By Robert F. Beaudine
Originally posted at the Statesman Sentinel
“By their fruits you shall know them.”
In 2004, a group of five hundred artists, critics, curators, and dealers got together in England before the Turner Prize was awarded. They voted on what they thought was the most influential modern artwork of all time.
The winning work has been unfortunately lost. Only photographs and replicas remain. In 1917, this conceptual work of art had been rejected from its first and only exhibition in New York City and was most likely thrown out as garbage not long thereafter. Sponsored by the Society of Independent Artists, this open exhibition rejected no other work.
This special display has become a source of irony that has lead to countless discussions on its meaning and relevance. The center of discussion, the most influential award-winning artwork was a mass-produced urinal titled, “Fountain,” submitted by Marcel Duchamp under an alias.
Righting this wrong of the past gives us a sense of sophistication today and betrays much about our spirituality.
In the olden days, art was crafted to glorify the heroic – kings, their noblemen and women, warriors, and their gods. Some cultures thought nature divine; others elevated humanity. Every culture that flourished produced artwork that expressed their cultural beliefs, desires, attitudes, and spiritual development.
When the Assyriologists unearthed the ruins and artifacts of ancient Assyria, they brought to life an empire that relied on continuous warfare to terrorize their neighboring nations. The Assyrians rose to power through plunder and tribute. Their artwork was reflective and instilled terror in their foes.
Their nation originally followed tradition and crafted steles – commemorative reliefs typically sculptured on stone – for their temples. But as they gained prosperity, they sculpted steles primarily for the king’s palace and those of their conquered nations. A few depict royal lion hunts, but the majority portray battle scenes. The most terrifying show the impalements of entire villages or royal scribes counting the decapitated heads of their enemies.
A rare statue – that of King Ashurnasirpal the second – was discovered in the Temple of Ishtar presumably to show the piety of the king. With a sickle in his right hand and a mace in his left, his features are arrogant, as cold as the stone it was made of.
Hundreds of years later, another type of art flourished in another land, ancient Athens, a culture both ingenious and competitive in all aspects of life. Even their dramatic arts were developed for competition. They produced epic and lyric poetry, tragic drama, and sculptures renowned for their beauty, craftsmanship, and emotive ability.
Their pantheistic religion was a dominating feature. Their temples were their largest and most beautiful buildings. The magnificence of the Parthenon – a temple to Athena – still retains some of its grandeur from over two millennia ago.
The dramatic art of Plato was innovative and has inspired some of the greatest thinkers throughout history. He wrote narrative dialogues that examined the fundamentals of a broad range of lofty subjects, including the arts, education, philosophy, and politics.
Plato was also a heretic who wanted to censor their poets. Even with Homer, he wanted to strike out whole passages to protect the undeveloped young minds of their children. He thought it logical that children should not be exposed through their arts to any despicable behavior, especially those of their gods.
This culture was the flowering seed that blossomed time and again throughout the best of our Western civilization’s heritage. It’s a shame so few of us enjoy its sustenance.
The art of Ancient Israel, a nation called in antiquity “the People of the Book,” reveals a culture rooted in a radically different religion that gave them a strange perspective on life. Their Book was also unique. Besides their histories – and humanity’s beginnings – this Book contained psalms of praise and thanksgiving to their Creator, proverbs of wisdom, hymns of joy, poetic supplications for blessings, grace, and divine protection. Even their prophecies were many times written in a poetic style and used poetic imagery.
This society didn’t rely upon intellect or physical strength to sustain their lives and freedom. They didn’t worship idols crafted by men. Instead, they relied on a higher authority for their protection and well-being – the unseen God of heaven and earth. And they produced art that glorified their deity.
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