Monday, 1 April 2013

De Ste Croix on Greek art

The two passages below, selected for their relevance to the topic of ancient Greek art, are reproduced from The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World by G.E.M. de Ste. Croix (1981). This mighty work of Marxist scholarship is one of the best books on the ancient world.

On the class nature of Greek art:
The most important single dividing line which we can draw between different groups of free men in the Greek world is, in my opinion, that which separated off from the common herd those I am calling ‘the propertied class’, who could ‘live of their own’ without having to spend more than a fraction of their time working for their living. …

Although small peasants and other free men such as artisans and shopkeepers, working on their own account, without much property of their own, must always have formed a substantial proportion of the free population of the Greek world, and indeed were probably a majority of the whole population until about the end of the third century of the Christian era, they would normally have to spend most of their time working for their livelihood, with their families, at somewhere near the subsistence level, and would not be able to live securely and at leisure, as members of the upper class… By and large, a comfortable, leisured existence could be secured only by the possession of property (primarily in land…) which alone gave the upper classes that command over the labour of others which made it possible for them to live the good life, as the Greeks saw it, a life not constrained by the inescapable necessity of working for one’s living, a life which could be devoted to the pursuits considered proper for a gentleman: politics or generalship, intellectual or artistic pursuits, hunting or athletics…

These men, liberated from toil, are the people who produced virtually all Greek art and literature and science and philosophy, and provided a good proportion of the armies which won remarkable victories by land over the Persian invaders at Marathon in 490 and at Plataea in 479 BC. In a very real sense most of them were parasitic upon other men, their slaves above all; most of them were not supporters of the democracy which ancient Greece invented and which was its great contribution to political progress, although they did supply almost all its leaders... But what we know as Greek civilisation expressed itself in and through them above all, and it is they who will normally occupy the centre of our picture.

In this next passage De Ste Croix comments on the status of the artist later, in the Roman period, and the distinction that had begun to be drawn between amateur and professional art production:
There is a much-quoted passage in Plutarch’s Life of Pericles (2.1-2) which some people today may find astonishing: in Plutarch’s eyes no young gentleman, just because he had seen the Zeus of Pheidias at Olympia or the Hera of Polycleitus at Argos (two of the most admired ancient statues) could possibly want to be Pheidias or Polycleitus. Such statements in the mouth of a ‘real Roman’ might not seem so surprising, it will be said; but was not L. Mestrius Plutarchus, the Roman citizen (albeit a newly-made, first-generation one), also very much a Greek? The answer is that in the Roman period the Greek as well as the Roman propertied classes felt a greater gulf between themselves and all those (including technitai, and therefore ‘artists’) who engaged in ‘banausic’ occupations than had the leading Greeks of the Classical period, at least in Athens and some other democracies. Had Pheidias and Polycleitus sculpted purely as amateurs, had they enjoyed large private incomes and received no payment for their artistic work, Plutarch and his like would have found nothing contemptible about them. It was the fact that they could be considered to have earned their living by actually working with their own hands that made them no fit model for the young Graeco-Roman gentleman. Plutarch says elsewhere that the Athenian painter Polygnotus showed he was no mere technites by decorating the Stoa Poikile at Athens gratis (Cimon 4.7).

Since in a class society many of the values of the governing class are often accepted far down the social scale, we must expect to find disparagement of craftsmen, and therefore even of artists, existing in the ancient world not only among the propertied Few. In particular, anyone who aspired to enter the propertied class would tend to accept its scale of values ever more completely as he progressed towards joining it. Yet it would be absurd to suggest that the lower classes as a whole dutifully accepted the social snobbery and contempt for the ‘banausic’ that prevailed among the well-to-do. Many Greeks (and western Romans) who might be called ‘mere artisans’ by superior people even today were evidently very proud of their skills and felt that they had acquired dignity by the exercise of them: they referred to them with pride in their dedications and their epitaphs, and they often chose to be pictured on their tombstones in the practice of their craft or trade, humble as it might be in the eyes of their ‘betters’. To say that ‘the ancient Greeks’ despised craftsmen is one of those deeply misleading statements which show blindness to the existence of all but the propertied Few.

Readers interested in De Ste Croix can find David Harvey’s Guardian obituary article at:

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