Friday, 1 March 2013

The origins of ancient Greek art

In ancient Greece, an art developed that was later to be seen as a seminal cultural achievement, above all by Western civilisation. When Marx wrote that the ancient Greek arts “are in certain respects regarded as a standard and unattainable ideal” [1], he was endorsing a consensus that has only recently begun to be reassessed. It was summed up by Percy Shelley when he wrote:

We are all Greeks. Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their root in Greece. But for Greece... we might still have been savages and idolaters. [2]

The Apollo Belvedere. For hundreds of years this statue was regarded by European culture as one of the greatest achievements of ancient Greek art. Today it is believed to be a Roman copy of a lost bronze original. Photo: Wknight94.

It is unhelpful to repeat art history clichés about ‘the genius of the Greeks’. Is the Greeks’ reputation justified? Are they really the founders of Western culture? Does their art have something that the art of their contemporaries doesn’t? To find answers we have to look for the concrete historical developments that can explain why particular peoples, at a particular time, achieve particular things.

The next few posts will attempt answers to those questions. I will tend to concentrate upon Athens, not because other Greek cities made no contribution, but because we have far more data for Athens, and because it was the epicentre of the ancient Greek world.

Readers may want to begin by revisiting my previous posts around the topic of ancient Greece:
The rise of ancient Greece
Marx and the Greek classics
The Iliad
Is this Sparta?

[2] Percy Shelley, Preface to ‘Hellas’ (1822).

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