Art Before Art: Aesthetic Production in the Ancient World
How can we think or speak about “art” in the ancient world—long before it was ever designated as such? Art history in the modern European tradition is deeply attached to the hand of the artist, to the mark of individual genius, to the authentication of provenance, and to a narrative of evolving styles, techniques, and forms. But, looking at the ancient world, how can we account for human aesthetic expressivity when the familiar categories of modern art history—chief among them, the artist and the “purposelessness” of the art object—don’t seem to pertain? To explore instead repetition, pattern, and ornament, early rock and cave paintings, and communal practices of art-making in the ancient world—from the neolithic Fertile Crescent to Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt—reveals a story of human expression and social, cultural, and political life that, contrary to the traditional art historical narrative, does not inevitably lead to the linear perspective and mimetic representation that are traditionally considered the telos of art in the modern Western mode. What was the aim, what were the motives of art-making practices in antiquity? And what, if not the innovative hand of original genius, was the source of the power ascribed to images and plastic objects in the ancient world? What needs and purposes did ancient art actually serve? And how can we begin to contemplate ancient art as a category in its own right?
In this course, we will explore the art objects and practices of various geographies of the ancient world. What were the coordinates, in the social world, that gave rise to early symbols, drawings, and increasingly elaborate representations and stylizations in the world of ancient art? We will begin with the neolithic period and picture-making prior to writing, before going on to explore the art of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and its deep investment in the body of the political hegemon, its iconoclasm, and its play with both the monumental and the miniature. Along the way, we will attend to the historical reception of ancient art, the institution of the modern museum, and contemporary habits of art appreciation. How do the processes of acquisition and display affect not only our perception but the stories we are able to construct about the social and aesthetic value of art in the ancient world? Readings will include, among others, texts by W. J. T. Mitchell, Alfred Gell, Horst Bredekamp, Zainab Bahrani, Irene Winter, David O’Connor, and John Elsner.
Course ScheduleWednesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
April 12 — May 03, 2023