Sunday, December 30, 2007

Thinking about Greek Art

Reconstruction of Athena and Marsyas, Myron, Classical Period Group

Greek art makes use of and derives from mythic materials – many pieces created by artists are votive objects intended as gifts for the gods in exchange for some sort of patronage. It is therefore important in beginning a study of Greek art to help identify the subject matter, which often concerns the Greek gods and heroes of myth and legends. The scene described in this reconstruction shows a somewhat offended Athene, having just discarded the flute (aulos) she has been playing because in spite of the beautiful music she could make from it, she discovers, having seen her reflection as she played, that it makes her face look ugly. The faun or satyr, Marsyas, will have no compunctions about looking ugly while playing, and will pick it up and master the instrument. That is the beginning of the myth.

Somewhat related to myth, though in another subject category, is the Greek concern with victory and success generally, which Greek artists would commemorate in their work. Success could be had both in war – for which symbolic Nikes or personifications of Victory were erected to celebrate military victories - and in athletics, because the successful combination of a good-looking youth with victory at the games gave a kind of numinous –“god-filled”- presence that artists could attempt to capture in their portrayals of the human body, especially the nude male. Things will not turn out well for Marsyas, our poor faun, whose skill at the flute will lead to an unfortunate competition with Apollo, the god (among other things) of music and the Muses. Apollo, playing his lyre, will feel slighted when the faun turns out to be as adept as he in producing beautiful sounds, and so will add the stipulation that they play their respective instruments upside down. Apollo easily turns his lyre (a stringed instrument) upside down, and the faun, unable to produce any sounds from an inverted flute, must suffer the consequences of losing to a god. Apollo will have him strung up to a tree and skinned alive. This grim fate is a typically Greek ironic reversal, putting a spin on the concept of commemorating victory in art.

Greek art also emerges from a real concern with geometry, a discovery that the world had a particular sort of meaning because there was an abstract world of mathematics reflected in the real world but also separate from it. These formal concerns with geometric shapes, patterns, and proportions unite with a growing sense of realism and naturalism, using art increasingly to mirror the world we see about us. In the classic period of Greek art (from around 480 – 400 BCE) some form of ideal is sought in reconciling geometrical shapes, forms, and proportions with the beauty in nude men and, increasingly, women. This can be seen, for example, in the chiastic (criss-cross) poses of nude males in which relaxed and tightened muscles of alternate arms and legs gives both a geometric and a naturalistic expression to the body. We see in the work above a studied contrast of opposites in which the calm poise of the goddess is set against the agitated expression of the faun. The faun's behavior seems to foreshadow his shock at losing the contest, which would have been understood as one pitting the forces of harmony and geometry represented by Apollo and the lyre against those of sheer expression unmediated by geometrical effects in the flute. Essentially, the myth portrays a contest between Apollonian and Dionysian wills.

Another constant concern of the Greek artist, or, perhaps more accurately, another way of looking at geometry and myth in Greek art is by way of beauty. Beauty for the Greeks represents something ideal which, like geometry and like myth, exists both in this world and in another more abstract world of timeless truths. We can get hopelessly enmeshed in these fascinating topics unless we just take it somewhat as a given that, at least as we begin to look at this art, we form a notion somewhat similar to what the Greeks probably believed, which is that the gods, while they are very much like you and me, are beautiful, that they enjoy beautiful things, and that whatever beauty we find here on earth in some way resembles that timeless and eternal beauty of the gods. In this way, art is beautiful because it is religious and, because it is religious, it is beautiful.

The religion, though, as we see in the story of Marsyas, is far from consoling. Greek religion, as it is expressed in the arts, at least, reveals aspects of the gods as they relate to human life. Essentially, there is no fixed or standardized body of rules or prescriptions for behavior vis-a-vis the gods, no dogma, just some generalized understandings, some of which include both that irony and that concern for beauty described above. Greek art - or, some of it, at least - is created as beautiful objects which are placed in sanctuaries within the temple grounds as votive objects intended to establish or confirm patronage. The better the work, it must be presumed, the more favorable the response of the god will be. But again, there are no fixed rules, just understandings.

Of primary concern as Greek art proceeds after the fifth century seems to be an exploration of human consciousness by representing poses and expressions by which consciousness may be repeated, evoked, recreated in the work of art. This concern is no doubt related to all of the above - myth, victory, geometry, beauty, religion - but in ways I am not able to express. In any case, however, a profound shift takes place between the Archaic and the Classic ages when the so-called “Archaic smile” gives way to the more severe – and naturalistic – pout of the early classical facial expressions. At the same time, the weight-shifted pose (contrapposto) enables artists to explore how the body reflects and reacts to various states of consciousness, thus making available a wider range of expressive poses for experimentation – hence the chiastic pose mentioned above. All of this puts the focus of the artist on the human, specifically the human body, and how its poses reveal inner states of mind.

Now, Greek religion does not really concern itself with interior, psychological states. Greeks perform rituals as prescribed, not as their hearts instruct. The role of the interior state of mind simply does not matter in Greek religion as it will, for example, in Christianity.

Greek art changes much in the Hellenistic age, when emotionalism and naturalism take over, leaving formal and geometric concerns behind. The fourth century, coming between the classical and the Hellenistic, is both a period of transition between styles and a period of consolidation of effects and traditions.