Art can act as a mirror, a looking glass, through which a true reflection of the values and aesthetics of an era are displayed. In contrast to this, art can also affect the social and human environment from which it has been produced.
There is a universal law that, as far as we are aware, has always been followed. It is the rule of Formation, Stasis, Degradation, and Destruction. Everything in the universe follows this pattern. Everything obeying to this law follows the same process of moving from birth to growth, growth to aging and aging to eventual death. While entering the last step, destruction, a new life is also approaching, the law is a circle. When destruction occurs, formation always follows.
Everything, from small cells to great cosmic bodies and galaxies, from basic matter to complex life, from the flourishing apex to the fall of every empire in human history, from the peak of societies to the collapse of civilizations, none are above this rule.
Along with the development and collapse of these civilizations, art has also undergone its ups and downs. Art always accompanies the footsteps of human civilization, developing from the clumsy craft of its inception to photorealism and beyond, but it would also undergo degradation together with the decline of the civilization from which it was born.
No-one truly knows when human art began. We used to think that human intellect in ancient times was not as advanced as our own, but now many ancient cultural relics have been found crafted with sophistication and skillful attention to detail, challenging our previous misconceptions.
Many relics found project expected simplicity in their form and simple-shape, however, there are others of exceedingly high quality, beautifully crafted with complex decoration and color. There are objects so impressive they challenge many modern artworks.
Through these objects we must confront an uncomfortable truth, our ancient ancestors were far more sophisticated than we like to admit, their societies established and thriving, and yet time and time again whole civilizations collapsed. Perhaps our developed modern world is not quite as secure as we imagine it to be…
Hongshan culture in northern China, which existed between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago, is an example. From a large number of exquisite jade artifacts excavated from this locality, we can see the highly developed craftsmanship of this period. More interestingly though, relics of this period portray the moral corruption present in society at the time.
In ancient Greece, during the time of Minos, the first king of Crete, there was a peak in societal development, especially during the last Minos dynasty. At that time, the defeated Aegean countries were forced to pay tribute to this dynasty. However, the maritime hegemony of this empire was completely destroyed when the Thera volcano erupted in 1,500 BC. In addition to elaborate murals and artifacts, ruins of the royal palace served as a testament to the moral corruption alive in the society of the day. The relics portray elicit scenes such as killing innocent people and forcing people to be live sacrifices.
King Minos possessed a huge amount of gold and treasures, as well as a powerful army and copious weaponry. A large percentage of the remaining artifacts from his reign revolve around the topic of war. But this military power ended suddenly at the end of the 12th century, along with the many palaces and towns, all were destroyed. After this destruction, Greece entered what we call the ‘dark period’ for hundreds of years. Its population drastically declined, cultural relics became scarce, and craftsmanship was gradually lost.
Ancient Greek culture, which is very familiar to us today, was rebuilt from the ruins of the last fallen civilization of Minos. From monotonous shapes of ceramics to liberal curves, beautiful and vivid shapes in many elegant, solemn temples, it can be seen that sculpture gradually matured from simple, monotonous craftsmanship at the early stage to its later anatomical perfection.
In Greek mythology, Apollo was the god of light, truth, and art. He lived on Mount Parnasso with the goddess Muse in the sacred temple. Together they represent the highest level of art, from which noble traits such as perfection, harmony, elegance, solemnity, and peace (traits known as the ‘classic spirit’ as honored in Western art) were drawn. In contrast, Dionysus, the god of wine, represents the characters of envy, passion, indulgence, abnormality, and rules breaching, also played a certain role in the artistic expression of the time.
The ‘Classical period’ of Greek sculpture is estimated to have begun in the 5th century BC. This is the period that Greek art reached its perfection. It was also the peak period of social culture and intellectual development. Artworks from this period manifested ideal ratio, precise structure and the perfect balance of the human body. In addition to the beauty of appearance, these sculptures carried a quiet, transcendent, noble state, which made them more valuable.
However, according to historical records and archaeological discoveries, when ancient Greece developed into a glorious civilization, its people began to lead a luxurious lifestyle and gradually became corrupt, obscenity could then be observed in some of their artworks.
A great epidemic broke out in Athens, during the Peloponnesian war, taking the lives of more than half of the population and a quarter of the soldiers. Even the political leader Pericles could not escape. From then on, the social structure of Athens collapsed, resulting in rampant debauchery, stealing, and murdering. In the end, civilization in Athens fell into a rapid decline.
After Greece was conquered by Macedonia, the country entered the period of Greekization (323 – 146 BC). The theme of statues during this period became more realistic and vivid, the expression of characters began to be portrayed with more emotion.
While invading countries in the East, Alexander the Great, who was active during this period, attempted to spread Greek art to every corner of the globe he touched, birthing the far-reaching influence of Greek art throughout the world.
In 146 BC, the Roman Empire integrated Greece into its imperial territory and swiftly colonized Greek art by not only imitating Greek works but also commissioning Greek artists to produce art for them.
Regarding their architectural achievements, the Romans are undebatable masters. They took elements of Greek architecture (like pillars and plinths) and improved them, continuously taking inspiration from the Greek architecture but with the addition of the Roman flare, such as the development of arched structures. During the royal era, buildings were used to praise victories and to honor national achievements. The magnificent palaces, churches, squares, and gymnasiums, all signify significant victories.
The realistic Romans initially used statues as a means of expression for tradition and reality. Later, when they gradually became more familiar with the ideal qualities of Greek art, many authentic, touching masterpieces came to existence. The paintings were often used to decorate architecture, internally and externally, each applied the method of natural light and shade, some murals also carried a natural and romantic atmosphere.
Following the aforementioned universal law, after the Roman Empire established its size and power it wasn’t long before the arrogance and extravagance of its people followed. After the formation, comes the stasis and after the stasis, comes the degradation, this is the stage that Rome was in at this time, soon destruction was to come…
In the ruins of the destroyed Pompeii, many pieces of evidence of the Romans depravity at the time were found, such as erotic paintings on the walls of brothels found at every corner of the city. Bloody, brutal fights were often held in the Colosseum, even un-armed Christians were pushed into the arena to be torn apart by fierce beasts. This terrible public event sadly became one of the major entertainments of the time for the emperor and for thousands of spectators alike.
From 165 to 266 AD, the mighty Roman Empire suffered from years of plagues attacking its people, with the overwhelming number of deaths, the economy fell into recession. In the 5th century, ‘barbarous’ tribes invaded Rome, marking the final nail in the coffin for this struggling civilization. This once glorious empire was ended in a swarm of plague and war.
Although the Eastern Roman Empire was fortunate to exist in the East, about 541 to 591 AD, some major epidemics occurred, resulting in the death of a quarter of the population. European civilization once again entered a dark period: cultural relics were destroyed, the artists disappeared, and the workmanship was gradually lost. This is further proof that the law of ‘formation, stasis, degradation, destruction’ of this universe is immutable.
(The cover photo: The Caryatid Porch of the Erechtheion, Athens. (Photo: Adobe Stock))