The World under Control – Classical Sculpture

Pollitt, J.J. 1972.  “The World under Control”  In Art and Experience in Classical Greece, 111-136.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


20 thoughts on “The World under Control – Classical Sculpture

  1. What are the salient characteristics of High Classical Sculpture and how is it distinguished from the preceding and succeeding styles?

    • This new style was foremost characterized by the “stressing of grace, softness, the elegant flourish, and the mastery of manner”. (115) This distinguished it from previous styles which were “agonized, tortured, insecure, and expressed the anxieties of the age”. There was particular attention paid to drapery, namely the “wind blown” style, which Pollitt says was “exploited” by sculptors at this time. The example of the Temple to Athena on the Acropolis is given to explain in more detail this new style. Here the representations of Athena and Nike are stylized most significantly by their drapery, which is exhibiting the “wind-blown” technique mentioned earlier, in which the fabric appears to cling to the body unnaturally, revealing the anatomy of the women underneath. Also, moving away from the individual figures, there were “deep swirling furrows” which were meant to convey depth, along with a play of shadow and light in order to construct some sort of backdrop. The movement of the figures themselves were changing into more contorted positions, allowing the sculptors to experiment with different lines and gravity in terms of the way the drapery fell on the body, as shown on the “Nike adjusting her sandal”. The desire for purely ornamental beauty seems to now be more important than content. However, in comparing it to the Parthenon frieze, Pollitt describes the parapet as “aimless”, though he goes on to say that not all sculpture at this time was so. Battle scenes or processions had more of a narrative, though the attention to decoration was still apparent.

      • The high classical style was born during the tumultuous period of the Peloponnesian war. On page 115 of his article, the author stated that art produced under the circumstance of war and plague should reflect some “traces of an agonized, tortured, insecure art, expressing the anxieties of the age.” But instead the Greeks of the 5th century confound reason and symmetrical examples by venturing into the opposite direction. Instead of creating art which reflected the haunting realities of their society, the Greeks, “stress grace, softness, elegant flourish and the mastery of manner.” The artistic movement of the 5th century went in the way of an idealized, graceful form. In fact form and the detail or technique with which it was rendered, became more important than the story or content of the image or object. This is a large departure to the artistic styles that preceded the high classical movement. In the archaic or geometric period figures were more abstract, the value of the art was not necessarily its aesthetic beauty, but the meaning or story associated with the figure. I think this new emphasis and stylistic revolution shows a fundamental change in the Greek mind set and system of values. To be more concise, I think these are psychologically different people creating this new style. Given the war and plague that were prevalent during this time I think this is a safe assumption to make. We can very easily compare and contrast the art of the preceding and succeeding styles, but I would like to talk more about the push and pull factors that that created and nurtured the high classical period.

    • The events of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) largely shaped the art style of this time; some highlights (for the Athenians at least), which come to use through the writing of Thucydides, include Pericles’ funeral oration, the plague (430; 429; 427/426 BC), Warring factions on Corcyra (427 BC), and the seizure of Melos and the slaughter of its population (416 BC).

      The process of shaping occurred consistently and gradually; the style begins to become more shallow in content and consumed with technical skill following the Plague, which makes sense in light of the loss of such a large segment of the population. Thucydides’ details the disease, events, and the response of the Athenian state, which was primarily a hedonistic one. The prettiness, elegance, and grace is interesting because one would often expect art to reflect the somberness of the times. however the style of the Athenians in a way makes sense; the graceful art around them with extreme attention to ornamental elaboration may have, in a way, provided a means of escape (for both the artist and the viewer) from the uneasiness and turmoil created by the war.

    • Pollitt notes that in contrast to the meticulously planned and allegorical nature of High Classical sculpture, the works of the Late Classical period seem to have more of an emphasis on displaying technical skill and highlighting the ornamentality of the sculptures themselves. The function of Late Classical sculpture is more about aesthetic value rather than a story-telling device.

      • What is interesting about Late Classical sculpture is that after the Greek’s loss of the Peloponnesian War it would have been expected that their sculpture to represent agonized and tortured thoughts, but instead the style stresses grace, softness, and master of execution. There is mastery of execution especially in the rendering of drapery. It is made wind-blown and reveals the anatomy of the body underneath. The subject depicted is not important, but the ornamental function and the decorative manner is what counts and engages the artists’ attention.

  2. How does the art of the Late 5th century BC contrast with other artistic styles produced in times of turmoil?

    • Politt stated, as another student has already posted, that the style of the late fifth century BC “stressed grace, softness, the elegant flourish, the mastery of manner” rather than illustrating “traces of an agonized, tortured, insecure art, expressing the anxiety of the age” (115). Additionally, sculptors particularly “devoted a great part of their attention to exploiting the decorative potentialities of the ‘wind-blown’ style of rendering drapery” previously developed in the Parthenon pediments (115). As opposed to art created during such troubled times as in the late Roman Empire or the 1527 sack of Rome, art of the Late 5th century BC took a turn more like the concentration of “a stylish and carefree hero and heroine” in the most popular motion pictures of the 1930s Great Depression (115, 125). Instead of overtly agonizing, artists developed the flying drapery style with all of its elegant, aesthetic appeal as a way of retreating from the trouble and taking “refuge in gesture” (125).

    • The Greeks surprised me. Usually a population that is displaced and discontent will use artistic mediums to express their grief and sadness. The Author uses an example of the late Roman Empire or Italy after 1527. I can think of many other cultures and peoples…Europe after the first waves of plague in the early 1300’s, the Netherlands during Philip II of Spain’s oppression, modern Mexican-American art, virtually anything out of Russia.. kidding, the romantic period was happy, but seriously the list can go on and on. The Greeks are unique in producing art that departs from this normative template of despair. There have been some other cultures that have departed as well, but this is the unusual path to take. I think this is very interesting. A few semesters ago we had a professor come to Rollins to give a lecture of African communities ravaged by aids. One point that he stressed was the breakdown in in oral and cultural traditions because the village elders were no longer alive to educate the young. Could something similar be happening in Athens? Could the people be reformulating their culture because there is a generational gap and loss of information? Clearly literature, law, and such weren’t lost, but perhaps tradition was lost? Perhaps this is a time ripe for experimentation and rebirth?

  3. How was the composition of reliefs different during the Late 5th century BC when compared with the decades preceding?

    • Contrary to what me might expect, Late 5th century BC reliefs are emphatically more graceful, soft, and elegant (Pollitt, 115). The artists were particularly concerned with producing a decorative effect by sculpting drapery that looks wind-blown (Pollitt, 115). Earlier relief sculpture was more utilitarian in that there was more of a focus on narrative in the figures themselves; in other words, the artists only rendered what was necessary (Pollitt, 115).

    • Though fascination with technique and emphasis on ornamental decorative manner preoccupied Late Classical sculptors, technical virtuosity increased drastically with the development of the flying drapery style. This sculptural mode “solved the problem of how to sculpt a draped figure in movement so that its drapery gives the impression of plasticity and yet does not obscure the integrity of the body beneath it.” (Pollitt 122)

    • The other main cultural development was the stylistic analysis in rhetoric (antithesis, assonance, rhymes, etc.) (125) Pollitt describes it as being a “boom” in the fifth century b.c. that “may have been a creation to the disillusionment of the age” as drama was said to be, but rhetoric took a different direction. The most influential man of this development was Gorgias of Leontini. He turned to rhetoric because he “philosophically expressed doubt” of men gathering any real knowledge. Pollitt describes some of his works, like “Encomiun on Helen”, to be frivolous, with the main focus on technique and not subject. Gorgian Rhetoric, based on this frivolous style, can go so far as to be described as “escapist.”

  4. Do you believe Pollitt’s model that the creation of artistic styles represents the underlying anxieties of a civilization is a valid view? Can a whole society, so to speak, be psychoanalyzed?

    • I am definitely willing to agree with Pollitt in the fact that the creation of this new style reflects the anxieties of Greece. I would be open to other possibilities as well, but I think this is a great proposition. I have thought about this in the realm of Greek drama (actually, the author mentions this concept too). I am probably not incredibly well-read when it comes to Greek drama, but it does seem (just based on my reading) that a great majority of tragedies are based primarily in myth and a great majority of comedies are based primarily in historical events. I am sure this is not always the case, but this does seem to be at least a somewhat consistent pattern. It appears almost as if Greeks cannot express real-life tragic events in any entertainment setting, unless it is portrayed in a comical or pleasing way (such that it offsets the real misfortune of the events). This would certainly fall in line with Pollitt’s argument because it would suggest that Greeks could not find pleasure in the reality of depressing events. Instead, they turned towards grace, softness, and light-hearted art and entertainment. I think this makes perfect sense. The popularity of tap-dancing, light-hearted films in the 1930’s exemplifies this concept very well. Additionally, the author mentions that even when historical scenes WERE rendered in art, at least the backgrounds of the scenes depict “billowing capes and fluttering tunics” (118). Again, this suggests that perhaps a realistic portrayal of history was just unbearable. (Although maybe not, I suppose this really could, too, just be a style change. I like the idea presented by the author much better though!)

      As for psychoanalyzing an whole society, originally I was hesitant to say “yes, this is okay,” but now I would make the argument that it IS okay. Of course, that doesn’t mean every single individual within the society automatically possesses the same mental and emotional condition, but it is certainly still reasonable to come up with a generalization for the larger group. After all, it is done with our own society all the time! With this in mind, I am willing to accept the author’s proposition, maybe not as the ONLY possibility, but as a very good possibility.

  5. I believe that Pollitt’s model that the creation of artistic styles represent the underlying anxieties of a civilization in a valid view. The interest in Greek drama and comedy describe the clinical interest that came at the beginnings of moral and social revolution. Pollitt makes a valid argument when he claims High Classical Greek art had taken group experience and a faith in the attainments of an entire culture as its principal theme. This was the product of an age which was inclined to believe that human beings through their own rational thought and action could perfect their environment. Art during this period was intended to increasingly reflect the experiences and values of man as an individual rather than man as a participant in the community. Furthermore the emotional experience became the principal new motivating force behind the art of the fourth century. The trend towards personal experience as a subject for artistic exploration was a revival of the interest in representing specific human emotions, particularly basic human feelings like anger and grief. Suffering, as Pollitt claims, was the first type of personal emotion to be explored by the artists of the fourth century. For instance in the Herakles there is more personal anxiety of a father for a son’s welfare. The subject is legendary or mythical, but the meaning seems directed toward the world of private life, the family, personal affection and personal anxiety. The production of major works of art were often individuals who were very powerful. For instance Hellenistic monarchs and generals whose individual wills had to be expressed through art.
    A whole society can be psychoanalyzed, because it happens everyday is ours. The danger that comes along with this is every single individual in a society does not contain the same traits as one another. Most cultures are determined by an elite list of individuals. Comparing those to the rest of a society is equal to vilifying a place based on personal experience, which is wrong. It is human nature to make a generalization and a judgment, but without vast experience with that culture the basis of that persons words are illegitimate. Overall, Pollitt makes a convincing argument on the model that the creation of artistic styles represents the underlying anxieties of a civilization.

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