In the long ago and far away (Sept 2011 – Visura # 12), I wrote about the difficulties civilization and the rule of law held for visual artists, who “think“ with a different part of themselves – the mammalian brain—than the more “evolved” and “civilized” control freaks who love to make rules, laws and such. As with so much of western civilization,
much of that came to the fore in Greece.

The Greeks
Greece is the stencil of western civilization; it is where we have looked for democracy’s model. In Greece, the frontal lobes, the rational, verbal brain took over control of communication. Greek letter-forms are abstract shapes referring to the sounds of the letters themselves, not to any drawing of something real as in earlier alphabets. There is a theory that this divorce led to the triumph of abstract thinking in the West, the “victory” of the verbal brain.

The oligarchy that ruled Athens was an upscale group of rich, cultivated and educated men. They were “men of leisure,” did not have to work for a living only kill and plunder neighbors. Think of the British nobility who ended up, ironically, plundering Greece of the Elgin marbles.

Being rational, the Greeks divided the arts into two categories: the liberal and servile arts. The seven liberal (for free men) arts — grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy — were those which did not dirty one’s fingernails, and did not demand manual labor or produce a physical product. The servile arts — practiced by slaves — were sculpture, drawing, carpentry, pot-making and such. Like them, we suffuse everything we do with our biases, our time. It is deep in language itself: the prejudices and assumptions drip from every word. We can assert what we wish to be true; with Greece the connection between the alphabet and anything in the actual world was broken. These categories are as much about class: the oligarchy is rational; artists are instinctive, sensual, mired in un-evolved behavior. All of this class prejudice is still transmitted to us today through the Academy, our universities. Perhaps, this is why MFA-trained artists refer to their work as their “practice.” It gives them the cachet of a doctor or lawyer and offsets middle class anxiety.

Artists were exiled from Plato’s Ideal Republic as dangerous, too seductive. Plato so feared art’s emotional power he called for censorship. The Greeks also kept the tradition of imagery serving power through religion. The power structure commissioned painted sculptures for public places, especially temples, and demanded a high degree of realism to more effectively convince the masses of the beauty of the gods who were the oligarchy’s ancestors. The results looked a bit like Disneyland. Perhaps it is the Greek version of control by bread and circuses – this is bread and spectacle.

Realism had a special resonance in Greek philosophy. Plato believed that the observable world was a pale shadow of the “really real” world that exists in the mind which holds eternal and universal forms. This led to the drive for “realistic” art to best portray the ideal. However, since men were the measure of all things, the best art would be the most perfect portrayal of humans, horses and the real. The Greeks, in short, established rules for image-making, believed images must have a social purpose: support for its elitist sponsors and their theories. The method was to fool the eye of the people with the perfection of representation. Even the system for making a painting was that the artist must start with a concept (here comes the verbal brain again). The images were of an idea, an imagined ideal. I am not as interested in the pie in the sky as I am in the pie on my plate….that, at least, I can see and taste. As a political philosophy, this is designed to keep us in our place; we can never do better.

As with so many things, the Greeks had a myth about how it all happened:

It is their story about how civilization got started, a tale of power and revolution (what else?). It is also about technology. Techne is the Greek word for art, for making. The myths deal with the birth of technology. Primitive man discovered fire when lightning struck in the forest; that is when Zeus threw down a thunderbolt and started one. Civilization began when we had the foresight, the horse sense, and the animal intelligence, to preserve it.

The way the story goes Iapetus, the Titan, son of Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (the Heavens) was the first artist. He drew the line between heaven and earth, the horizon, and so separated the realm of the gods from the realm of man. For the Greeks, art began with a philosophical and political gesture. Of course, the horizon line itself does not exist in reality; there is no edge to the world, no line, only endless space. The cave men had it right.

However, Zeus usurped the power of Cronos, the Titans’ elected god/leader, and became the god in chief. He threw all the Titans back into the underworld. In revenge, Prometheus (“foresight”), the son of Iapetus, stole Zeus’ fire and gave it to us. For this he had to be killed. Prometheus, of course, is the father of us all. So, an artist’s son and revolutionary overthrew the dictatorship of the gods and started cave civilization and its backyard barbecues. In evolutionary time, it was a short step from fire to Escoffier and from clubs to bombs. As the myth continues, Zeus decided to destroy our advantage and made from clay the first woman on Earth: Prometheus’ sister-in-law Pandora, (“all-giving”). Like Eve she was prohibited from knowledge: the contents of a jar. When she opened the jar, all kinds of misery were loosed on the world. Only hope was left in the jar.

The Greeks were misogynists; only men had power. So the men blame the woes of the world on women, like Pandora, like Eve. And hope? That too is an evil, a woe. Don’t even think about a revolution. It seems the Greeks feared the visual brain as disruptive of the control of the verbal, rational brain.

Recent philosophical studies suggest that logic and rationality are frequently debating ploys to justify what one wants to think and persuade others to agree. To give an aura of logic to whim and desire.

The Romans
The Romans “sang of arms and the man, who first went out from the city” to rape and pillage and steal. They extended their empire from Scotland to Romania to the Middle East. Thanks to its marauding, the city had the money to “attract” skilled Greek artists to make its triumphal monuments and statuary.

The booty was shared out to a wider range of “citizens.” What the newly rich citizens lacked in creativity, they made up for with their military and engineering skills and the ostentation and extravagance of their interior decorating. In Rome, art as a merit badge for the rich was added to its former social purposes. It also seems to be the earliest use of art for ribald pornography.