Throughout history art has consistently reflected the cultural values and social structures of individual civilizations. Ancient art serves as a useful tool to help historians decipher some important aspects of ancient culture. From art we can determine the basic moral and philosophical beliefs of many ancient societies. The differences in arts purpose in Greece and Rome, for example, show us the fundamental differences in each culture’s political and moral system.
The primary objective of Greek art was to explore the order of nature and to convey philosophical thought, while Roman art was used primarily as a medium to project the authority and importance of the current ruler and the greatness of his empire. This change in the meaning of art from Greek to Roman times shows the gradual decline in the importance of intellectualism in ancient western culture. The earliest example of how art reflects the basic moral and philosophical belief systems in individual cultures is seen in the Ancient Egyptian empire.Order now
The art of this time was highly idealized and mainly focused on displaying the divinity and importance of the Pharaoh. The most famous examples of this Theocratic influence on art are the Great Sphinx and the Pyramids of Chefren. The massive size and artistic perfection of these works, which were mainly dedicated to expressing the divinity of the Pharaoh, show that Egyptian society was based primarily on mythological law. The highly idealized, mythological style of Egyptian art suggests that Egyptian culture as a whole was not concerned with scientific and mathematical truths.
Arts reflection of culture and society extends to the Greek and Roman empires, and shows the importance of intellectualism within each culture. It is apparent that from the beginnings of Greek art, meticulous order and precision were held on a high plateau. The Protogeometric and Geometric periods are good examples of such advanced thinking. The beginnings of the Protogeometric period display a distinct interest in mathematical order. During this period, artists decorated vases with circles and symmetrical patterns.
As the dominant style changed from Protogeometric to Geometric, this order and precision was amplified. The popular “circle and semicircle patterns were replaced by linear designs, zigzags, triangles, diamonds, and meanders” Cunningham and Reich, 40. The increased interest in order seems to have been a reflection of the Greek fascination with nature, and man’s relationship to nature. This interest in the order of nature eventually evolved into a fascination with the human form and the idea of human perfection.
The way in which the perfect human form was portrayed by Greek artists was of a highly intellectual nature. The early sculptors of the period explored basic human anatomy and its aesthetic value, creating such sculptures as the Kritios Boy, of the Acropolis. The precision and realism of this sculpture captured a more accurate portrayal of the human form than ever before seen. This accomplishment in itself showed strong advancements in intellectual thought, and inspired future generations to further explore aesthetic and order.
Artist such as Polyclitius later envisioned human perfection as a series of mathematical proportions. The Doryphoros, a sculpture done by Polycleatus himself, serves as an excellent example of how art reflects philosophical thought. This sculpture was constructed using a strict mathematical formula that was believed to represent the perfect male body. Cunningham and Reich, 87 Greek philosophers such as Aristotle further explored the value and importance of visual perfection and its effect on human consciousness.
This exploration was later developed into a branch of philosophy known as Aesthetics. Aesthetics studied the nature and expression of beauty through art as well as the psychological responses to that beauty. Aesthetics arguably represented the highest intellectual point in Greek art and continued to influence philosophers and artists throughout the Hellenistic period. The fact that Greek civilization reached a point at which its art reflected some of the most refined thought ever recorded in the ancient world shows the importance of intellectualism in this great culture.
In contrast, Roman art was used as propaganda that displayed the authority and greatness of Rome’s current ruler; this in no way reflected evolution of thought. The Romans borrowed creative artistic ideas from the cultures that they conquered and used them to convey powerful and mythological imagery. This is first seen in the early Roman republic. Artworks such as The Bust of Cicero, modified from such Etruscan works as The Head of the Old Couple on the Volterra sarcophagus, served as a vessel with which artists could project the desired political appearance of politicians and statesmen could project .
Artists began to use detailed craftsmanship with which they could portray human emotion and in turn use physical appearance to make a statement about politicians’ character. Cunningham and Reich, 144 Needless to say, popular art of the time was commissioned mostly by politicians and statesmen who wished to better their standing with the people they ruled. Art was no longer used to convey philosophical thought or to explore the delicate balance of nature.
By the time of Augustus Caesar and the beginnings of Imperial Rome, the empire had spread as far east as Greece and as far south as Egypt. Only a short time after the Romans entered the Hellenistic era did they begin to recognize the greatness of precision of Greek art. The Romans were quick to adopt the most prevalent characteristics of this art and incorporate it into their own. Roman artists began to use the Greek ideas of detailed anatomy and mathematical proportions to depict the bodies of their rulers.
This, in combination with use of mythological figures to show the divinity of the Caesar, brought Roman propagandistic art to a new level. The Augustus of Prima Porta is an excellent example of such Greek influences. The body of this sculpture is based on that of a Greek God figure such as the Hermes, by Praxtiteles. The artist who was responsible for the carving of the Augustus highly modifies the so-called perfect form in order to convey certain symbols of power.
The most notable difference between this work and the original Greek works is that the subject is clothed with extravagant armor and drapery. The decorative breastplate worn by Augustus in this portrait is a symbol of empirical conquest, specifically, the defeat of the Parthians. The unusual magnitude of his arms is a symbol of the supreme authority he held over his empire. At his feet, a small sculpture of Cupid was carved in an attempt to show Augustus’s divine lineage Cunningham and Reich, 150.
Every aspect of this portrait is highly idealized and centered around the greatness and divinity of Augustus. Because little attempt was made to capture the actual physical appearance of the Emperor, this sculpture can not be considered a portrait but more accurately, a profile of greatness. Such works display the political domination and lack of originality in Roman art. The simplification of art during this period reflects an overall simplification of thought and decline in the importance of intellectualism in western culture.