Friday, 12 February 2016

Understanding the ancient Celts and their art: conclusion

The Book Hunters, Gordon Grant, 1909 (repaired)

“An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.”

 Nicholas Murray Butler, 1862-1947

There is an old joke about a conversation between two doctors at a cocktail party:

First doctor: "I used to be an ear, nose and throat doctor but now I am a nose specialist."

Second doctor: "Really? Which nostril?

Ancient Celtic society and art was dramatically different from that of the Greeks and Romans even though there had been some artistic borrowing from the Greeks. The differences confused the Greeks and Romans of their time and as our current society has borrowed so much from the classical civilizations it can similarly confuse us when we attempt to frame questions from within our own cultural background. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the Celts were largely a non-literate society and this places them in the protohistorical category. With prehistory, we lose sight of the individual and study man more as a tool-making creature and the shift from talking about Celts to Iron-Age people delivers with it the same lack of humanity.

The age of specialization reflected by academic structures with its fashions in theories moves us even further away. Even though some rather pathetic attempts are made to have interdisciplinary conferences, most people attend only what interests them. The best scholars do take an individual approach and draw information from whatever sources they believe might benefit their research and because of the scant amount of reliable information on the ancient Celts, such people are frequently drawn to this subject as it presents the sort of  intellectual challenge needed by those with a passion. Martyn Jope was such a person, and was noted for having no interest in academic power-building.

One of the most ignored subjects in studies of the material past is psychology, and with it goes both art and mythology. Since Jung, psychology, art and mythology have been closely associated, but sometimes those subjects can be weakened by too little attention to the material past and there is something of a divide between the extraverted material and the introverted psychic (or Logos and Mythos). Fortunately, that divide is not impenetrable and the greatest discoveries are always made through collaborations between the two. This hold true in all subjects.

We have all heard that by not studying history we are are in danger of repeating it, but the same can be said about psychology: by not examining the unconscious we are in danger of projecting it.  One of the latest fashions in writing about the Celts (especially when they are referred to as "Iron Age") has been "identity and power". The phrase did not originate in Celtic studies, but it has been greatly proliferated by such.
The Google Books n-gram above might be somewhat misleading: the phrase "identity and power" before about 1997 was mainly used to refer to personal identity and power (sometimes referring to a deity). Toward the latter part of the range there was an increasing usage where it referred to contemporary minority groups, and close to the end it was expanded more along nationalistic lines. In any case, the number of occurrences in any year prior to 1997 was very small. I see in this, a movement of interest away from the individual toward more collective social groupings. This might (and probably should) alarm many people.

As a term with which to describe La Tène art, it is not only useless but it does not serve to properly describe any modern art-movement at all. While people might display the latest art to "keep up with the Jones's" or impress others with their wealth, none of these factors ever were the cause of the art movement, itself. We saw a movement away from the academy toward human emotion and away from absolute power to greater democracy with the Romantic Rebellion. While, today, we might be tempted to focus on the power issues because of the current psychological shift, the real impetus was a shift in the world view. These things go in cycles: Greek classical art was replaced by Hellenistic art and became less idealized and more humanized. In this series, I have strived to find meanings in the art and shown how ideas developed and proliferated through syncretism. Expanded contacts can revitalize old ideas.

graphic by TeeKay
We should also take a more critical look at academic fashions, and this is where the psychological part comes in. As "identity and power" answer nothing about human agency in the creation of a new art movement, they are thus "weasel words". Wolfgang Pauli might have said "it's not right, it's not even wrong": it has nothing at all to do with the questions we seek.  However, if we think about academic power building, then the phrase "identity and power" can be seen as a psychological projection: it isolates such an academic as a member of an elite, and it furthers his or her career by jumping onto a band-wagon. Thus the exceedingly steep rise on the n-gram makes more sense. Of course, another fashion will follow and the use of "identity and power" will go the way of fins on cars or macramé pot-holders. Only honesty and passion has any lasting power.

Have a multi-disciplinary weekend.

John's Coydog Community page


  1. I am not sure what any of this has to do with my lecture. I am not an Art Historian and make no pretensions of being one. This is the Historiography of Celtic Studies, how names came to be assigned to various phenomena, and how this has then affected our research, understanding and interpretations of the ancient world. It has led to a completely new interpretation of the Ancient Celts which makes most of the standard published histories of the Celts redundant, including definitions of the Celts. As such, I would claim it has been well worth doing even if some people have difficulty seeing their cherished ideas undermined and destroyed.

    1. I thought I has made that clear when I mentioned it as a point of departure, in the introduction:

      Apologies if I have not being clear enough. All the same, I do wonder why Martyn Jope was not mentioned, especially with regard to his talk of the lack of examplars of imports (ECA in the British Isles), p.1: "The initiating stimuli for this rise evidently came from Europe, yet at the crucial time, the fouth-third centuries B.C., we can point to practically no imported pieces that might have served as potential exemplars; the new ideas and skills must have come largely in the minds and hands of men with a considerable experience in distant ateliers."