Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Beyond the "Fringe Archaeology" — part fourteen: the unknown muse

Odoardo Borrani, A visit to the studio, (1885-1890)
One of the problems that archaeology has with the subject of art is the perception that today's art has more to do with the expression of the artist than with the depiction of any reality. This is just a higher level misunderstanding of the sort whereby many people will condemn modern art with such statements as, "It's not a painting of anything", or, "My kid could do that!" I am fairly confident in saying that artists have been trying to express themselves since man first started to draw on cave walls. All that has changed over the centuries is the subject of the work. By that, I do not mean what is depicted, but what is represented by that which is depicted.

If we subscribe to the concept that early man painted the animals of the hunt on cave walls with the idea of that action having a positive effect on the hunt, itself, then the artist's subject is the creation of a future reality. He or she will assign the universe (as it is understood) to the role of muse. If the artist gets it right, then the universe will accommodate the wishes of the artist. Within this model, the depiction of animals taken could be propitiatory: what is taken is replaced with its image, or it could be magical and the hunt is played out on the wall before the real hunt takes place in the same way. Other explanations might also be offered. What is important to the artist is getting it right according to the tenets of the art which is being followed.

Thousands of years later, a painter in Florence is concerned about a portrait commission: the client is affluent and the artist is interested in future patronage. Not only will the artist be concerned about the quality of the work, he will also want to reflect the client's self-image and his desired public image. What appears in the painting might also represent the client's relationship to the church and the state. The painter will think about the symbolism to be used and will work out the composition through a number of preparatory sketches and painted studies before the final product is produced. He might also assign some of the work to his apprentices (depending on the status of the client and the size of the task).

Today, an artist has just graduated from an art college and while having dreams of greatness, is just hoping to survive. He or she might be thinking about finding a gallery to show their work (with the hope of a show at some point). Perhaps the artist is thinking of finding an agent, or just setting up an easel somewhere public to sell directly to the public. the ultimate idea might be to move to an important art centre like New York and become accepted by the "in-group". The artist (and any potential agent) will be concerned about the artist's "personal vocabulary", and whether there is too obvious an influence in the work.

All three of these scenarios, from prehistoric to modern, create the same situation in the mind of the artist: greater care is exercised where it is most needed and that care will reflect its causes to a modern observer who will need to know nothing of the underlying philosophy in order to detect it. Certain things will often be repeated and other things will be avoided. Once we have built up a list of what is done or not done, and where the greatest care was exercised, then the reasons for these decisions might present themselves more easily, if only as a general category with little exact detail.

In ancient Greece, the idea of the muse was categorized and personified and each age has expressed the muse in different ways. The modern male poet might find a real muse: a woman who expresses his own anima and besides inspiration, might also encounter the sort of difficulties encountered by all who have difficulties in separating fantasy from reality.

No matter where we look on the Mythos/Logos scale of societies, the artist and the muse are present and the inspiration from the latter leads to the methods and motives of the former. If we look at what attention was being given to what, and what level of attention was deemed necessary, then at least a certain amount of correct interpretation could follow if the supply of evidence is adequate.

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