Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Work as Event

Fragmentary Head of a Queen, ca. 1352-1336, Dynasty 18, Reign of Akhenaten

When we look at a work of art, any work of art, we generally want to make sense of it. There may be other motives involved, but getting it is likely to be big. I have found that treating the work itself as an event - that is, as something that happens, or that does something - helps get me there.

What if nothing happens? Well that, I figure, is on me; so I move on until I find something where something happens. As here.

So, what does it mean for a work to happen, or to do something, or to be an event? Look first for initial impressions, and make a note of them. You might forget what they are, and they can be so revealing. Also, start making lists of things you notice. These are likely to consist more of nouns (which name persons, places, or things) and adjectives (which modify or define nouns) than verbs (which expresses actions, events, or states of being) or adverbs (which modify verbs or adjectives). Also, I think it is a good idea also to find something somebody has written about it, since whether I agree with it or not, I get to share someone else's experience of it. My response, then, can be to the thing itself, but also, if I wish, to the other writer.

Most art books tell us to learn something about the artist and the original audience. Although this is always good advice - you won't get very far in a vacuum - in my courses I try to focus not on the original audience, who are usually so far away and hard to understand, but on myself and my students. We are the audience that comes first.

However, the name Akhenaten is important. Even those of us who know next to nothing about the art of Ancient Egypt know that something strange was going on during the reign of this singular Pharaoh. He is best known for worshiping one god - the sun. He was also a weird looking dude. His court went along with him, changing their worship and rites entirely, until he died, when they dismantled everything he had done and put it back where it was.

Art during the period was also considerably different from the norm. Egyptian art is traditional art, meaning that the artists tended to do pretty much what they had been taught, going on not just from generation to generation, but across thousands of years. Then comes this blip of the Akhenaten reign, known as the Amarna period, where things change for a bit. This puts our piece in a new perspective. To follow up, we can read more on Egyptian art, both of the traditional sort and of the new style inaugurated during Akhenaten's reign.

Still, my interest is going to remain with the Queen over anything else I might learn about Egyptian art in general or the art of the Amarna period. And by "the Queen" I do not mean the actual person presumably represented, which might or might not be Queen Nefertiti. I mean the piece itself.

What sorts of things would you make a list of here? How do things relate to each other? What do you make of its fragmentary nature? What does this piece do?