Friday, 2 November 2012

Artful Crafts: Metal Vessels and Painted Pots

David Gill  was co-author with Michael Vickers back in the 1990s of a book on Greek pots, Artful Crafts: Ancient Greek Silverware and Pottery Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. This emphasized that decorated Greek cermics owe a great deal to metal prototypes, indeed that the majority are skeuomorphs of vanished metal originals. The thesis was originally met with some opposition, though it is now more generally accepted that many pots were indeed copying metal prototypes. Recently there has been a meeting at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge as part of the 'Not praising, burying' event [details]. Gill's presentation is available online here. He says on "Looting Matters":
At the start of the day I will be reflecting on the central themes of Artful Crafts. It strikes me that one of the central themes has been the way that Greek pottery has been removed from its ancient context and placed in an artificial "artistic" world that has promoted "important" creators. And museums and collectors have sought to acquire works by major names: Artful Crafts preceded the return of material to Italy from North American private collections.
This of course is a key difference between archaeology (the study of the past) and art-history (the study of pretty things). In the antiquities trade items are taken from the archaeological record and commodified as "ancient art". All sorts of arguments are trotted out by dealers and collectors for consumption by the weak-headed, that these objects were "meant" to be seen, and "meant" to be taken to far off lands in the West to be admired. In the majority of cases such speculation can be shown to be ill-founded. Many of the items sold as "ancient art" were more or less utilitarian objects or had other functions quite separate from their aesthetic appearance (Egyptian shabtis are a good example, but then so are many dugup coins - Medieval hammered for instance). Gill discusses some of the reflections resulting from the multidisciplinary gathering in a follow-up post, there will also be a seminar next week.

Over on the coiney forums there was dissent with the views of Professor Gill. One amateur philosopher in particular tried to persuade some of his slack-jawed fellow coin fondlers that Gill's approach was somehow a textbook example of "ethnocentrism" and what he called "anti-transdisciplinarity". The meeting itself is presented to coineys not only as a "subterfuge" but one which is intended to target collectors. I think no comment is necessary, log on and read it for yourselves to get a view into the warped thinking of some coineys.

Obviously the problem is that the idea that we should reassess ideas about "ancient art" going back to Winckelmann and Lord Hamilton sits ill with the assertions of no-questions-asked collectors and dealers about why their careless collecting of decontextualised objects should be accepted on the grounds that it is through this "art" that one can approach its creators. The opposing view, that we can approach the creators of the objects through better knowledge of the context of the making, use and discarding of the objects and items associated with them, bothers them.

Vignette: The Hamilton Collection was initially thought to be of "Etruscan" vases, then when they worked out they and others like them were not, art historical reasoning dated some of them a century too late and it was only archaeological excavations on the Acropolis in Athens that sorted out the chronology for the collectors, who are now attacking archaeologists because they want to preserve sites rather than mine them for commercially-attractive geegaws to collect.


kyri said...

even if david gills and michael vickers hypothesis is right it dosent mean that greek vases were not "works of art" in their own right,does it.i may agree that some if not all ancient greek pots were originally in metal but not all ancient greeks could afford gold,silver or even bronze pieces,they were not any different from us,yes the elite[maybe %2 of the population] had the metal cups and pots but what about the middle classes,[the farmers,shopkeepers,traders]maybe all they could afford was a clay example but to them it was a much loved possesion.even now im sure most people would love to own a picaso but have to make do with a rolf harris.
also lets look at the information that is available,there are many vases with patrons names or signed by the potter,we even get pieces with trade marks.who would commission a vase to be made if it was of little we give flowers or many other small love tokens to our loved ones,whos to say the many thousands of vases with "KALOS"were not produced to be given as a gift?we just dont all for new ideas and "reassesing"the past but im not convinced by this theory.its true that the idea that they are based on metal objects has been generally accepted but the vast majority of schollars still accept that these vases were speacial to the owners and that they had artistic value than as they have now.i have read a few pieces by michael vickers on what his thoughts on attributation are,maybe its a case of finding a hypothesis to suite his own personal beliefs with little evidence to substantiate it,in fact most of the physical evidence points the other way.

Paul Barford said...

Well if the theory is RIGHT, they are not. No more than the kitsch plastic Verulamium Venus in the kitchen and the Giclée print of a Hokusai in my bedroom. They are decorative and probably say a lot about my tastes, but they are industrial products, not art.

But even if we agree to disagree (on you pots not my fakes) they are ALSO archaeological artefacts - and it would be false logic to try to pretend conveniently they were one and not the other.

kyri said...

i agree paul,your print and venus are industrial products,as are many bog standard apullian pots and cups but there are many thousands of vases that are unique and a cut above the rest.the evidence is there in front of our eyes.when have you ever seen "industrial pieces" commissiond,it just dosent happen.
yes i agree that these are archaeological artifacts,

"it would be false logic to try to pretend that they were one and not the other"

why cant they be both!?

even if their theory is true whats wrong with admiring these vases as works of art now,i can give you hundreds of examples were artifacts were not produced for artistic reasons but are considered as such now.ask any 50s retro collector what he thinks of a 1950s telly,or a militaria collector what he thinks of a certain make of flintlock pistol,a freind of mine collects dinky toys and can talk for ages over a single toy,look at the mass produced chineese vases,some of them are selling for millions.for me and thousands like me,not only collectors, these vases are paintings just like a van gougth,only on clay not canvas and deserve our respect and if some scholars want to go a step further and try to attribute a vase to a certain painter than good luck to leaves a bad taste in the mouth when people like trendall and many others who have devoted a lifetimes work on attributating vases and than for someone to come along and say that the whole attributation of vases is basically a joke and something invented by the trade to sell vases,especially when they cant produce the evidence to back up their claims.
ps,van gougth couldnt give his paintings away when he was alive,look at them now.

Paul Barford said...

"why cant they be both!?"
Well, actually that was the point I was making.

Not being by any means immune to doing so myself, I see nothing wrong with admiring any archaeological artefact for its aesthetic values, but not at the expense of not allowing it to be treated as an archaeological object.

PS have you really got a Rolf Harris? I used to enjoy watching him, I always assumed there were thin pencil lines on the canvas so would actually love to see one up close.

kyri said...

hi paul,no i dont own a rolf harris,he is an accomplished painter now and his paintings go for anything over £20k+,even his little pencil sketches go for thousands.
two little boys had two little toys brings a lump to my throat even now.i have got some lovely paintings on the walls though mostly by greek artist,theodoros manolides is my favourite,if you google his paintings you will see why.its nice to see your an art lover to.

Paul Barford said...

Interesting, I spotted the "eternal past/eternal present" series,

they seem worth a closer look, thanks.

Though I am more a graphics man myself, Hogarth is what's on the wall at the moment.

David Gill said...

Kyri asks, 'what is art?' That was certainly one of the questions we were exploring yesterday. Perhaps a more interesting question is 'what would have been considered to be art in the late sixth century BC?' We need archaeological contexts to answer the question: which is why looting is so destructive.

kyri said...

hi david,all of us agree looting is destructive and contexts does matter though it is not the be all and end all.even michael vickers says in his book ancient greek pottery,
"much artistry went into the decoration of some pots" he than goes on to say that "attribution of pots is an activity whose scholarly value is slight" why? if we look at some pots and consider them masterpieces why degrade fellow archaeologists for trying to attribute and calling their "scholarly value as slight".are all pots the same?i can take a look at a greek pot and tell you if it is an attic,campanian or apulian piece in an instant,whats wrong if these guys ,who have been studdying greek pottery much longer than me can tell which school of potters the vase belongs to.michael vickers says "much ingenuity has been spent on attributing pots to individual hands,and that names were devised to fit the supposed artistic hand".
i can tell you ,and im no expert,that each pot is decorated a certain way and the decoration is as good as a signature,maybe not for an individual artist but at least to a particular workshop and this belittling of attributation just dosent wash with me.
as i said earlier,there are many things that were not considred art or artistic when they were made but are put in museums and admired as art now,look at the V&A museum,stufed with chipindale chaires ect,things that were made to be used but are now revered as great works of the problem really with attributation or is it that the thought of attributing a vase might some how boost its monetary value and hence the antiquities market as a whole.would we really be better off with no attributation at all,is it trendall and the rest who are using "much ingenuity" trying to fit names to supposed artists,or michael vickers using his ingenuity in trying to promote his theory of skeuomorphism and thinking in doing so he is going to strike a blow to the collecting of greek vases and antiquities as a whole.

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