art was to deconstruct and flip the basic tenants of artistic endeavors to its head. All was meant to be challenged and revisited, nothing of the preconceived notions needed to stand, everything could be shattered in the name of the individual and objective beauty had no meaning without the consent of the subjective. Deformity became the new norm, the perverse was a habit and imagination without structure ran wild. The political arena also gave credence to the pursuit of 20th century artists, the first World War with men decaying in the sewage of trench warfare had taken a hold over men’s minds, the absurd became a reality and nothing of the preconceived tenants from the renaissance could give significance to what seemed to be a godless world. As was with the political and social world, so did the arts reflect the same tendency. Artistic movements became flooded with the advent of Dadaism, Surrealism, Cubism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Constructivism, Modernism, Suprematism, Stridentism and whatever -isms one could imagine. Each cementing its place and status vis a vis the other while any objective notion fell astray. Those artists were looking at elements that would “shock” the bourgeois and bring as it were a seemingly Marxist awakening to the absurdity of traditional artistic tastes, they didn’t want to please anymore, they wanted to shock. Traditional thought had lost touch with reality for the 20th century artist, it was their duty to reawaken the barbaric sensibilities and make seemingly the unseemingly. Many artists of this age took note of far away worlds that the traditional European taste would classify as primitive and extracted from it what they believed traditional art had lost. Picasso, Dali, George Braque, Piet Mondrian, Juan Gris and others were men of the age, all of their art reflected the same taste and tendencies.
The story of art and that of mankind can be seen as a sort of comedy or paradox. The once cherished and relished would later become an absurdity and the True would become caricatured. In such an age where any objective thought is reneged in favor of subjective instinct, confusion becomes prominent because common sense had lost its grounding. In such an environment, freedom becomes impossible since it would be abused, and as Schiller had said in his letters: “When the man of nature still makes such an anarchical abuse of his will, his liberty ought hardly be disclosed to him”. It was this same Schiller who venerated freedom and yearned for a universal awakening in its name, but he had rather sacrifice freedom than witness its mutilation. The Greeks understood that freedom could only be acquired through the notion of measure; freedom requires harmony, and harmony demands that all things adopt a measured stance in relation to all others. In this rightful coexistence, man achieves freedom by having transcended the perishable to emulate the unity of eternal forms. In such a manner the aim of the artist becomes “one that is not meant to please but to purify by borrowing his form from the essential, absolute, immutable unity” (Schiller, Letters on Aesthetics). In this is found the crisis of modern art, whereby having reneged on all metaphysical claims as mere rubbish and the work of an overactive imagination detached from the “real” world, we have introduced the seeds of a crisis in the Arts. This crisis has not merely affected the arts but culture as a whole since the arts is but a reflection of cultural and societal tendencies. The late 18th century revolutions had opened a path towards the veneration of the individual, in order to satisfy such an entity a pragmatic posture had to be adopted and in doing so nature took heed over reason, government over religion and science over art. It was a one-way path that satisfied itself only in the assurance of having more of what was originally allowed. In this perpetual need for more, the radical awaited its inevitable fulfillment in the 20th century.
Art since its inception, from the prehistorical settings onward was set about by a desire to extinguish the unrelenting feeling of a hazy notion that we now know as the transcendent. The Greeks came along as the most sensitive and naïve of civilizations, in order to find peace in a chaotic world they needed to erect for themselves the dream world of the Olympians and from it emulate all that is worthy and dignified. For the moderns, the dream world became a fantasy and was relinquished in favor of the pragmatic and the functional. As Nietzsche would put it in his Birth of Tragedy: “The Greek knew and felt the terror and horror of existence. That he might endure this terror at all, he had to interpose between himself and life the radiant dream-birth of the Olympians.” Between those two distant forces, to which man finds himself sandwiched, Nietzsche says is to be overcomed “with the aid of the Olympian middle world of art”.
Ryan Hamadeh is a writer with interests in philosophy, society, politics, and history. More of his writings can be found on his Medium page.