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In Chapters 2 and 3 I described modelling and imprinting as techniques that, through the transformations they impose, serve to prompt a creative outlook on the real. By viewing material technologies in this way, a range of ancient materialities, such as figurines, models, miniatures, seals, sealings and relief stone vases, can be made to appear in a new light. What I want to do in this chapter is develop a framework for looking anew at a creative phenomenon that is quite common in the Aegean Bronze Age, and in many other ancient, and indeed modern, settings. This creative mode entails the combining or ‘blending’ of heterogeneous elements – putting pieces together that might not seem to belong together at all. But the composite that is thereby generated can be quite powerful. It may be counterintuitive, but that is very much the point – the counterintuitive combination of parts feeds the imagination.1
In the previous chapter we considered ‘modelling’ as an artistic process capable of capturing some aspect of a prototype, often but not always through the creation of a reduced-scale stand-in. Use of the idea of ‘capture’ here implies that the prototype is somehow affected by its substitute – and this sounds almost magical. It is a principle (the ‘Law of Similarity’) that lies at the root of Frazer’s account of sympathetic magic: that by making a likeness of something one might gain some power over it. This is taken further by Michael Taussig in his work on mimesis.1 However, as Taussig underlines, Frazer identified not only a Law of Similarity, but also a Law of Contact or Contagion. That is to say, things that have been in contact may continue to act on each other even when separated. In terms of contagious magic, this is often described as the magic that can be performed using a person’s exuviae, such as fingernails or hair – once in contact with and part of the person, but still capable of being acted upon to gain some power over the person even at a distance. Taussig uses a different example, that of a horse’s hoofprint, required in the magic performed to change the mind of the horse’s owner.2 The hoofprint is an interesting case because, although it does follow the principle of contact, it is at the same time an image of (part of) the horse. Taussig goes on to argue that ‘in many, if not in the overwhelming majority of cases of magical practices in which the Law of Similarity is important, it is in fact combined with the Law of Contact’.3
In the film Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott, the lead character, Maximus (played by Russell Crowe), carries with him two small clay figurines to remind him of his wife and young son (Figure 2.1). As a senior professional soldier, he is separated from his family for months on end. In an early scene, he prays besides these two figurines, beseeching his mother and father to protect them. He kisses the figurine of his wife tenderly. Political events soon take over. A favourite general of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, his position becomes suddenly precarious when the emperor dies at the hands of his son Commodus, who resents his father’s love for the general. Commodus issues orders for Maximus’s wife and son to be killed – and so, tragically, Maximus never sees his family again, and the clay figurines are all he has left by which to remember them. Events conspire to separate him from these too. The figurines go through quite a cycle, from revelation to concealment. At the end, soon after Maximus’s death, his friend Juba returns to the Colosseum to bury the figurines where Maximus had died. Their movements from place to place, the gestures that enact their presence (and absence), their close connection with the body, with light, with dirt, and their intimate associations with cult and death – as substitutes, these miniature figural forms are extremely powerful.
When we think of ‘ancient art’, it is probably the architecture, sculpture and paintings of Greece, Rome and Egypt that come to mind. These are archetypes that form our vision of ancient art.1 That they occur in literate cultures in which art and text go hand-in-hand is hardly a coincidence. As suggested in a recent Companion to Greek Art, Classical archaeologists ‘would rarely, if ever, speak of the Athena Parthenos, a gold and ivory cult statue designed by the sculptor Pheidias, without referencing Pliny or Pausanias’.2 Herein we find another clue to the apparent accessibility of the art of these cultures: that artists may also be named, in this case Pheidias. We might feel that this focus on what Smith and Plantzos call the ‘triumvirate’ of architecture, sculpture and painting is perfectly reasonable, if these art forms are prevalent, and their study produces rich results. The downside, however, is that it leaves ‘much of the rest relegated to the ill-defined catch-all phrase of “minor arts”’.3
The range of facilities in human societies that act to contain matter is truly vast. We spend much of our lives inhabiting, transporting, making, filling, emptying and discarding containers. Houses, vehicles, silos, shopping carts, laundry bags, milk cartons – the list is almost endless. We are contained in the womb, we are wrapped as soon as we are born, and when we die we are once again contained – in a coffin, an urn or the earth.
In the opening chapter we broached the question of not only how creativity works but also why. It was argued that our method, a developmental approach centred on scaffolding, could offer both description and explanation. We phrased this in terms of combining the strengths of Verstehen on the one hand and Erklären on the other; and in terms of a medium-viscosity approach that could steer between thick and thin description. In the intervening chapters, however, we have mostly focused on the how – that is to say, how different art processes work, and how meaning emerges in the making. Now, in this final chapter, it is time to give some thought to the why. To what extent can we explain the creativity of Aegean Bronze Age art?
In Ai Weiwei’s 1995 ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’, the artist lets go of the vase he is holding at shoulder height and remains impassive as it hits the pavement and breaks into dozens of pieces (Figure 6.1). This deliberate and provocative act does not just fragment the object, but also shatters our perception of value. The worth of such a vase (or ‘container’, thinking back to Chapter 5) is instantly transformed. We might at first glance take this transformation to be one that diminishes value, and yet the artist maintains that some new value is generated, or released, from this act – that it is as creative as it is destructive. The old Maoist adage of having to destroy in order to create is often cited in connection with this act.1
How do we interpret ancient art created before written texts? Scholars usually put ancient art into conversation with ancient texts in order to interpret its meaning. But for earlier periods without texts, such as in the Bronze Age Aegean, this method is redundant. Using cutting-edge theory from art history, archaeology, and anthropology, Carl Knappett offers a new approach to this problem by identifying distinct actions - such as modelling, combining, and imprinting - whereby meaning is scaffolded through the materials themselves. By showing how these actions work in the context of specific bodies of material, Knappett brings to life the fascinating art of Minoan Crete and surrounding areas in novel ways. With a special focus on how creativity manifests itself in these processes, he makes an argument for not just how creativity emerges through specific material engagements but also why creativity might be especially valued at particular moments.