In my post about my visit to London I mentioned seeing Ancient Greek pottery in the British Museum. The finest examples of their pottery are painted and display a wide variety of scenes ranging from daily life, war, symposia (drinking parties), the heroes of Greek mythology, sports and the gods. The users of the pottery must have been proud of their cultural heritage, they probably had quite an ego as well considering how much the Greeks enjoyed feeling superior over the ‘barbarians’, a term which they invented.
While painted pottery was expensive and the lower social classes used undecorated pottery, the painted pottery was used by the elite in their daily life. The functions of the pottery are geared for use in daily life (for the uninitiated, consulting the Wikipedia article on ‘Pottery of Ancient Greece’ will enlighten you) just like Ancient Greek philosophy was supposed to be applied to daily life instead of being restricted to discussions and writing. The scenes displayed on some of the pottery indicate that they were used for specific activities, the pottery painted with scenes of symposia were likely to be used for that activity, one would assume.
Fast forward to today, approximately two and half millennia later, and most of the pottery we use is undecorated, despite our massive wealth in comparison to ancient times. Many Dutch retail chains don’t sell decorated pottery at all, and if it is decorated it’s meant for children. Many households don’t have any art on display at all. Art is no longer part of our daily lives, we don’t seem to appreciate art as much as in past times anymore.
What has also changed is our taste for art. The painted Greek pottery is beautiful and the painters who produced it were obviously highly skilled. When it comes to modern art, I really like the work of the Impressionist school such as the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. I like Pablo Picasso’s Cubism. But after that taste rapidly deteriorates in the 20th century. For example, take a look at the work of the Dutch painter Piet Mondriaan. He produced paintings consisting of solid colour squares bordered by black lines, which intersect other black lines, on a white background. I won’t say it’s ugly, abstract art can be nice. But anyone could that with even the simplest of painting applications. Mondriaan might have had an original idea which he developed, but the work he produced doesn’t require skills or mastery, it lacks uniqueness as anyone who is unskilled could have done it. But there is a point where this pattern in modern art (a container term for all modern art which, admittedly, so far only includes painting in my critique) crosses the line: the work of Barnett Newman. Even if he spent 43 years to arrive at that style, so what? It still nonsense and it’s irrelevant that some art critics think it’s great, good art doesn’t need critics for it to be appreciated.
While the old arts such as painting are in decline – I’m sure there are still good painters out there, but the fact that museums spend a lot of money on unworthy paintings just sets the tone for this period of time – it’s comforting to see that other arts flourish in our day. Literature, film, photography and more recently video games are an important part of our popular culture and give us contentment with their artistic achievements.