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The First Renaissance
The fall of Knossos brought about the first Dark Ages, an era of roughly a thousand years during which humankind had to re-organize and re-civilize, an era in which a tremendous transformation took place regarding social structuring. It was, for one, an era in which language had to be rebuilt. It was an era in which trading virtually ceased, being only at minimal usage, and an era in which war was very prevalent, and little thought was given to "finer" things. It was an era in which artisans resided, but no artists - where objects were produced to serve functions, as pottery, though decorated, to carry wines and oils, and sculpture to glorify deities. It was an era in which women were subjugated, severely, and the patriarchal government came into being. It was an era of barbarism run a muck, and much of the glory that was - was buried, burned, reduced to rubble, and mostly forgotten. Except for the legends.
Because of the Dark Ages, the Greeks became known as the first historical group to think of Art in terms of the idea of Aesthetics - that is in discussing the nature of Art. Why was it that the ancient Greeks became the historical first? There were several factors which contributed to a unique situation whereby such thinking could come to pass - and remain in the consciousness of mankind.
To begin with, there were basically two waves of Greek speaking groups which traversed the mountainous regions and seas from the north, in addition to the trickles which occurred here and there over the times. The first was what spawned the Mycenaean culture. They had trade with the Minoan of Crete, and were very influenced by the Minoan, enough so that, for the last several centuries of the Cretan Empire, they had involved themselves into the island culture sufficiently to become among those who helped run the Minoan civilization. Their Art and such were, at that time, indistinguishable from those of Crete. But there were differences in the land culture. Like the Hittites and Hykos, and others, the Mycenaean were a raider/taking type which had gained the use of chariots for their warfare. They also, however, used the sea - especially after the fall of Knossos - in emulation of the Minoan, trading when they could, resorting to raiding as pirates when they dared [at least this is the generally accepted view, the historians' presumptions for the period of time after Knossos' fall]. But the old "taking syndrome" habits of plundering the wealth from others only ended up with less wealth eventually to pass around in largesse. And when their fleets were defeated by Egypt, for example, then the vassal princes aborted their wholesale allegiance, thus weakening the Mycenaean empire. This consequence was one of allowing the second wave of Greek speaking, outer fringed barbarians, comparatively, to invade successfully. These became what were known as Dorians, and moved into the more favorable regions, forcing the remnant of the Mycenaean Greeks to the lesser areas and, because some settled on the island of Ionia and the surrounding area, became known as Ionian. It was from the Ionian that the classical Greek thoughts arose.
This, in part, was because of two other factors - the land, and the social structuring. When the remnants of the Mycenaean relocated to the eastern shores of the land, and the islands in the Aegean Sea, they had to band together a number of defeated diverse groups [ and the local inhabitants, which tended to resist the newcomers] and, essentially, start life over again, breaking from the past. In the farm and pastoral valleys and plateaus pocketed among the mountainous coastal peninsular area, and the islands that dotted along the coast, they established independent and self-sufficient communities comprising, instead of the monarchical mode they had as Mycenaean, what were called polis, essentially city/states comprising as the franchised all the male inhabitants - and while disfranchising women, children, foreigners, slaves and aliens, the new system franchised a greater percentage of citizens than had existed in prior patrimonial aristocratic societies. This was undoubtedly a lingering influence of the Minoan culture, even as it was patrimonial transformed to the exclusion of women and foreigners.
Furthermore, these city/states, though all Greeks in their language and ancestry, being independents, fostered separate schools of thoughts, depending on the degree of authority imposed upon the polis. Yet, at the same time, there was traffic between these communities, so that none were in anything like isolation, culture wise, except to the extent imposed on themselves as particular communities.
Despite these changes from the old monarchical mode that used to be the way of life for the Mycenaean, because of their view that it was proper of them to raid and achieve their wealth thru plunder, as was the case with all the other patrimonial societies, including those who were known as Dorian, these remnants did not pick up and carry on the value of trading as had once been, particularly, their heritage when associating with the Minoan. Furthermore, these aristocracies, being involved in the ruling affairs, tended to reside more near the seat of the administrations, which ended up becoming much like a political "town" within the city/state. Being chosen for its protective strengths, these centers in turn attracted a number of artisans and merchants - though those were considered of little importance. Thus the whole atmosphere was that of an aristocratic perspective full of the "taking syndrome" mentality, full of tradition adherence, shunning trading, making rich use of leisure, dispensing largesse, and so on. Especially the rich use of leisure, which allowed them time to engage in contemplating things.
As McNeill states it in his Rise of the West, "aristocratic ideals continued to dominate even the radical democratic polis. A good citizen had to be a man of some leisure; otherwise he could not attend to the public business of the law courts, assembly, and religious festivals, or train himself adequately to bear arms for his polis. Manual labor was not incompatible with respectable citizenship, so long as it left ample time for political activities. This ideal of citizenship was a direct inheritance from the aristocratic ethos of an earlier age. In effect, the humbler social classes, eager to emulate their betters, deftly put the old aristocratic ideals on polis basis by substituting the collective aggrandizement of the city for the individual aggrandizement sought so eagerly by Homer's heroes.
"A rural community of independent small farms constituted the Greek political ideal at least as late as the fourth century B.C. The Athenians themselves tended to regard the commercial-industrial activities of their city as an unfortunate departure from the best. Probably the pinnacle of ambition for the average citizen-rower of the Athenian fleet was to make a rich haul of booty on some fortunate expedition and then buy a farm, on which to live out his life as a farmer and citizen should. Neither artisans occupations nor the pecuniary cunning of the marketplace even commanded social respect in ancient Greece."
Furthermore, whereas the farming was seasonal, and allowed ample leisure for the political life, the artisans, especially if working for wages, could ill-afford to surrender even a day's pay to participate in polis affairs.
In addition to all this, in many ways, certainly regarding Art and the rise of philosophy, it was the uniqueness of the land/sea area that had the biggest effects, especially on how the contemplating went. In contrast to other civilizations, the light around the Grecian isles was bright and clear, the distant shores being not so hazy or blurred, but sharp and distinct. And, needless to say, this had tremendous effects on how the Greeks looked at things in seeking to ask questions on the nature of things [the same could have been said also of the Minoan of Crete, but there are, as stated, no decipherable records to be able to make any assessment on this matter]. "Just because by its very strength and sharpness, the light forbids the shifting, melting, diaphanous effects which give so delicate a charm to the French or the Italian scene, it stimulates a vision which belongs to the sculptor more than to the painter, which depends not so much on an intricate combination or contrast of colors passing into each other as on a clearness of outline and a sense of mass, of bodies emphatically placed in space, of strength and solidity behind natural curves and protuberance. Such a landscape and such a light impose their secret discipline on the eye, and make it see things in spatial relationships. They explain why the Greeks produced great sculptors and architects, and why even in their painting the foundation of a design is the exact and confident line." [C> M> Boura, The Greek Experience. 1957]
When those who were to be called the Dorian overran the land, the defeated remnant which became Ionian also lost their written language [which suggests that the survivors were not of the ruling clique, which had scribes and other literates]. What was left was the oral. Of necessity, this evolved in short time into a well-developed poetic form. The poet, then, being the depository in effect of the heritage and the means of instruction in knowledge, became a highly regarded person.
The Greeks, however, did not confine poetry to just ceremonial occasions or strange mysteries such as the Oracles [which, oddly enough, were allowed holdovers from the matriarchal times, being maintained by females, priestesses]. They also put the poetry to use as part of the community, part of the common life, honored and enjoyed by a large number of the communities. Besides the celebrations of heroes of the past, poetry was the chief means, for a long time, by which was sought to express convictions and perplexities, the issues which troubled or enthralled. Moreover, the Greeks recognised that, for all the inspirationalness of it, poetry was very much a form of craft, of practiced skill. In fact, it was the original expression of what constituted Art - skill of mind in making - which became applied equally to all the Arts, from not just sculptures and paintings and poetry, but to activities as diverse as cooking, building, and other forms of technical skill.
"Skill of mind in making", coupled with the notion of a "universalness" of beauty aspects, was the basis for what became, many centuries later, the idea of Aesthetics. But there are two aspects of the sense of Aesthetics, and I think these should well be kept in mind. These are what are fundamentally known as Crafts and Art. One, Crafts, is, in essence, concerned with utilitarian. The other, Art, is, in essence, concerned with contemplation. I make this point not to disparage Crafts, but to establish by their nature what belongs where, for it has a bearing on how to achieve the best within their respective fields, even how to define the best. I make this point also because my primary concern here is with Art, the contemplative aesthetics, and thus mention Crafts only in passing - and, as a consequence, thus do not cover architecture, which, despite its highly developed aesthetics, is yet a craft; nor, for the same matter do I cover cooking.]
So it was, in the long development of the contemplative endeavors of the Greeks, that the first historical stage of individualism arose, and began the multi-millennia long struggle for ascendancy. While the leisure virtues of the Taking Syndrome allowed for the Arts to develop. the development itself was, as has been noted elsewhere, an individual matter coming from the person, not the group - from the "inventiveness" ascribed to the Trading virtues, as well as the "industriousness", and the tightening and conciseness stemming from the Trading virtue of "thriftiness". Even so, it still had to be tempered by the Taking virtues of tradition, adherence, respecting authority [stemming from "hierarchy"] and honor and loyalty. Bear in mind, "rich use of leisure" does not mean efficient use. Filling up the time space by being engaged in "busyness" would do as well. Nonetheless, the individualist mode inherent in humans would seek, to the extent available or allowed, to use that leisure time for matters which can be construed as of importance - and Art, fundamentally, is concerned with what is considered as of importance, and of importance to the individual[s] involved.
Nonetheless, too, even with such strictures, a number of very positive developments took place. As has been noted, poetry itself became very highly developed. The fundamental notion that arose of the Arts, remember, especially that of poetry, was that the idea was of giving a sense of permanence to moments of inspiration [those fleeting impressions that seemed important enough to note in some fashion or other], and then strive to have those impressions last beyond the sense of time - that is, to become timeless, in effect to defy mortality. It was an attempt to take the range of the moment and extend it into the future, recognising that there was something worth preserving, even if it was only to show down the road that others in the past had also thought these thoughts and pondered over them. It was also, as it were, seeking out the essence, and in this so seeking, devising the notion of beauty, something beyond the immediacy yet encompassed within those momentaries. This was what was meant by contemplation. Even more importantly, it was also recognised as not to be some subjective thing which varied from person to person, but something which had permanence in the nature of things, a "universalness", that other aspect of aesthetics.
In conjunction with and as an adjunction with this seeking of beauty, was the rise of the inquiry of mathematics, the science of measurement. Though mathematics wasn't invented by the Greeks, as elements of it, especially geometry, had been utilized as a matter of practicality by the Egyptians, and further back in time by the Babylonians, the Phoenicians, and even further back by the Minoan - the Greeks went beyond previous thought. They sought principles behind the known practicalities - again, a sense of "universalness". This in turn was also conjoined from another of the Arts - music - and involved attempts to establish fixed relationships between the notations on a musical scale - arithmetic proportions. This, in effect, was a geometry of sounds.There was a problem, however, when it came to trying to extrapolate the sense of the fundamental principles of geometry.
The "purity" that was seen in geometry didn't seem to exist in the real world [or rather, the world they saw around them], only resemblances to it, what they in turn considered "imperfections". It was Plato, the first philosopher to present, scattered throughout his writings, a system of philosophy, who first devised an answer. He gave strong consideration to what might constitute the nature of Art, and the relationship of it to beauty. He attributed the generic idea of Art as being techne, having to do with a sense of measuring, what is now thought of as being composition. As a solution to the recognition of the world as not holding to the "Purity" found in the mathematics, he sought the answer to this problem in a dualism. He believed "in a realm of ideal timeless perfection, which lies beyond this perceivable world of matter and change, and which we can grasp only thru a mystical transcendence of the senses" [David Kelly, Truth and Toleration, 1990]. Consequently, since a person can perceive these "purities" of form, as expressed mathematically, for instance, he considered man as torn by opposing elements, a body stuck in this world, a soul seeking the "other realm" - thus he advocated renunciation to "free" the soul to the supposed other realm. Regarding Art, one of the problems of the early inquiries into the nature of it was the issue of imitation, whether or not that was a proper means of Art. Because he considered this world itself as an imitation of the "real" world, the world of unchanging ideal forms, then an artist, whether poet or painter, was an imitator of imitations - in effect a liar, and thus someone to be despised. Plato held that the worth of a person was mainly of the value that person gave to the State, thru the military in conquest, or the legislation in acting rules to benefit the well-being of those who would otherwise be engaging in personal pursuits. In effect, and quite clearly on this he was, he propounded as philosophy adherence to the Taking/Tribal Syndrome, considering its virtues as the proper ones for humankind. Was it an attempt to justifying the essence of the status quo? Possibly - he was, after all, an aristocratic, with the mindset of authority, hierarchy, loyalty, and obedience. He despised the common and lower classes, especially those dealing in the artistry. But it most likely was an attempt at providing a foundation for what was seen [certainly by those in power] as an obviousness in the nature of social relationships. As for his animosity towards those in the Arts, it was because the Arts, especially painting and poetry, provoked personal instead of social notions. This created, as far as he was concerned, dissension as consequence of opinion differences, especially to a populace which he, Plato, considered as little thinking and as easily swayed, as "leaves upon the wind". They must, therefore, for the sake of social harmony [ which is to say for the "good of the populace"], be curtailed - at least to specific ends. This is to say they must be subordinated to specific social functions and not be allowed to become ends in themselves.
To what purpose, then, did he consider that the Arts should be put? Obviously, what with the mentality of the political life as being the quintessential essence of what constituted "manliness", as opposed to the "pecuniary cunning of the marketplace", it could only be in the service of the polis, to the glorification of those aspects which were considered exemplifying the ideal which he, Plato, delineated in The Republic. Figures, for instance, were not to be of actual persons, but idealized - seeking to show the fundamental essence of the human form. To him, these would be displayed in the various occupations which glorified the State - the warriors, statesmen, mentor gods, and so forth. Indeed, while recognition of specific individuals or sculptors and poets and painters were accepted due to the greatness of their respective skills, what they did had to conform to tradition, loyalty to the group, and respectfulness of the hierarchal relationships. Ostentatiousness was only in regards to glorifying the state, not the self - and if the self dared presume to be worth aggrandizing, it was punished, as was the fate of Phidias, who sculptured the Athena statue in the Parthenon but then put his own portrait on her shield, and was thus put in jail as consequence for the crime of impiety.
Yet, while these figures were idealizations, at the same time they were very much "this worldly" in that the artists strove to visualize the best and most viral of human forms. Only in the earliest years, when they were still struggling to understand the form, and were influenced by Egyptian works, were the figures stiff and formal. Too, possibly due to the strength and clarity of the light, the Greeks' visualizations were colorful - no pale tints, but vivid coloration both in their paintings and their sculptures.
And, in their paintings at least, while idealizations were the order of the day, there were indications that the sense of doing works for their own sake and not as propaganda pieces for the glorification of gods and state also flourished - in depicting non-human aspects of the world. While there were no landscape paintings, only indications of ties to the earth by illustrating a tree or so when doing the figures, there were works devoted to the sense illusionism, of depicting things such as to "fool the eye" not only of other humans but other animals as well. Zeuxis, for instance, one of the most respected and renowned artists, depicted grapes so convincingly that birds attempted to pluck at the clusters [Pliny, Natural History]. Moreover, his rival, a painter named Parrhasics, did one better - when Zeuxis tried to pull aside the folds of the drapery which he thought concealed the rival's work, he found the drapery itself was the "deception".
In effect, then, the Greeks invented still-life - as a way of getting around the tribal strictures, and allowing the glorification of the individual, thru his skills at illusionism, to shine forth. A final example, perhaps the most famous, was "the unswept floor" by Sosos of Pergamum, so popular that copies in mosaic were being made of it several centuries later. Note, though, that in all these examples, it is the trivial which has been exploited - that which, as far as the aristocracy was concerned, was not worthy of social accordance of the state.
Part of the reason for this, and for individualism to show up in this fashion, and so popularly so, was the shifting of political fortune because of the defeats of Athens in the Peloponnesian War - and the eventual absorption of all the Greek city/states be Alexander the Great of Macedonia - and then the defeats of the city/states by the Romans. These series of defeats changed the outlook of various governing policies, and many of the philosophical and aesthetic priorities held before. Plato's was one, and it was thanks to Aristotle, the other great Greek philosopher, that this shifting to glorifying the individual gained more of an ascendency. But while Aristotle developed a "this world" view of man, and held that rationality marked man's essence, he still had Platonic influences in his works which did not allow for philosophical justification to develop regarding trading. It was still rather much considered to be a zero-summed world - one's gain was another's loss. Obviously, without philosophical justification, far less would there then have been understanding the kind of world in which individualism manifested would have been, socially and culturally. The times of the Minoan were at best legends and their social structure unknown, and there wasn't at Aristotle's time enough empirical knowledge to begin to make such assertions - a lot of the nature of things had yet to come to be known.
Consequently, no longer single ideals held, but subjective impulses of the artists and patrons became the prime considerations, and the eccentric form of individualization took place. As such, the results became much more than the creation of still-life. Sensuality and complexity of emotions were much more vividly expressed. Texture and grace and voluptuous action, for instance, reached a high point in sculpture. The end result of this included the female nude joining the male nude as a pre-eminent art form, with such statues as the Venus de Milo, for instance, coming into existence.
There were other consequences that resulted from this shifting. With so many constraints removed, and artistic freedom so flourishing, the responsibility of the artist for instituting creativity instead of following established subject matters came to the forefront. Indeed, it came so much so that some of those artists couldn't handle it, and the frustrations of self-responsibility would cause some of them to destroy their works because they were not considered to be satisfactory. This last, of course, was the consequence of impulsive creativity instead of reasoned creativity [at least as they saw it at the time], where the artists in question hadn't thought thru the compositions.
There was another change that resulted from this shifting - where these artists used to be skilled amateurs, there arose, for the first time since the era of the height of Crete, the spirit of professionalism, artists earning their living from their works, and the prompting of fame of individual writers, painters, and sculptors and their respective particulars in regards to style. Attention also shifted to seeking far greater enjoyment in the personal and home life. Paintings, sculptures, and mosaics began to be created for the domestic dwellings, along with portraitures concentrating on the physical peculiarities that set individuals apart. In sculpture, this meant mastering the technique of reproducing such peculiar characteristics as the twist of a mouth, wrinkles of the skin [such as the Old Market Woman], physical blemishes, and individualized facial expressions. This culminated, for instance, in the extreme illusion of suppleness in the flowing cloth [the Nike of Samothrace] and the softness and warmth of living flesh [as in the Aphrodite of Cyrene]. In fact, so great were the renderings that out of this era came the legend of Pygmalion, the sculptor who created a works so breathtakingly realistic that it came to life, the height of egoistical skill.
Furthermore, so great were the Hellenistic rendering considered that when Greece came under Roman rule, those works were copied and copied and imitated with great enthusiasm - providing the present, if nothing else, with semblances of a number of these Grecian works, the originals of which are still lost.
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