I admit that the museum’s in D.C. are generally all great, even though despite living within striking distance I rarely visit them. Recently, however, I got a chance to visit Manhattan and the Metropolitan Museum of Art — an experience on a whole different level. One couldn’t possibly see everything, but I spent some time in their extensive Egyptian wing and a thought struck me.
The museum laid out the pieces chronologically, not topically, and this gives one a chance to see the development of Egyptian style and technique over millennia. Now, very little changed over time — as a culture Egypt had a very strong identity and they did not necessarily value originality — but I had a flight of fancy that subtle differences emerge upon close inspection.
Below is some work from Egypt’s “Old Kingdom” ca. 2500 B.C.
Next, examples from their “Middle Kingdom” ca. 1400 B.C.
And finally, work from the “Late Kingdom” ca. 700 B.C.
No civilization lives out its time as a perfect bell-curve of steady rise, peak, and smooth decline. Ebbs and flows interject themselves. But we can safely say that Egypt as a “power” was on the rise early, perhaps peaked during the reign of Thutmose III in the Middle Kingdom period, and certainly continually waned after around 1100 B.C. and into the Late Kingdom.
But the artistic quality does not follow this bell curve. In general their art evidences a steady increase at least in technical skill down through the Late Kingdom well past their political decline. One could argue, however, that we see the most latent spiritual power in their earliest art. The somewhat stoic solidity of their craft in the Old Kingdom seems to be bursting with energy just waiting to get released. Might we say then, that the increase in technical skill not only does not mirror an increase in the overall health of their civilization, it might even be evidence for their decline?
We see something similar in the history of Rome. Here, for example is a bust of the hero of the 2nd Punic War, Scipio Africanus ca. 200 B.C.
Fast-forward about 400 years and we find ourselves in the reign of the Emperor Commodus. At this point Rome controlled more territory than at any point in its history, but no one would suggest that Rome stood taller and healthier in 180 A.D. than at 200 B.C. And yet,
once again we see that technical skill in the arts has increased, and again we can draw similar conclusions about this increase as we can in Egypt. Rome has declined, but technical skill has gone up.* We can also see a great deal more “spiritual” strength in Scipio than we can in Commodus, again similar to Egypt.
All this should be taken in the spirit of this blog as a whole. I am a rank amateur making a guess. But if my guess be correct, why might it be so?
We can understand why a civilization might lack technical refinement in its earlier stages. It has little to do with intelligence, I’m sure, and perhaps more to do with not having developed a clear style or sense of themselves. But if the early stages show some of the clumsiness of youth, it also displays some of the (irrational) confidence of adolescence as well.
For convenience I label the later stages — like those that produce the Commodus bust — as ages of “refinement.” I don’t think that “refinement” means an inward turn — inward turns of a civilization can bring great spiritual insights (this post here discusses this possibility in Byzantine civilization), and I don’t think either the Egyptian or Roman art shows that. Rather, the refinement in the above art appears excessively “outward” to me, a decoration, perhaps even a covering over, of an inward reality. In the case of Commodus, for example, his desire to show himself, a Roman emperor, in the guise of the Greek Hercules, bodes ill for himself and Rome. “Refinement” then represents a stage occupied not with deeper spiritual things but with “protesting too much.”
We can see this in Rococo art, for example, and the resulting storm that followed. One can see the French Revolution of 1789 as the fall of one type of European Civilization. It’s nice to celebrate simple happiness — nothing wrong with that. But for my money Rococo (mid-late 1700’s) goes too far . . .
The monstrous retribution that fell upon that civilization both in terms of the French Revolution specifically, and the Napoleonic Wars generally, has its harbinger with the drastic change in art represented by Jacques-Louis David. All sense of “refinement” gets sacrificed to stark reality, in this case, the consul Brutus receiving back the bodies of his sons he ordered executed for treason to the Republic.
Returning to Egypt, while the architectural and sculptural achievements of the era of the late kingdom Pharaoh Ramses II impress in terms of scale, we do not see the same spiritual depth as in Akhenaton a century before him,
If this is a good/correct guess for these civilizations, we can ask whether or not it appears to be a law of civilizations generally, but We may wonder too where our civilization fits in this suggested interpretative framework. I think it obvious that many of our cultural creations do not evince the clumsy confidence of adolescence. I’m tempted to say that we focus on ways to multiply purely external pleasure, which might put us in an “Age of Refinement.” But if I say these things I will be following the pattern of every ancient historian in my, “Kids these days,” attitude, as well as most men generally past 40. I don’t know if I’m quite ready to embrace that just yet.
*There may be another parallel between Rome and Egypt — we might say that Thutmose III (ca. 1450 B.C.) and Marcus Aurelius (ca. 160 A.D.) represent similar places in the respective histories of Egypt and Rome. Both perhaps represent an “Indian Summer,” — a brief but ultimately failed rally against the tide.