Notebook, 1993-

[From: Hauser, Arnold. The Social History of Art. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage Books/Random House. 1951.]


Aegean civilization, term for the Bronze Age cultures of pre-hellenic Greece. The complexity of those early civilizations was not suspected before the excavations of archaeologists in the late 19th c. The most remarkable of the cultures was perhaps that of Crete, which was flourishing by the beginning of the 3rd millennium B.C.; this was the Minoan Civilization. On the mainland of Greece excavations have uncovered the remains of Mycenaean Civilization. The exploration of the ruins of Troy provided knowledge of another culture, and ruins in the Cyclades have demonstrated remarkable early development there. The exact relationships of these different centers are not yet known, and there are many subjects of conjecture, such as the role of the Achaeans and the causes of the decline of Crete before 1100 B.C. See V.R. d'Arba Desboourough, 'The Greek Dark Ages' [1972]; Colin Renfrew, 'The Emergence of Civilisation' [1972]. [Harris, William H., and Judith S. Levey, eds. The New Columbia Encyclopedia. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1975.]

Crete - By about 2500 BC a civilization had emerged on the island of Crete in the Aegean Sea. Excavations in 1900 at the site of Knossos revealed the existence of a culture named by archaeologists as Minoan after a mythical king, Minos. Minoans probably settled in Crete before 3000 BC.

There is evidence of outside influence in Crete; apparently Egyptian traders reached the Aegean Sea soon after the Minoans did. Nevertheless, Minoan civilization developed its own unique features, and by about 2000 BC, great cities with elaborate and luxurious palaces were built, and sea trade was flourishing.

The Minoans had a picture-writing system, as had other ancient peoples. The Minoan religion seems to have centered on a mother goddess and on the figures of the bull and the snake. The Minoans are known for their beautiful and colorful wall paintings and their fine pottery. In about 1400 BC Minoan civilization began to decline. The end was hastened by invasions from mainland Greece.

[Ancient Civilization / Compton's Encyclopedia, Online Edition]

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Cretan Art presents the sociologist with the most difficult problem in the whole field of Ancient-Oriental art. It not only holds a special position of its own beside Egyptian and Mesopotamian art, but it is an exceptional case in the whole development from the end of the Palaeolithic age until the beginning of the classical age in Greece. In all this vast period in which the abstract geometric style predominated, in this unchanging world of strict traditionalism and rigid forms, Crete presents us with a picture of colourful, unrestrained, exuberant life, although economic and social conditions are no different here than anywhere else in the surrounding world. Here too despots and feudal landlords are in power, here too the whole culture is under the aegis of an aristocratic social order, exactly as in Egypt and Mesopotamia--and yet what a difference in the whole conception of art! How can this difference be explained? There are seveal possible explanations, but there is no one perfect, compelling explanation, no doubt owning, first of all, to the hitherto undecipherable nature of Cretan writing. Perhaps the difference lies partly [p. 51] in the comparatively subordinate role which religion and religious worship played in public life in Crete. No temple buildings and no monumental statues of gods of any kind have been found here; the small idols and cultic symbols which have been found suggest that religion exerted a much less deep and comprehensive influence than elsewhere in the ancient East. But the freedom of Cretan art can also be partly explained by the extraordinarly important rúle which city life and commerce played in the island's economy. It is true that we find a similar predominance of commercial interests in Babylonia without an observable influence on the world of art, but city life was probably nowhere so highly developed as in Crete. There was a great variety of urban community-types: beside the capital and the seat of the court, Cnossus and Phaestus, there were typical industrial cities like Guenia and little market towns like Praesus. [1] But the special character of Cretan art must be seen first of all in relation to the fact that, in the Aegean, in contrsast to other areas , trade--above all, foregin trade--was concentrated in the hands of the ruling class. The unstable spirit of the trader, fond of making innovations, was able to make its way less hampered than in Egypt or Babylonia.

Of course, even this art is still the art of a court and an aristocracy. It expresses the joie de vivre, the good living, and the self-indulgence of autocrats and a small upper class. The monuments which have come down to us bear witness to luxurious ways of life, to the glories of the royal household, splendid country seats, wealthy cities, great latifundia, and also to the misery of the broad masses of an enslaved peasanty. It has, as in Egypt and Babylonia, a thoroughly courtly character, but the rococo element, the delight in the sophisticated and the amusing, the delicate and the elegant, comes more to the fore. Hoernes is right to emphasize the chivalrous features of Minoan culture by drawing attention to the part played by festive processions and festival plays, public combats and tournaments, by women and their coquettish manners in Cretan life. [2] This courtly-chivalrous style makes it easier for less rigid, more spontaneious, and more flexible forms to life to develop, in contrast to the strict mode of life of the old predatory land-owning barons--a process which recurred in the Middle Ages--and produced, to accord with these new patterns of life, a more individualistic, stylistically freer art expressing more unprejudiced delight in nature.

But, according to another interpretation, Cretan art is really no more naturalistic than, for example, Egyptian art; if it makes a more natural impression, then, preseumably, it is not so much the stylistic methods employed which are responsible as the bold choice of subject-matter, the abandonment of the officially solemn subjects and the fondness for more secular and episodic, everyday and dynamic motifs. [3] The "chance arrangement" of the elements of the composition, which is mentioned in the same connection as an essential characteristic of the Cretan style, shows, however, that it is not merely a question of the choice of subject-matter. This "chance arrangement," this freer, looser, more pictorial compositon, is the expression of a freedom of invention which may perhaps best be described as "European," in contrast to the Oriental restrictions of Egyptian and Babyloniain art, and of a conception which, in contrast to the principle of concentration and subordination, favours an acumulation and abundance of thematic material. [4] The fondness for mere juxtaposition goes so far in Cretan art that we find eveywhere a widely luxuriant growth of scattered motifs not only in the scenic compositions but also in the ornamental paintings on vases, instead of geometrically arranged decorations. [5] And this freedom from formal constraint is all the more significant since the Cretans were in fact, as we know, very well acquainted with the productions of Egyptian art; if they, therefore, abandoned its monumentality, solemnity, and severity, that is evidence that the grandeur of Egypt was not in accordance with thier own taste and artistic aims. [p. 53]

Nevertheless, Cretan art also has its anti-naturalistic conventions and abstract formulae: it almost always neglects perspective, there is a complete lack of shadow, colouring is mostly limited to local colours, and the forms of the human figure are always more stylized than those of animals. The relationship between the naturalistic and anti-naturalistic elements is, however, by no means pre-determined from the outset, but changes with the historical evolution of the art. [6] Always keeping close to nature, Cretan art returns from a predominantly geometrical formlas, probably still influenced by Neolithic tendencies by way of an extreme naturalism, to an archaistic and somewhat academic stylization. Not until the middle of the second millennium, at the close of the Middle Minoan period, does Crete discover its own naturalistic style and reach the climax of its development in the sphere of art. Then, in the second half of the millennium, Cretan art loses much of its freshness and naturalness; its forms become more and more schematic and conventional, stiff and abstract. Those scholars who incline to racial explanation of historical phenomena like to attribute this geometrization to the influence of the Hellenic tribes invading the Greek mainland from the North--that is to say, of the same people who also created the later geometric style in Greece. [7] Others dispute the need for such an ethnic explanation and see the reasons for this change in style in the historical evolution of form. [8] It is a common habit to draw attention to the "modernity" of Cretan art as its special characteristic when compared with Egyptian and Mesopotamian art; this is, however, its most problematical feature. The taste of the Cretans was not particularly fastidious and stable, for all their originality and virtuosity. Their artistic means are too complaisant and obvious to leave behind a deep and lasting impression. Their frescoes remind us, with their watery colours and straightforward drawing, of the decorations in modern luxury steamers and swimming-baths. [9] Crete not only stimulated "modernist" art, it even anticipated certain aspects of modern industrial art. The "modernity" of the Cretans was probalby connected with their factory-like purusit of art and their mass production for an enormous export market. On the other hand, the Greeks avoided the danger of standardization despite an equally advanced industrialization--but this only proves that in the history of art the same causes by no means always have the same effects or that the causes are perhaps all too numerous to be completely exhausted by scientific analysis. [p. 55]

1. G. Glotz: La Civilisation égéenne, 1923, pp. 162-4.

2. H. Hoernes-O. Meghin: Urgeschichte der bildenden kunst, 1925, p. 391.

3. G. Rodenwaldt: Die Kunst der Antike, 1927, pp. 14-15.

4. L. Curtius sees in Cretan art "The first revelation of a new European spirit, which . . . differs, with its passionate mobility, in the sharpest possible manner from Oriental art," Die antike Kunst, II, p. 56.

5. Cf. G. Karo: Die Schachtgraeber von Mykenai, 1930, p. 288. - G. A. S. Snijder: Kretische Kunst, 1936, pp. 47, 119.

6. Cf. D. G. Hogarth: The Twilight of History, 1926, p. 8.

7. Hoernes-Menghin, op. cit., pp. 378, 382. -C. Schuchhardt: Alteuropa, 1926, p. 228.

8. G. Rodenwalst: "Nordischer Einfluss im Mykenischen?" Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archaeolog. Instit. Beiblatt, XXXV, 1920, p. 13.

9. On the questionableness of Cretan taste cf. G. Glotz, op. cit., p. 354. -A.R. Burh: Minoans, Philistines and Greeks, 1930, p. 24.

[Hauser, Arnold. The Social History of Art. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage Books/Random House. 1951.]



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