animal life, political power, and “the spiritual in art” (Dawn of Egyptian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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I don’t like Egyptian art. Or at least I thought I didn’t. I still don’t like the dynastic art with which most of us are most familiar. But the show of pre-dynastic and early dynastic stuff at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an eye-opener. It’s really old (4400-2600 BCE).

Instead of the flat, two dimensional works depicting figures in profile, these are almost all three dimensional objects.  Forget the two dimensional representation which is so easy to characterize as stiff and lifeless (as did most German aesthetic writers in the 18th century like Winckelmann and Mendelssohn), and which is so easy to caricature (as in the famous picture in the New Yorker and as by Steve Martin). These are solid physical objects with great physical mass and sensual expression.

The human figures belong to a fertile art-world full of animal life and enmeshed in the struggle for power and sex. Lions, jackals, crocodiles, hippos, antelope, turtles, snakes. Look for the ball like mace heads, used to smash in the face of captured enemies after battle. Human faces and figures are either realistic or “abbreviated.” They are taut and animate.

Primitivism as a style still works. These figures would find themselves very happy places in contemporary art galleries, toy stores, jewelry boutiques, and knock off tschatkes.

In a less commercial, more high minded register, I cited Kandinsky on the tension between time and timelessness this way in Shape of Revelation:

Kandinsky understood the uneasy co-existence between history and eternity, caprice and necessity, the subjective and the objective. He also understood the mechanism by which the one gradually gives way to the other. In On the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky identified three moments in art’s temporal dynamic of art. The first two are the most obvious. They are the individual artist and the age in which he or she creates. These are subjective factors that are time-bound in nature. The so-named “principle of internal necessity” constitutes a third, non-subjective element that drives art beyond these contingent origins. It is that principle by which an ancient Egyptian sculpture might move us today much more than it may have moved its contemporaries. Subjective factors of personality and time at work at the time of origin mute the work. “For this reason, centuries must sometimes elapse before the sound of the [artwork] can reach the soul of men.” Although external, subjective factors go into the act of creating art, the “inner sound,” not that of the artist, but of the work’s internal constitution, grows more “pure” as the truly artistic element frees itself from temporal limit. (pp.149-50)

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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