29 January, 2009

Greek Art and the Pursuit of the Ideal

In both artistic and philosophical endeavors, as well as their daily activities, the ancient Greeks displayed a preoccupation with rational living and the pursuit of ideals. These spirits of rationalism and idealism ingrained in the culture found a natural corollary in Greek humanism, and surviving examples of Greek architecture and sculpture highlight the cultural search to reflect these ideals in a manner accessible to the senses.

The Parthenon, an example of Greek architecture at its pinnacle, shows us how the Athenians of the fifth century BC sought through their temples to bring order to the chaos of space. Their careful attention to symmetry and proportion, which went so far as to cause them to make extensive, yet infinitesimal visual compensations (for example, knowing that perfectly straight columns, when built very large, would appear bowed to the human eye, they designed these columns to bow slightly outward naturally so that to observers they would appear straight) points to their faith in mathematical reason to effect the concretization of their ideal.

In the realm of sculpture we have the Doryphorus. This statue of a young spear-bearer is the work of the sculptor Polykleitos, who is also known to have authored a treatise on aesthetics called his “Kanon.” Breaking down the human body into segments, he gave proportional measurements for each one, which when put together would, he believed, exemplify the ideal human form. As is the case with the Parthenon, the Doryphorus and Polykleitos' other sculptures are based on very definite mathematical proportions which seek to display the subjects in their most ordered forms. Again, this is a concrete instance of human reason seeking the ideal.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Greek attitude towards art is the humanism it displays. To posit the reality of ideals is one thing, an exercise common to many cultures; to say that such ideals can be discerned through the efforts of human reason is another. Such a belief requires them to rank human ability to recognize the aesthetic ideal when presented with it very high. Greek art, as seen in the Parthenon and the Doryphorus, reveals that the Greeks not only believed in a theoretical perfection of things encountered in day-to-day life, but that they firmly believe that this ideal can be reached towards and ultimately recognized by the workings of human reason.

The Parthenon

Doryphorus of Polykleitos


Mary said...


I really like the last sculpture in this post. It's absolutely incredible! I can't believe that someone did that out of ROCKS.

Therese said...

Yeah, talk about it!