“Self-satisfied incompetence on the part of the artist, complacent indifference if not enthusiastic approval on the part of the public, characterizes an ebbing civilization, leaving little but wreckage and refuse interspersed among the proud ruins of once noble cities. The surviving denizens salute every destruction, every distortion, every successful attempt to lower what is left of the past splendour to their own level of debased and crippled intelligence.’’Bernard Berenson,
Aesthetics and History (1948)Art is reliant on the civilisation that produces it. So what becomes of art when a civilisation is under threat?Civilizations throughout history expand their territory and increase their wealth, but overtime they find that they may not be able to sustain themselves indefinitely.When a crisis point is reached and a society undergoes collapse, what effect does this have on the art that it produces?Such questions have been asked before by early 20th century art historians in the West. Many of whom were convinced that they were living through such a period. Writers like Bernard Berenson saw what he called the ‘aesthetic confusion’ of modern art and judged it to signal a decline in the artistic standards of western civilisation. Today in retrospect, the aestheticians of the mid 20th century are viewed as staunch traditionalists. Such conservatism is considered misplaced and instead this transition is assumed to be a natural progression of a developed society. But what is the truth? It is obvious that technique is less important in the artistic institutions of today. The technologies available to us, change our relationship to artworks entirely, Is this a sign of progress, or lack of it? And what can history teach us, about this process?The genesis of this thesis comes from a quote by feminist scholar Camille Paglia, while at the Battle of Ideas festival in the UK in November 2016. A member of the audience asked Paglia about her opinion on the current transgender question that western societies were so enthralled with. This was her response:
‘Historically, the move to Androgyny occurs in late phases of culture, as a civilisation is starting to unravel, you find it again and again and again in history in.. Greek art. All of a sudden the sculptures of handsome, nude, young, men, athletes, that used to be very robust in the archaic period… suddenly begin to seem like wet noodles, toward the end. And the people who live in such periods towards the end of such culture. . . . feel that, they’re very sophisticated, they’re very cosmopolitan. Homosexuality, heterosexuality, so what? Anything goes and so on. But from the perspective of historical distance you can see that it’s a culture that no longer believes in itself.’
Paglia gives a few examples like Ancient Greece, the 1890s and Weimar Germany, but does her thesis hold up to scrutiny on a broader scale? If the claim is that art becomes more frivolous and less self confident, as a civilisation deteriorates, how does this apply to the majority of civilisations?In the earliest ancient societies, there are often only a few examples of surviving artworks and it’s therefore difficult to draw any conclusions about the timespan of these societies. Henri Frankfort notes in his study of ancient mesopotamia, that the late Uruk period of the Sumerians, sees a considerable economic expansion and then a decline in the quality of art. He suggests that the cause was the demand of artists started to outstrip the supply. After a civilisation is conquered the artwork produced predictably almost always declines in quality, due to either a lack of skills or finance.
However this is not always the case, it may be that more advanced civilisations expand and introduce more advanced techniques to the territories they conquer. This occurred after the conquests of Alexander the Great, who introduced Hellenistic sculpture as far away as Persia and India. A similar event was the conquest of Iran by the Timurid Mongols in the 13th Century, who introduced Chinese-style figurative painting to the region.In antiquity it is certainly true,as Paglia says that Ancient Greek sculpture transitioned from being stoic and monumental to becoming increasingly extravagant in the Hellenistic period. Art Historian R.R.R. Smith, writing about Hellenistic sculpture, describes this period as a ‘baroque phase’ in Greek Art, where sculptures were given more intensive expression. This occurred as the Greek Empire expanded and its people began to absorb more of the surrounding culture.
After the Greeks start to lose territory to the Romans in the second century BC, the more simplified and practical Neo-Attic style replaces its forbearer.Even more revealing is the example of the development of art under ancient Rome. The Romans inherited many of their artistic motifs and techniques from the Greeks. One can observe a revival in naturalistic sculpture that takes place after 146 BC, where after the Battle of Corinth, many Greek sculptors flee to Rome to find employment. In the early Roman Republic, sculptors were commissioned to sculpt the faces of aristocrats in what was known as the ‘Veristic Style’, a hyper-realistic depiction, meant to reveal the likeness of a person to their ancestors. Later on in the Roman Republic, Author Pliny the Elder complained about how Roman art had fallen into decadence and lost its ability to depict naturalistic subjects:"The painting of portraits which used to transmit through the ages the accurate likenesses of people, has entirely gone out ... Indolence has destroyed the arts."The curious thing is that, after a long series of military conquests, the Roman Empire lost significant amounts of territory in the crisis of the third century. A catastrophe brought about by plague, natural disaster and military invasion. During the crisis, Donald Strong, writes that Roman art goes through a ‘Baroque phase’, just like the ancient Greeks. And by the third century, Roman art loses all ability to depict subjects in a natural manner. Sculpture becomes more simplified and abstract.
This is best viewed in the relief sculpture of the Arch of Constantine which shows a combination of the two styles, side by side. This ‘Baroque phase’ noted by both Smith and Strong, is an important part of what happens to art in a time of crisis. There are other examples where this phenomenon can be observed outside the canon of western art. For example, in Qing Dynasty China (1644-1911), the manchu courts enforced a strict code of rules for painters to follow. During the reign of the Qianlong Emperor the Manchu state was at its greatest extent and court painting upheld the most dominant style.During the late 18th and 19th centuries however, the Qing Dynasty’s power started to waver and the established court painters had to compete with other styles that emerged, such as the Anhui Individualist school and the Ming Loyalist painters in Nanjing. Similarly, after the defeat of Turkey in the first world war, a crisis emerged where the Ottoman state had to redefine itself. Differing schools of thoughts emerged over what the arts should be. The main competition was between the ‘1914 generation’ who were trained in formal academic art, ‘the mustakillers’ who were influenced by the new expressionist movements in Europe, and ‘The D Group’ who sought a compromise between the two.
From these examples, it seems that a ‘Baroque phase’ emerges when there is a weakening of control by the authorities over the population. Therefore the dominant ideology that informs the arts is compromised and becomes split between varying factions. It is worth noting that the canonised ‘Baroque’ period in western art occurred as a result of the protestant reformation, one of the most politically tumultuous events in European history. Impressionist Camille Pissaro suggested in the 19th century that the very emergence of modern art, with the French impressionists was a result of democratisation that occurred in modern societies. This political representation allowed other artistic ideologies to manifest themselves without challenging state authority. However what Paglia is talking about is different to this. She is describing a ‘frivolity’ that takes over a civilisation when a certain amount of material prosperity is reached.This occurs when the ruling elites of a society become wealthy and form an aristocracy that becomes out of touch with a majority of its populace. This may be an accurate description of the transformation of Greek art under the Hellenistic period and the general decline of Roman sculpture that Pliny complained about under economic expansion. The Rococo period, a word that itself means decorative or ornamental, found its main patronage in the courts of Louis XVI, and often depicted serene youths and gentile landscapes.
The art style is indicative of a wealthy and disconnected aristocracy that was soon to be overthrown in a revolution. Even the art of the Aztec Empire in pre-columbian Mexico, was described by Paul Westheim in the early 1900s as being ‘the art of soldiers’, deriving from a militaristic and god-fearing society. However, when the Empire reached its greatest extent under Moctezuma II, Westheim claims that Aztec art adopted a decorative style that was ‘frivolous’. Yet another example of how material wealth changes civilisational values that are reflected in its art. When it comes to a society’s artwork as shown previously, a crisis period often produces a weakening of state power and a group of competing ideologies.But the other thing that is indicative of a dysfunctional society is a growing gap between the priorities of the rich and the poor.
This is what Camille Paglia was discussing when she talked about the ‘move towards androgyny’, and this is what many other historians have identified as being a ‘frivolous style’ that takes over a wealthy society when they achieve prosperity.When we think of the art of our own time I think it’s easy to identify at least one of these two symptoms that often afflict developed civilisations. We may not be going through a period of crisis just yet, but the priorities that concern the more artistically minded population, are certainly not shared by all.
Early Uruk period sculpture: The Guennol Lioness, Limestone Bull,3rd millennium Greco-Buddhist art example:
The Bodhisattva Maitreya, The Buddhist Gods Pancika and Hariti,
2nd CenturyIslamic miniature with Chinese influence: Folio from the Shahnama (1530), Miraj of the prophet (1539)
Veristic style example: Portrait bust of a man (60 BC), Bust of Vespasian (75 BC)
The Arch of Constantine:
The Anhui School example: Hong Ren, Landscape with Pagoda (1651)
Ming Loyalist example: Gong Xian, Landscape of the Twelve Months
The 1914 Generation example: Osman Hamdi Bey,
The Mustakillers example: Cevat Hamit, Nurullah Berk
Rococo Style example: Pilgrimage Church
Aztec Art: The Coatlicue, Jar with Ritual Scene (1400)
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