ART 115 Hudson County Community College Art of Ancient Egypt Discussion


In two paragraphs answer the following:First paragraph in 200 words: The art of ancient Egypt is based upon the qualities of timelessness and permanence. If our present day culture defines itself in contrast to these two ideals, what has taken their place? What is lost and what is gained by your choices?Second paragraph also in 200 words: Ancient Egyptian culture was extremely hierarchical and militant. Explain how these qualities are expressed in their art.

Egyptian Art
One of the most striking things about Egyptian art is its scale. The sheer size of these efforts, still
standing in some cases 4,500 years later, brings to mind the power and single-mindedness it took
to realize those mammoth pyramids and stone statues that, once seen, are never forgotten. Most
beginning art history students are not familiar with the art from our last chapter—Near Eastern
art—but they see the pyramids of Giza or the Sphinx and instantly identify their provenance. It
only adds to the magic that things so large seem to have been set down in the middle of the
unforgiving Sahara Desert like giant toys made for the gods. There is a surreal aspect in both
seeing the artifacts and pondering the conditions that made them possible. Statues of Ramses II
that are seventy feet tall (sitting down!), funerary markers that rise 450 feet into
the air (besting the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor by 150 feet), and many other examples
make it clear that Egyptian culture was an absolutely top down, ultra-religious, hierarchical,
bureaucratic society. Whether citizens were led by fear, awe, faith, or some combination of the
three we will never fully know.
What we do have in the way of ancient Egyptian artifacts tells us much about their relationship
with death and their concept of an afterlife. It cannot be overstated how much time, money, and
human capital was spent on art and architecture that would only be used by the top one percent
of the population and even then, only upon their death. A society that willingly expends all of its
energy on behalf of one divinely inspired leader is difficult to imagine. That the cycle continued
for nearly ten times the life of our United States with hundreds of absolute successors points to
Egypt’s lasting place in the world pantheon of influential cultures. The seeming rapidity of its
demise is equally astonishing.
From the late Neolithic era that historians call the pre-dynastic era to the New Kingdom, Egypt’s
history can be organized around the succession of rulers (called pharaohs from the Old kingdom
on) who allegedly transferred their vital like force, or “ka,” to one another. A pharaoh was a
literal god on earth, responsible for the well-being of the entire society and endowed with the
divine right to command as he (or in several well-known cases, she) saw fit. Pharaonic power
manifests itself in the scale of buildings and sculpture programs launched on its behalf. Like
works from the last chapter, Egyptian art was didactic, using a battery of different methods to
reinforce a message of legitimacy and power in smaller objects only seen and handled by the
priesthood or elite classes, and large architectural works seen by all. To reiterate from the text,
Egyptian art was also conservative in scope, striving for permanence and aesthetic uniformity,
and thus resistant to change.
The first example of a small object in the chapter is the Palette of King Narmer whose narrative
methodology and aesthetics set the stage for all future examples. Four interrelated ways of
representation re-tell Narmer’s glory: literal, symbolic, pictographic, and hieroglyphic. Literal
representation should not be confused with the idea of “optical view” from Week One’s reading.
It is
a combination of observed nature with stylized and “composite view” figuration. In Egyptian
two-dimensional art, composite view is reserved for elite society. Slaves, workers, and the like
are often drawn more naturalistically. It is the composite view, of course, that every elementary
school student can readily assign to Egypt. Egyptian artists were the most successful ancient
culture to codify formal representational themes. Frontal chests mixed with profile legs, feet, and
heads, the rigidity and static quality of a figure and the use of repetitive, registered
space are all hallmarks of their style. If “literal” could be summed up as a body representing a
person, then symbolic representation means substituting one body for another. In the case of
Narmer’s Palette, both the recto and verso show bull’s heads in the top register, symbolically
equating the animal power with Narmer’s own. Pictographic representation is an expansion of
symbolism, using one symbol in conjunction with another to generate a more complex piece of
the narrative. The best example the Palette offers is the “falcon and papyrus group,” representing
Narmer’s control over of Lower Egypt. Lastly, hieroglyphs are used to label different players and
events. Roughly as old as Mesopotamian cuneiform, hieroglyphs grew out of pictographs to
become the Egyptian alphabet.
We see the continued stylization and abstraction of figures throughout Egyptian art in both two
and three- dimensional examples. Time and again, figures of the ruling class are drawn or carved
to an exacting scale that only faintly shifts over the years. Bodies are rigid, static, lean and
muscular, drawn in the composite view or carved in an unyielding frontality. The idealization
carries over to the face that is eternally youthful, ever gazing towards the future, and void of any
emotion. One foot forward further symbolizes the march through time and space. It is the
Egyptians from whom the Greeks learn many of their artistic chops. Early Greek figurative
sculpture, especially, has much in common with its predecessor. This being said, it is important
to remember what is often called an artistic “advance” has little to do with betterment than with
temperament. This idea is important to understanding art throughout the book and from many
disparate cultures. What a society declares as its ideals is echoed in its art.
Two examples that veer from that statement can be used to illustrate and ultimately strengthen it.
The first is pyramid construction. What we take as the ideal—the square bottomed pyramid
shape like the classic models built at Giza—is one of a few designs whose differences are based
on technological advances, religious change, and anti-theft security. The more humble step
pyramid from the Old Kingdom has more outwardly in common with the Sumerian ziggurat than
with the enormous, smooth sided pyramid of Khufu. While Khufu’s pyramid design is patterned
after the ben-ben, and as such symbolizes a new paradigm for how rulers are religiously aligned,
its size and complexity bespeak both the greater role of the pharaoh as well as the more mundane
task of securing the riches inside by way of creating false
tunnels. In the New Kingdom, subterfuge gives way to camouflage, so that Hatshepsut’s burial
compound is built into and not on top of the landscape. Additionally, sealed over when
completed, it favors security over size. Here then, we have construction techniques reflecting the
cultural realities at specific times. The constants are a never- ending lower caste labor pool, and
an unchanging regard for the eternal well-being of the cherished leader.
Our second example upholding the notion that art echoes societal ideals uses the short-lived
reign of Akhenaten and his Amarna style. No other artworks in the chapter come close to
perverting the conservative religious and cultural beliefs of Egypt’s elite. That the priesthood was
able to demolish all traces of the upstart ruler upon his death shows what little traction the idea of
monotheism had, not to mention a more intimate portrayal of pharaonic family life, and notions
of transgender hood, however metaphoric.
For the most part change happened only when needed to protect officially mandated opinion in
ancient Egypt.
Transgressive efforts did not last long.

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