Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Beyond the "Fringe Archaeology" — part ten: the art problem

Hans Canon, Afrikanische Jury-Sitzung, 1870
In the painting to the right, are the monkeys judging the painting or the monkey depicted in the painting? I sometimes have the same problem when I see some archaeologists looking at art. In looking at a couple of the studies of the Gundestrup Cauldron, I noticed that some of the artistic elements were compared with similar subjects and styles on various other antiquities. Each motif on the cauldron was treated in isolation and there was no attempt to glean any meaning from the context of the motifs. What was especially strange was that both of the studies were by archaeologists.

For an occupation where context is dogma, missing the context of elements within a composition would seem to me to be grounds for excommunication. It's not as if it was all very difficult: every panel has a background ivy scroll, and this is iconic of a Dionysian theme. Perhaps there was just no attempt to discover meaning. If someone had asked "Why would there be elephants, a man riding a dolphin, and Herakles wrestling the Nemean Lion on the same vessel?" or "What is the common connection between these motifs?" the meaning should not elude anyone with a smattering of knowledge about Greek history: the man riding the dolphin is the badge of the city of Taras in Italy, and Herakles wrestling the Nemean Lion was depicted on many of the coins of Herakleia in Italy. Both cities were defended by Pyrrhos, who had brought war-elephants and Celtic troops. The famous term "Pyrrhic Victory" refers to the battle for the latter city which was won by Pyrrhos but at a terrible cost to life (both human and pachyderm). No wonder that the hand gestures of the female depicted between the elephants (and also with the Herakles figure) is one of grief where most of the other accompanying figures on the cauldron have their arms raised in devotion (Orans position).  Really, this is not rocket science. The clues might even be considered too easy for the Times crossword puzzle. I won't even go into the Italian style hippocampus and situla (called a vat by the archaeologists).

The dominant extravert can have a hard time with the very concept of art, and extraverts are drawn to archaeology as it caters to their materialistic philosophy. Some of them even deny that ancient art is really art and put scare quotes around the very word. Some of them appear to have some confusions over the differences between art history, iconography and art criticism, thinking that anything said about art is entirely subjective.

Archaeology really needs more introverts.

No comments:

Post a Comment