Sunday, 17 May 2009

Early civilisation, part 5: The role of the artist

The advent of civilisation had important consequences for the role of artists within society. We should begin by comparing the artists of the Urban Revolution with those of the Paleolithic, but this is difficult because we know so little about Paleolithic artists and their social role. It is likely that they were completely integrated into their communities, as I argued in a previous article, where I said: “Art in hunter-gatherer society, besides being the product of labour, was and is a social activity in which all participate. For these people, dances and storytelling were not solitary acts of contemplation or self-expression but rituals that bound together their communities... The community was paramount, for in these times being cast out of it literally meant death; binding communities through culture gave adaptive advantage.”

Although society in primitive communism shared tasks much more than in subsequent modes of production, artists may to some extent have been excused from food-gathering in order to develop and apply their skills. In a subsistence economy this would not be taken lightly, which suggests that artists enjoyed a special position in the community, if not necessarily a privileged one.

The artist after the Neolithic and Urban Revolutions

After the Neolithic Revolution, the expansion of production led to the creation of new artistic needs and the emergence of artists as specialists who practiced their skills as a trade. Arnold Hauser wrote of this transition:

The maker of pictures of spirits, gods and men, of decorated utensils and jewels emerges from the closed milieu of the home and becomes a specialist whose trade is his livelihood. He is no longer either the inspired magician or the merely nimble-fingered member of the household, but the craftsman, carving sculptures, painting pictures, shaping vessels, just as others make axes and shoes, and he is hardly more highly esteemed than the smith or the shoemaker.[1]

As we have seen, early civilisation produced works of art and architecture on a greater scale than had ever been possible before: in architecture, palaces, temples and pyramids; in sculpture, colossal stone images of gods and kings; in painting, huge and complex decorative schemes portraying every aspect of life, both real and mythological. These required considerable organised labour. The artist specialist, freed from food production by the agricultural surplus, was now employed in workshops that gradually grew up around the temples, busily producing conventionalised works to a very high standard. Many works therefore were collective products made by several artists.

Concentrations of labour were not necessarily an entirely new development. The sheer height of some Paleolithic parietal art means that scaffolding or platforms of some kind must have been used, and at Lascaux one can see holes in the walls for such platforms — this is evidence that a certain level of social organisation was required. The art historian Paul Johnson even proposed that during the Magdalenian period there may have been some kind of studio system:

[Assistants] mixed the paints, some of which had to be used quickly before they dried, filled the lamps or held the torches, put up and secured the scaffolding, and made the brushes, from twigs, feathers, leaves and animal hairs, to the satisfaction of the master. These assistants graduated into painters themselves. It is not going too far to speak of a studio system as the basis of Magdalenian art... The quality and consistency of the best painted work in caves, and the evidence of the time, expense and skill required to produce them, does suggest that artists needed the collective support of something very like a studio.[2]

Such systems, if they existed, would not have compared to the workshops of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, where pottery, glass, metals, textiles and other materials would have been worked with the greatest skill by groups of trained specialists. This specialisation flowed from, and was dependent upon, the economic and technical innovations of the Neolithic, as illustrated by Gordon Childe writing about evidence from Ur:

Goldsmiths can now make wire and solder; they produce delicate chains and elaborate ornaments in granulation and filagree work. The copper-smith is master of the hammer and of casting, and is probably employing the cire perdue process. And so he can provide his fellow-craftsmen with a variety of delicate and specialised tools — axes, adzes, chisels, gouges, drills, knives, saws, nails, clamps, needles and so on. Jewellers can now pierce the hardest stones and engrave them for seals. Sculptors are beginning to carve vases and statuettes out of limestone and even basalt. The carpenter, besides boats, chariots, and couches, fashions harps and lyres. Naturally there are professional musicians to play upon them; these actually take their places in the tomb beside their royal masters.[3]

Artistic skills had never been so diverse and sophisticated. At the same time, because they lived upon the social surplus, these artists had become dependent for their livelihood and sustenance upon those who controlled food distribution, namely the privileged classes.

Class society

The Neolithic and Urban Revolutions also saw the concentration of land, wealth and power into the hands of a small minority of aristocrats, who used luxurious and monumental architecture and artworks to demonstrate both their power and their high level of culture. Size and luxuriousness signalled the wealth of the state, its ability to deploy mass labour, and the legitimacy of its ruling class. It was wise to invest some of the booty from conquests on public works, and public ceremonies and rituals — such as the New Year festival in Babylon — were useful for orchestrating popular support. Some monarchs also liked to fill their palaces with looted artifacts, demonstrating the range of their power and linking it to a venerable tradition. The royal palace was the finest residence in the city, host to music played on the harp and lyre, recitals of epic poems, and performances of hymns.

The art of ancient society expressed the worldview of that society, but above all “the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class” (Marx)[4]. Despite technological innovations, the growth of trade and contact with other civilisations, the hierarchy was conservative and needed to make its predominance seem eternal, leading to an emphasis on stasis, permanence and a geometrical sense of order. Art was to be kept within strict conventions.

The consequence of class society for artists was a change in their social role. Whereas Stone Age art served the entire community, artists now owed service to the monarch, and their work had to flatter and immortalise him or her in paint and stone. Artists carved friezes depicting monarchs’ victories in battle; engraved stelae with their declarations; sculpted their stylised likenesses for statues; wrote and performed songs in their palaces; designed and stitched their costumes; built their tombs, painted their walls, and crafted grave goods to be buried alongside them.

Two portraits of kings. Left: Stone panel of the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III, ca. 728 BCE. Right: Colossal statue of Ramesses II from the temple at Luxor; photo from the Flickr account of u07ch.

This does not mean, of course, that all art was directed to glorifying the aristocracy. Pottery, ceramics, figurines of household gods, murals in homes, songs and so on continued to be produced in their thousands that were heavily influenced by social conditions but made no overt reference or homage to the ruling class. Nonetheless the aristocracy had a control over resources and labour completely disproportionate to its numbers: the ultimate expression of this was perhaps the Great Pyramid of Khufu, which used 2.3 million blocks of stone weighing an average of 2.5 tons each, and took twenty years and thousands of labourers to build, simply to provide a tomb for the monarch. The most magnificent artistic achievements of early civilisation — the pyramids and ziggurats, the colossal statues, the gorgeous palaces and temples — were dedicated to the kings who embodied the ruling class, and to gods whom those kings used for legitimisation.

The artists themselves, by contrast, were considered manual labourers, a status that would not be challenged until the Renaissance. Hauser argued that the privileged classes “made the artists into their helpers but not their allies.”[5] The Egyptologist Jaromir Malek observed:

The social standing of craftsmen and artists was only slightly better than that of peasants. They were entirely dependent on the establishment to which their workshop belonged and were not free to leave, although they were able to use some of their time to make and sell goods as a form of private enterprise. There were no independent artists who made their living solely by selling their works.[6]

Malek writes about ancient Egypt, but this would be a fair generalisation for the early civilisations. This does not mean that nobody in the ruling classes became an artist, or that skilled craftspeople could not command respect: some ancient Egyptian artists could afford their own tombs. It also did not necessarily apply to all the arts equally: the ancient Greeks for example assigned Muses to poets and musicians, but did not consider painters and sculptors worthy of the honour.[7] But broadly it is more accurate to think of them as ‘artisans’, i.e. skilled labourers, rather than ‘artists’ in the modern sense. This is not intended as any kind of slur — Bronze Age artists produced works of art of extraordinary quality.

The social versus the individual

As servants of their noble patrons, artists were not expected to ‘express their feelings’ as individuals, although this does not mean that no feeling was expressed. For most of art history, it was highly unusual for artists to sign their work, or for their names to come down to us at all (exceptions include the Attic vase painters or the Egyptian sculptor Thutmose). Because it represented the most central, and sometimes sacred, beliefs of the community, the work was more important than the craftspeople who made it. Whereas technical excellence in the reproduction of established conventions was highly valued, personal expression was not. Ancient artists often seem to have held attitudes towards the fate of their work which are hard to understand today — the surrendering of pieces of fabulous craftsmanship to tomb burials being an obvious example.

This corporate attitude, which persisted until the Renaissance, is very different to our modern conception of the artist, whose creative motivation comes from within him- or herself. That view is heavily influenced by bourgeois individualism and thus ultimately conditioned by the capitalist mode of production — i.e., it must be seen historically. Hauser observed:

The compulsion under which the artist has to work in [ancient] society is so relentless that according to the theories of modern liberalistic aesthetics all genuine cultural achievement should have been fundamentally impossible from the outset. And yet some of the most magnificent works of art originated precisely here in the Ancient Orient under the most dire pressure imaginable. They prove that there is no direct relationship between the personal freedom of the artist and the aesthetic quality of his works. For it is a fact that every intention of an artist has to make its way through the meshes of a closely entwined net; every work of art is produced by the tension between a series of aims and a series of resistances to their achievement... Even in the most liberal democracy the artist does not move with perfect freedom and unrestraint; even there he is restricted by innumerable considerations foreign to his art.[8]

Marxists certainly desire complete freedom for art. But history has demonstrated that artists can produce outstanding work without political or creative freedom — we have no evidence of attempts by artists to épater le pharaon! In reality, a contradiction has always existed between freedom and compulsion. This is a complex question, which we shall explore another time.


Taking the norms of one’s own time as absolutes is always a mistake. Artists are located in history, and the work they create is profoundly conditioned by social and productive forces.

The early phase of civilisation was hugely inventive, prompting some of the most important innovations in history. But the pace of change in the ancient world was still far slower than our own. The ready availability of cheap labour gave little incentive to increase efficiency, and the value placed upon continuity by the hierarchies of class society put a brake on challenging new ideas. Thus it was possible for a society like ancient Egypt to produce art in the same style for three thousand years.

Nonetheless, the advance from hunting and gathering to sedentary agricultural society was one of the most profound in history and created a new relationship between artists and society. We must wait until the Renaissance before we see a comparable shift in the role of the artist.

[1] Hauser, The Social History of Art, vol. 1 (1951).
[2] Paul Johnson, Art: A New History (2003).
[3] V. Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself (1936).
[4] Marx and Engels, ‘Proletarians and Communists’, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848).
[5] Hauser, The Sociology of Art (1974).
[6] Jaromir Malek, Egyptian Art (1999).
[7] We see something of this attitude to this day in the snobbish distinction between ‘art’ and ‘crafts’, a distinction that would not have been understood by the ancients.
[8] Hauser, The Social History of Art, vol. 1 (1951).

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