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LESSON: Classical Art

Attached Files:

The Classical Era and Style 600 BCE – 500 CE

The term ‘Classic’ comes from the Latin word classicus which was the term that identified those members of society that belonged to the highest of the five classes of Roman Citizens. In the study of art, the term also refers to a literary work of ancient Greece or Rome. In contemporary common usage, the term generally refers to a work of enduring excellence, one of the best examples of a genre or type.

For example, when someone says “That’s a classic Popeye cartoon” they do not mean that it was created in the era of Classical Greece or Rome, or even that it reflects the dominant styles of art of those periods. They merely mean that it is an example of a type of art – i.e., Popeye cartoons-which is representative of the best of that cartoon series. As students of art, however, we will move away from the contemporary use of this term and use it in a more meaningful and academic way.

Classicism, in the field of Artistic Studies (and in other academic fields) refers to the principles, historical tradition, aesthetic attitudes, or style of the art works of Greece and Rome in antiquity. In the context of the tradition, classicism either refers to the work produced in antiquity or to later works inspired by those of antiquity. That is to say, a work produced in Classical Greece or Rome can be called ‘Classical’ due to the time period in which it was produced, OR it can be called ‘Classical’ because it reflects the elements of a style that represents the cultural and artistic beliefs and values of that time. This second ‘stylistic’ definition means that someone can produce a work of art today that is ‘Classical’ in style if the art work’s elements reflect the values and styles of works of art produced during the Classical period.

Closely related to Classicism, the term ‘Neoclassicism’ always refers to works of art produced later but inspired by antiquity. The first major revival of classicism occurred during the period known as the “Renaissance.” Incidentally, the Medieval Era, also known as the ‘’Middle Ages,’’ was the era that is found on the time line after the Classical Era and before the Renaissance–that is to say–BETWEEN (or in the ‘middle’ of) two ‘classical’ eras. In essence, we see in later eras an adaptation, continuation, or rejection (or some combination of these) of the values, beliefs, or other cultural phenomenon of an earlier era or eras. The resultant effects on artistic elements of this adaptation, continuation, or rejection is discernible.

You might be wondering at this point what it is about certain works of art, or their elements, that makes them ‘Classical’ in style. Classical works adhere to a set of characteristics of Classicism (or elements that are valued in Classical cultures), such as:

  • Formal elegance and correctness: In the Classical era society believed that there was a right way and a wrong way to do anything–including Art. Art must follow formal rules and principles, and be elegant and pleasing, or teach a lesson that promotes good ‘classical’ values and a good life. Artists were not encouraged to ‘do their own thing’ but to stick to the correct methods, values, and ideas in an elegant manner.
  • Logic/ Reason/Rationality: Aristotle has been said to have invented Logic. This may or may not be true, but certainly Classical society adhered to the belief that life and art should be ruled by Logic, Reason, and Rationality. Again, this would lead to the best life, and the best art. So, in a painting, one should show rational and reasonable activities that are natural and not fantastical. If the Classicists had made TV programs, they would prefer shows like Law and Order that show rational thought and reasonable people solving human problems. Shows about Vampires would not have been considered ‘good’ or ‘acceptable’ because they would not be logical–such things did not exist and should not exist!
  • Simplicity: Art should be simple and this means that it should follow mathematical rules as to proportions, and the basic rules of living a good life. It should reflect nature and classical ideals. Statues of people were idealized into a ‘perfect’ form by following the ‘simple’ mathematical proportions.
  • Dignity: Dignity was always privileged or preferred in Classical Art. This means that if someone is depicted behaving in an undignified way, they would come to a bad ending – and would not be ‘idealized.’ For example, a silly, undignified character such as Pee Wee Herman would never be privileged or be seen as a hero in Classical Art.
  • Balance: Balance in all of the elements was preferred in Classical Art. Balance of colors, shapes, space, architectural structures, etc, implied a more controlled, peaceful existence. This would have been preferred in the Classical World.
  • Restraint: Part of being dignified is having restraint in all of one’s actions. Showing excess emotions–be they love or hate–is not the best way to live. Thus, art should also be restrained in its depiction of humans (un-restrained and un-dignified people come to bad ends or are not privileged), and in its depiction of the natural world (nothing crazy or too far-out would be acceptable).
  • Order: An ordered space, mind, and world were preferred in Classical art.
  • Proportion: Proportion means that the structure of objects follows mathematical rules and guidelines. Even human sculptures had to be in proper ‘proportion’ – the torso, legs and arms each a pre-determined length based on the size of the head. Temples and cities were built with specific proportions in mind.
  • The Golden Mean of Aristotle: Aristotle believed in the Golden Mean. By this he meant that the middle road was always the best road – one should not seek to go too far either way from the center point. Seek to be great, but don’t seek to be too great. Seek to be humble, but don’t seek to be too humble. Always seek the middle–the mean.
  • Civic Duty / Public & Private Life: Unlike Americans who privilege the private life (individualism) over all, in the Classical world it was believed that one’s private life (individual rights) and one’s public duties and responsibilities needed to be in balance. Thus, in a story like Antigone, where she goes against the rules of the city to follow her religious beliefs and bury her brother, her conduct would have been problematic from the point of view of the Classicists. Americans today would likely applaud her, but they would have been far more conflicted in their response, and seen her actions leading to tragedy.
  • No Excess [sin curve]–The concept of sin did not exist in the Classical World as it does today. Remember, there had been no Christianity at that point. When we see the word ‘sin’ in translation of Classical text, we should think of it as meaning something more like ‘error’. Without a heaven and a hell, people’s attitudes towards human actions were not so ‘black and white’-if one made an ‘error’ they did not go to hell. The focus was on life on earth, and how to live a good life. After death, everyone pretty much went to the same place and their only difference was how good a life they had lead. This is VERY different from the Judeo-Christian Worldview.

Therefore it makes more sense to think of the Classical mind as conceiving of a ‘sin’ curve–or an error curve–like in math. Think of a bell curve. No human characteristic or behavior is ‘a sin’ per se–but everything is acceptable within normal limits. For example, in the Judeo-Christian world view, drinking and having sex may be seen as a ‘sin’. In the Classical mindset–these are normal activities. If you are in the center of the curve–if you drink and have sex within normal limits – you can live a good life. If you don’t drink or have sex AT ALL you are not normal–you will not live a good life. If you drink or have sex too much–so much so that it affects your life negatively, you are in EXCESS – and this is a BIG problem.

Tragedies occur when great people become EXCESSIVE in some way–in Pride, or Love, for example. Then their actions no longer are positive, but they ruin the lives of these people, and of the societies around them.

As Aristotle would have said–stay to the Middle Road–The Golden Mean – to live the best life. Classical art also reflects this value system.

The era before the Classical Art Era is known as the ANCIENT Era. It covers a lot of centuries and places (including Egypt and other parts of the globe) – but for our our purposes, we focus primarily on our ancestors (artistically and philosophically), the area that later became home to the Greeks and Romans.

Take a look at the attachments entitled ”Minoan and Mycenaen Art’, and ‘Pre-Classical (Ancient) Art Examples and Classical Art Examples’. These will help you to understand what came BEFORE the Classical Art era to really appreciate the era and its art!

Next, complete the following:

KHAN Academy Module Three Assignments: Classical Art

  1. Read the attached PDF document entitled ”Classicism and NeoClassicism”
  2. Watch the two videos embedded further down on this page: ” Greek and Roman Art” and ”The Classical Orders”
  3. On the Khan Academy Ancient Greece webpage: “A Beginner’s Guide to Ancient Greece
    Read/Watch: Ancient Greece, an Introduction & Introduction to Greek Architecture
  4. On the Khan Academy Ancient Rome webpage: “A Beginner’s Guide to Ancient Rome
    Read/Watch: Introduction to Ancient Rome & Introduction to Ancient Roman Art

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