Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Three pieces, three cultures ...

Three eras, three views of the world, three pieces of art... all examples used by Kenneth Clark in his great work, Civilization. Each represents a culture's own shortcut to their philosophy, depicted in the way they saw themselves and their gods.

The Apollo of the Belvedere (above and below left) -- in Kenneth Clark's words "a world of light and confidence, in which the gods are like ourselves, only more beautiful, who descend to earth only to teach us reason and the laws of harmony."

An ancient African mask (above right) -- of a similar era as it happens -- representing very starkly "a world of fear and darkness, ready to inflict horrible punishment for the smallest infringement of a taboo."

The bronze doors of a medieval cathedral (above), embodying the world of crosses and graves through which bloodless, leprous foundlings (us) are doomed to wander, cursed by superstitions and transgressions. Dark, dead, dull and lifeless. What a fall from man's exalted view of himself and his existence just a thousand years, a few miles and a Hellenistic world away.

These three pieces represent the light, the darkness, and the ordure of each of these cultures. What d you say would best represent the culture of today?

And what say those of you who maintain that great art like this speaks of nothing?


  1. It doesn't seem fair to pick something from Greece that's super cool and compare it to something from Africa that's kind of creepy and something from Europe that's just telling it how it is. Why not use one of the magnificent cathedrals from the middle ages? Each of these items were created for different purposes. There are probably tens of thousands of other, more inspiring, works of art from these cultures that could be chosen and compared. It's possible that Clark has just chosen pieces that reflect his own misconceptions of these cultures.

  2. I don't think you can fault me for showing too few cathedrals, or for not writing about them lyrically enough.

    But that's not exactly the point. The cathedrals themselves were built in opposition to life this earth; they were built soaring to heaven, intended in part to make men small.

    But even that's not really the point. Each of these threee pieces shows a view of MAN -- a view that represents and embodies the view of man either prevalent or dominant in each of these cultures.

    Can you say that the cultures as described were NOT as they've been described? Do you think anyone would have any trouble identifying the culture from the description, or matching the description to the piece of art?

    Finally, if you genuinely believe that these other cultures from these other times really do have "tens of thousands of other, more inspiring" depictions of man that are more representative, then bring 'em out.

    A depiction of man from Hellenistic Europe, about 200AD.
    Another African depiction of man from a similar period.
    Another depiction of man from the Europe of the Dark Ages, ie., pre 1000 AD.

  3. Far from reflecting Clark's "misconceptions" of these cultures it seems to me that the works shown are a perfect shorthand way of depicting them. Something art does so very well.
    To argue that they reflect his misconceptions anglo you'd have to show examples that were both typical of the cultures and very different indeed to those PC has shown.
    Good luck with that. :-)

  4. PC said...
    Finally, if you genuinely believe that these other cultures from these other times really do have "tens of thousands of other, more inspiring" depictions of man that are more representative, then bring 'em out

    Well, I probably haven't shown you my mum's tapa clothing pattern, have I? If you're interested, then I can organise a one weekend trip to my sister's house to view my mum's beautiful Polynesian art work in East Auckland, where all her (my mum) handicrafts & art work are stored since we moved to NZ. Some of the pattern are similar to the bronze doors of a medieval cathedral, shown above.

  5. I don't believe that any one work of art can truly reflect an entire cultures personality although I do have some sympathy with the views expressed here. I do question Why the Greeks are allowed to present a work of art that represents an ideal form that Apollo was? Apollo was a god and a very beautiful one too. The poor Africans have some ritualistic mask that probably depicts an evil spirit chosen for them. The Europeans have a work of art that depicts the fall of man and is essentially just an illustration of a Bible story. Each culture should have been asked to present a piece that represented a similar ideal or theme. For example the Africans could have a statue of a warrior and the Christians an image of the Madonna and child.


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