The Story and Art

A culture’s worldview will influence its art in a profound way. Our narrative determines our identity and our identity drives our behavior including the form that artistic expression takes. In this essay we will contrast the worldviews and the art of sculpture in ancient Egypt and the Greek city-states. Without deepening our understanding of the connection among our story, identity and behavior we have little hope of creating a sustainable global village community.

Art and Narrative: Egypt

If we were to look at the art of two different civilizations contained in profoundly different narratives or paradigms, what would we find? In other words, what effect would these contrasting worldviews have on artistic expression?

To consciously live within a story that is founded on the heartfelt understanding that the Universe is friendly is a choice made by very few people. That it was not the paradigm that contained the people of ancient Egypt can be seen in the artistic expression within the valley of the Nile. The foundation of that ancient Egyptian narrative beginning in 3000 BC included the human yearning for immortality—the futile pursuit of an illusion driven by the identification with the human body—and the failure to grasp the principle of impermanence.

“Once in a grim distant past, it had been the custom when a powerful man died to let his servants and slaves accompany him into the grave so that he should arrive in the beyond with a suitable suite. They were sacrificed. Later, these horrors, were either too cruel or too costly, and art came to the rescue. Instead of real servants, the great ones of this earth were given images as substitutes.”[i]

In considering the world of ancient Egyptian art we must consider that what was created was not art at all because it was not intended to function as an expression of beauty which is the ultimate end of art—beauty is truth and truth is beauty. The goals of Egyptian “art” and the only goals were “clarity” and “essence.” Expressed in another way the goal was “hyper-realism,” or to include everything that the artist could see and that was deemed important in creating an exact replica of this life in the afterlife. It was hyper-realism with a religious purpose. “That is the reason why Egyptians in these pictures look so strangely flat and contorted.”[ii]  An example of this is the bas relief Portrait of Hesire (2778-2723 BC) from a wooden door in his tomb.

But the final realization which enables us to question whether these works were art in the conventional sense is that it was not intended to be seen by others. The art of ancient Egypt was painted on the walls and/or stored in secret dark chambers within vast monuments protected from human eyes. The whole purpose of all such projects was projected into the future. Hence, Egyptian artists revealed a violation of a second principle of reality added to that of impermanence; the experience of life occurs only in the eternal present moment.

Let us take as an example the Portrait head of limestone (2700 BC) found in a tomb in Gizeh. Since the goal of this work was to assure the deceased an eternal life (one Egyptian word for sculptor was actually ‘He-who-keeps-alive’), the sculptor was only concerned with the essentials. “The Egyptians held the belief that the preservation of the body was not enough. If the likeness of the king was also preserved, it was doubly sure that he would continue to exist forever. So they ordered sculptors to chisel the king’s head out of hard, imperishable granite, and put it in the tomb where no one saw it, there to work its spell and to help his soul to keep alive in and through the image.”[iii]

We can see that Egyptian art was an expression of their worldview. Today, we find much to enjoy about art, but it was not so with the art of ancient Egypt. Their unchanging context explained why their art changed so little in over 3000 years. Their story that contained them did not permit growth or evolution in their art forms and that is what begs the question of whether it was art at all. It had a much more pragmatic genesis.

Since clarity and inclusiveness was the most important goal of these images, nature became a source of instruction for these Egyptian artists. Their artists were more like craftsmen reading blueprints of unchanging forms with a purpose that had nothing to do with self-expression which is at the heart of a vital community of artists.

Nature can teach us all we need to know about reality if we become careful and patient observers. The artist who painted A Wall from the tomb of Chnemhotep near Beni Hassan (1900 BC) [iv]  [aka Khnumhotep II] illustrates that he was a careful observer of hunting and fishing on the Nile. Children’s drawings are often “literal” in a way that is similar to the paintings found in Egyptian tombs. The child will include everything in the drawing that they consider important or everything that they see. In the case of tomb paintings it was important to include everything that the deceased would “need” in the afterlife.

The content of the Egyptian narrative, which included their beliefs, attitudes and values, dictated the “style” of their art for 3000 years but  surprisingly it did not result in a rigid or boring art. The beauty shines through even though beauty was not the goal. In the creative process the expression of beauty itself is natural if the artist can allow that sensibility to sing from the heart through the hand. “The rules which govern all Egyptian art give every individual work the effect of poise and austere harmony.”[v]  The power of the paradigm, however dominant, is not absolute as we are about to see.

For 3000 years the artistic expression of Egypt was locked into the style dictated by an aversion to death and a craving for a future in the “afterlife.” A self-reliant iconoclastic king, Amenophis, who called himself Akhnaton, illustrated how a rapid change in paradigm could also influence art. “For him only one god was supreme, Aton, whom he worshipped and whom he had represented in the shape of the sun.”[vi]

He commissioned a bas relief King Amenophis IV (1370 BCE) and insisted on a true likeness thus abandoning the old style dictated by the old paradigm. This change in art did not last and after Akhnaton, artists returned to the style required by the old paradigm for another 1000 years.

Of course, we do not need to adopt practices that ensure “life after death” if we are contained in a profound narrative.  The inner wisdom that whispers the truth will tell us that we are already contained in a reality that promises eternal life in the present moment beyond time and space. The afflictive emotions, the anxiety that arises because of the fear of death, does not occur in P-A because in this context we understand that there is no death. There is only the never-ending eternal NOW in which we as human beings create our own reality.

Art and Narrative: Greece

The paradigm shift in art which has been called The Great Awakening began around the 6th century BC in the ancient Greek city-states with Athens being the most important. It was the Greeks who shifted the focus from the afterworld to the present, from the gods to human beings. At the heart of this new human narrative is self-reliance in the form of democracy. Not a democracy as inclusive as we would define it today but nevertheless a form of government without the kings of ancient Egypt. “One feels that they [e.g. the Parthenon, 450 BC] were built by human beings, and for human beings. In fact, there was no divine ruler over the Greeks who could or would have forced a whole people to slave for him.”[vii]

And, of course, these works of art were meant to be seen. The Great Awakening occurred in many other aspects of Greek culture in addition to art including science, philosophy, literature and drama.

In contrast to the old Oriental empires exemplified by Egypt in the first part of this essay, we have a revolution in consciousness in Greece. The empires of ancient Middle East were perpetually stuck in the old story that discouraged change. “[The] old Oriental empires had striven for a peculiar kind of perfection. They had tried to emulate the art of their forefathers as faithfully as possible, and to adhere strictly to sacred rules they had learned. When Greek artists began to make statues of stone, they started where the Egyptians and Assyrians left off.”[viii]   A good example is The Statue of a Youth by Polymedes of Argos (580 BCE).

A paradigm shift can rightly be called a “revolution” in consciousness if it occurs within the flow of evolution of the history of the Western world, for example, and involves a shift in beliefs, attitudes, and values. Such an historical shift happened in the city-state of Athens. “It was here, above all, that the greatest and most astonishing revolution in the whole history of art bore fruit.”[ix]

Greek sculptors began as artisans contained in the old story demanding ancient stylistic concepts and techniques and shifted to being individual artists free to express their own sensibility in the quest for beauty. The search for truth began in the context that focused on the afterlife dictating an unchanging style and shifted—rapidly in historical terms—to a story within which an artist was willing to trust his own senses in departing from an outmoded artistic tradition. Again we refer you to The Statue of a Youth.

The old paradigm had been based on knowledge of a long-established and emulated style. The new paradigm required the courage to experiment, to begin departing from the old style and was based on experience, that is, it was based on what the artist could see and feel. In the old style it was safer to create faces without smiles. “The experiments of the Greek artists sometimes misfired. The smile might look like an embarrassed grin, or the less rigid stance might give the impression of affectation.”[x]  But the courage to change resulted in greater artistic freedom. The artist “no longer thought that everything he knew to be there must be shown.”[xi]

Paradigm shifts are characterized by insights or breakthroughs. The breakthrough made by Greek painters was foreshortening. “It was a tremendous moment in the history of art when, perhaps a little before 500 BCE, artists dared for the first time in all history to paint a foot as seen from in front.”[xii]  See The Warrior’s Leavetaking by Euthymides (500 BCE).

This work also illustrated the power of the old paradigm to prevent progress. “In all the thousands of Egyptian and Assyrian works which have come down to us, nothing of that kind had ever happened.”[xiii]  At this point in time in the history of art the old Oriental-style art was dead and buried, as illustrated by the figures on Greek vase in the ‘Blackfigured Style’ with Achilles and Ajax playing dice (530 BCE).

Another courageous act accompanied the paradigm shift and that was the questioning of the old religious beliefs including the old traditions and legends about the gods. Further courage was required as they began to ask The First Great Question—they wanted to know the nature of reality. And in their art, the Greeks began to respond profoundly to that all-important question. Remember, truth is beauty and beauty is truth.

Speaking of the Greek statue of Athena in the Parthenon, author E. H. Gombrich in The Story of Art observed that: “Her power lay less in any magic spells than in her beauty.”[xiv]  The original Athena was destroyed but Roman sculptor Pheidias gave us Athena Parthenos (447 BCE).

Any truly profound paradigm will contain artists whose works will be described with such words as freedom, simplicity and/or spontaneity. In Tombstone of Hegeso (420 BCE) we see what those principles  look like in a sculpture. “The Greek relief has retained the lucidity and beauty of the arrangement which is no longer geometrical and angular but free and relaxed [and] all this combines to produce that simple harmony which only came into the world with Greek art of the fifth century.”[xv]

The words describing Greek art are also the words that characterize an awakening consciousness. Take a moment to view the Parthenon and Erechtheion as examples. “The whole impression of these buildings with their finely wrought details is one of infinite grace and ease.”[xvi]

The appeal of this incredibly beautiful art is to the heart—not to the intellect. For example, “It is the figure of a girl (A Goddess of Victory, 408 BC) stopping to fasten a loose sandal as she walks. With what charm this sudden halt is portrayed, and how softly and richly the thin drapery falls over the beautiful body.”[xvii]

Greek artists were working with a consciousness of their power which flowed from the inspiration of present-moment awareness. They were expressing a process of human awakening and they knew it. The sculptor Praxiteles  “was proud of his immense power, as well he might be.

The Great temple statues of the fourth century earned their reputation more by virtue of their beauty as works of art. People discussed pictures and statues as they discussed poems and plays; they praised their beauty or criticized their form and style.”[xviii]  One example is Hermes with young Dionysus (350 BC).  In other words, art was at the frontier of human consciousness and did as much to stimulate that awakening as it did to express it.

“The Greeks broke through the rigid taboos of early Oriental art and went out on a voyage of discovery to add more and more features from observation to the traditional images of the world.”[xix]  It took courage to explore and to extend that frontier but with beauty as the prize the Greeks gave a gift to humanity of incalculable value.

But “reality” remains elusive and we are still unconscious of where and who we are. Nevertheless, the beauty of the art of ancient Greece during this period of The Great Awakening indicated to humanity its potential to attain higher levels of awareness; it was a quickening of the heart-felt possibility of Self-realization.

The Story and Art

[i]     Gombrich, E. H.  The Story of Art. London: Phaidon Publishers Inc., 1966, page 35.

[ii]     Ibid., page 36.

[iii]    Ibid., page 34.

[iv]    Ibid., page 38.

[v]     Ibid., page 41.

[vi]    Ibid., page 42.

[vii]   Ibid., page 51.

[viii]   Ibid., page 52.

[ix]    Ibid., pages 51-52.

[x]     Ibid., page 52.

[xi]    Ibid., page 53.

[xii]   Ibid.

[xiii]   Ibid.

[xiv]   Ibid., page 57.

[xv]   Ibid., page 64.

[xvi]   Ibid., page 68.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid., page 69.

[xix]   Ibid., page 78.

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Illustrations:  Gombrich, E. H. The Story of Art. London: Phaidon Publishers Inc., 1966.

  • Portrait of Hesire (2778-2723 BC), page 37.
  • Portrait head of limestone (2700 BC), page 40.
  • A Wall from the tomb of Chnemhotep near Beni Hassan (1900 BC), page 38.
  • King Amenophis IV (1370 BCE), page 43.
  • The Statue of a Youth by Polymedes of Argos (580 BCE), page 51.
  • The Warrior’s Leavetaking by Euthymides (500 BCE), page 54.
  • Greek vase in the ‘Blackfigured Style’ with Achilles and Ajax playing dice (530 BCE), page 53.
  • Athena Parthenos (447 BCE), page 56.
  • Tombstone of Hegeso (420 BCE), page 63.
  • A Goddess of Victory (408 BC), page 68.
  • Hermes with young Dionysus by Praxiteles (350 BC), page 69.

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Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.

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