Monday, March 26, 2007

Greek Art

The Aphrodite of Knidos, to our left, ladies and gentlemen, is, of course, one of the glories of any age. It was well described by Kenneth Clark, concerning which, more later. For now, just note the cunning contrapposto, that weight shift that results from placing our weight on one leg and relaxing the other, identifiable here by the sweeping curves on her right side and the very gentle curves on her left.

I think that an encounter with Greek art, and with Classical architecture generally, makes eminent good sense. However brief the encounter, it is likely to be memorable, and is likely to help us to see things better, even things that are far removed from the Classical world.

Here is a passage I enjoy for its exuberant listing qualities. Its approach both describes and is determined by the aesthetic qualities found in Greek art, so there seems to be something reflexive about it.

from Masterpieces of Greek Art by Raymond V. Schoder, S. J (New York Graphic Society Greenwich, CT) [Paragraph bullets added for emphasis]

“Throughout its long history and successive developments, Greek art retained an essential unity of character that kept it Greek. To a different degree and with varying emphasis in each period, Greek art was consistently marked by a special combination of qualities:

  • directness and objectivity;
  • a naturalness which makes it easy for all men of any era and culture to understand and enjoy it;
  • an unexaggerated realism which shuns the esoteric and restrains the elements of allegory and symbolism that occasionally tempt it;

  • a sure instinct for beauty, which is found in rational comprehension of intrinsic pattern, proportion, symmetry, the intelligible form radiant in its clarity and meaningfulness;

  • an honest delight in the beauty found, which is esteemed for itself and as an inspiration to noble use of the mind;

  • a love of clarity, simplicity, relevance, and an insistence on seeing the relationships of parts to the whole and of the art object to reality in the large;

  • a search for universal significance in things, their unchanging essence and nature beyond the limits and inadequacies of the particular—things as they should be, not just as they are;

  • a sane idealism, emphasizing what is most admirable, most true, most humanly uplifting in things, rather than their defective, sordid, or merely ordinary aspects;

  • a pervasive humanism of outlook which finds man and his nobler qualities the chief element of interest, with Nature and the animal world significant mainly in their relationship to man and his needs;

  • spontaneous, unforced motivation in producing art objects which are an authentic expression of the feelings and the vision personally experienced by the artist, and therefore without posing or sham;

  • and a remarkable agility of mind, alert to all human experiences and their significance, quick to learn, progressive, imaginative, always driving to perfection of technique, abhorring carelessness and stagnant conventionalism, always vital, energetic, creative, alive.

  • The result is an art which is eminently sane and constructive, of lasting human value, by nature ‘classic’ and of universal worth.

Such an art surely has claims on our attention today. As an historical fact, Greek art has been a major formative element of Western culture, and is still a vitalizing force within our intellectual life. It has to be known—extensively and accurately—if we are to understand ourselves as heirs of Western civilization. It is a major instrument of liberal education, which our technological age especially needs to cultivate if we are to keep our balance and our human pre-eminence over the machine. But more than all this, Greek art is a continuing potential source of refined esthetic delight” (Schoder, 12-13).

So. Schoder's approach is what you might call old-fashioned, or, even, fuddy duddy. I like it, as I say, because of its clarity, its good sense, its, well, classic features. It is not why I teach this stuff in classes, or just why I enjoy the art myself, but I do not, on the other hand, find myself in opposition.

I do want to recommend another approach, by another quite different sort of scholar. I will not quote from her, but here is the link:

Course lectures by Prof. Francesca Tronchin in her Greek Art & Archaeology course (HA522) at The Ohio State University, Winter 2007. Tronchin has done the amazingly useful service of putting her lectures on mp3 files we can listen to or download. She is a good and lively lecturer whose lectures are both scholarly and enjoyable. I do find it a tad annoying that every time you visit the page you get to listen to the latest lecture, but you can easily download these lectures and listen on your ipod or whatever. Not owning an ipod myself, for me its whatever.