Monday, 25 November 2013

Rethinking? -- part six

But is it art?
A collection of old estate agents for sale signs at
Venn Farm near Chideock, Dorset.
Photo: Nigel Mykura

The photo on the left poses the question, but also answers it. It is an example of photographic found art. Without any intention from whoever piled the signs, the word "art" (the letters of which are the end of the estate agent's name) is visible at a certain angle and the photographer has captured that experience. He has employed the knowledge of using his tools (the camera), and has made a decision about the composition of the photograph. His title for the piece imbues it with significance.

The last section of Introduction: re-integrating 'Celtic' art in Rethinking Celtic Art, neglects everything about the thought processes of the ancient Celtic artists, and instead, concentrates on how their work was received. Don't get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong about asking questions about how the art was received. I ask such questions myself. But if such questions are not framed within the intentions of the artists; the tenets and cultural contexts of the art; and the skills of the artist exhibited in the work, then the result is in danger of being nothing more than academic navel-gazing. It can often generate the wrong answers because of its inability to see the larger picture. Back in the seventies, I was having coffee with some friends and in the course of a discussion, my date asked one of my friends, "Do you drink?" Now just about anyone would take that question to mean "Do you drink alcohol", but not so my friend, and he went into a long tirade about how everyone must consume fluids in order to stay alive. Her expression of disapproval required no words, and the cup in front of my friend rendered his statement moot.

The authors start by discussing the existence of the classification systems of Jacobsthal, Jope, the Megaws, and Ian Stead and then state that all of these "still survives in vestigial form in later schemes". I'm not sure what schemes are meant here, but without some sort of attempt to classify, the results will certainly be subjective to a very great degree. They attempt to exempt Fox merely on his statement that Celtic art is decorative and not "Fine Art", but Fox classifies as well, and all of the other authors would have no problems at all with his statement about that aspect of Celtic art. One infers that they think that these anonymous recent schemes are superior, in some way, and that they have attached themselves to them.

They go on to say:
"The Megaws, more courageous than most, go for 'beyond function'... . This implies a rather functionalist definition of function, containing the view that a swirling, vegetal decoration running down the blade of a sword does not give that sword a more effective cutting edge or make it easier to heft and wield. This might be our commonsense view of the matter, but does not necessarily accord with late prehistoric notions of efficacy or cause and effect. For people in the Iron Age, although we cannot know this, decoration might have been specifically functional. ... In making such a move we are following recent trends within anthropology  which focus not on what objects mean, but on what they do in shaping relationships between people... We see such a move as a positive shift away from an emphasis on meaning, which is in any case hard to know, to a stress of effect."
I am reminded of my friend in the coffee shop. It strikes me, that as they say that meaning is either difficult or impossible, that it should be replaced with social impact. However, if you do not understand the meanings of the designs, any ideas about their social impact can only be introspective and thus navel-gazing. After more of the same, they refer to the different styles in the classification systems and say that they "seem to accumulate, rather than simply replace each other."  When I noticed such interweaving in stylistic features in Coriosolite coins, it was a "eureka moment" for me, and I was able to go beyond subjective classification to the mechanics of their evolution. The authors only saw a reason to be dismissive. Years ago (1996), I constructed the following flow chart:

 In addition to this interweaving of elements within a single motif I had, much earlier than that (1985), realized that the changes in each of the motifs overlapped motif to motif, and this was my "Rosetta Stone" with which I could fine tune the chronology. But it did more than that, and I was able to discern the existence of three different mints for the first time. It was the earliest use of cladistics in archaeology. I eventually wrote up my method so that others could use it. One archaeologist thought that he might be able to adapt it to some problematical examples of Pre-Columbian art.

At the end of my article, I wrote:
As each die engraver is different, I cannot tell you how to interpret any flow chart for its artistic content, that is something that will have to be newly discovered for each series. Celtic die engravers had special training, and a set of aesthetic rules that were tied into their religious beliefs so thoroughly, that it is often impossible to separate the two, but the most neglected fact in Celtic numismatics is that the dies were cut by real people, like you and me, and that each of these people had their own personalities, weaknesses and strengths

What is completely neglected in  Introduction: re-integrating 'Celtic' art , and in more than one other chapter of the book, is that real people made these things, and their study is not just how things were received, or objects reflecting fashions and communicating with each other as if they were actually alive and had volition. This error was to their peril, and I will illustrate that, tomorrow, with examples.

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