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On the Status and Purposes of Ancient Egyptian Art

  • John Baines (a1)

Extract

No term in the ancient Egyptian language corresponds neatly with Western usages of ‘art’, and Egyptologists have often argued that there is no such thing as ‘Egyptian art’. Yet aesthetically organized structures and artefacts constitute the majority of evidence from Egypt, a legacy created mainly for a small élite. The genres of these materials, all of which had functions additional to the purely aesthetic, are similar to those of many other cultures. They constitute a repository of civilizational values, related to the system of hieroglyphic writing, that was maintained and transmitted across periods. Civilization and artistic style are almost identified with each other. Funerary material constitutes one central context for artistic forms; others are temples and such poorly-preserved locations as palaces. The importance attached to artistic activities in Egypt, high-cultural involvement in them, and idiosyncratic developments can be illustrated from many periods. Egyptian art is a typically inward-looking and almost self-sustaining product of a professional group. It is no less ‘art’ for the wide range of functions and purposes it fulfilled.

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