The Style Of Power

On the effects of the patrons ideals on the artists vision


In order to achieve a greater degree of clarity for my previous essays in this course, I would like to continue to express some views on the role of patronage, economics, philosophy and politics as they pertain to the creation of artistic styles. Due to the fact that this paper is limited in length, and therefore time, I will attempt to focus on the classical period, and the artist Pheidias. I make no claim on being an expert in Greek history, philosophy or politics. However, certain conclusions may be reached by the inferences of current and historical literature. I will put forward my own conclusions in the following hypothesis:

The artists of the classical period in Greece, and throughout history, had very limited input in regards to the style or the content of any artworks produced. This is not to suggest any lack of skill; on the contrary, survival demanded a greater degree of skill in interpreting the desires of the patron. The artist was, after all, an employee of a patron and required money to live.

The patrons of this period were thouroughly acquainted with the power of the visual language, and used this language to legitimise their position. There was knowledge of how to motivate and unite the population under their rule.

The realisation of a style of artwork is much more complex than the skill level of any one artist. The century in which we live may be considered an exception to this general rule. The personal and financial freedom which some of us enjoy today, is the only type of cultural background in which an artist can truly take risks without the permission of a patron. Even this can meet with great opposition if the artwork steps too far out of the boundaries of commonly held values. These values and beliefs relating to the nature of art and its use are generally blind to the aspect of art as a language. Artists speak this language quite well, and unfortunately this language is also spoken, understood, and greatly abused by megalomaniacs throughout history.

Why Pheidias?

This seems to be a straightforward question. However there is disagreement among historians as to when his fame as a great sculptor arose. Was his fame due to the Parthenon project, or was he given the project because he was famous.(1) The statue of the Athena Promachos has been attributed to Pheidias as his first great statue.(2) This statue, made of bronze, stood thirty feet in height, and was placed between the Propylaia and the Erectheion. The commissioning of this statue has been attributed to Cimon.(3) However , with these literary pronouncements in place there is a problem. The statue has also been attributed to Praxiteles the elder.(4) Attribution of a magnificent monument such as this to Pheidias would have made his selection as head sculptor for the Parthenon project make a bit more sense. There is no undisputed evidence to show that Pheidias was a famous sculptor at the time Perikles selected him. It does appear to be known that Pheidias was originally trained as a painter.(5)

With this aspect of the career of Pheidias in mind we can see a beginning of why he would have been chosen. The Greek city-states seemed to have an abundance of sculptors who were at least as talented as Pheidias. For a project as grand in concept as the Parthenon was, a designer and co-ordinator was a much more appropriate choice. The skills of a painter would have been invaluable in producing the volumes of designs needed for such a massive sculptural project. And yet there is no evidence of this, such drawings would have disappeared long ago. We do know how much the great sculptor Michelangelo relied on his drawings.

Manager or Artist

For Pheidias, and the architects Iktinos and Kalikrates, certain problems in planning must have arisen. Decisions had to be made on the co-ordination of the work. When the decision was made as to the type of stone to be used for the building, and the sculpture, plans would then have to be drawn up for it’s transportation.(6) As Pheidias was in charge of the sculptural side of the project, we would have to assume that a great deal of his time would be occupied in this task. He would have the size of the blocks of marble needed for each piece of pedimental sculpture measured out before any trip to the quarry.(7) The total volume of stone needed for the metopes, and the frieze, would similarly be known well ahead of the carving. The erection of a temple began with the colonnade.(8) The interior of the temple would be built at the same time, or soon after, as this was the supporting structure for the roof.(9) The metopes would then be put in place before the roof went up as the entablature; sitting atop the metopes would make it all but impossible to move them. Restrictions of time must have occurred; some metopes had been placed in blank to be carved later, no matter how difficult this process would be.(10) This may explain the discrepancies in the quality of the extant carvings more than the suggestions that it was the skill, or lack of skill, that an artisan may have.

Describing Pheidias as the ‘Great Master’ has brought a great deal of misinterpretation on the nature of what he actually did on the Parthenon project. This is so glaringly obvious with statements from scholars pointing to some of the metope carving as ‘… excellent that it has been attributed to Pheidias himself.’(11) With little direct evidence, statements such as this mislead the classicist and art historian alike, into the belief that the artist was entirely responsible for the quality of the carving. The pressure of time deadlines, and the economics of the entire process must have had an enormous effect on the quality of carving on such a scale. Even without the aspect of artist, Pheidias was a formidable project manager.

Whose work is it?

For thirty years following the defeat of the Persians, in 479 B.C.,(12) very little was undertaken in the way of building. Athens was receiving a great deal of money in the form of tribute from the city-states that did not wish to participate in the naval defence of Greece. In 450B.C.,Perikles proposed the use of 5,000 talents of this wealth to build the Parthenon.(13) In a democracy, a decision such as this would have required a great deal of power and influence.

While there is no doubt that Pheidias was in charge of the Parthenon project,(14) there remains in my mind some disagreement as to the weight of his influence on the style. There has been a suggestion that Pheidias is responsible for holding back the flow of Greek art towards naturalism and realism.(15) For this to be the case he would have to have a great deal more influence outside the field of sculpting. And there is no evidence for this. There is evidence for the connection with Perikles. And with this goes the connection to the intellectual peer group of Perikles. These included Anaxagoras, a scientist, Protagoras, a sophist philosopher and Perikles himself.(16) Perikles arrived in his position as strategoi approximately 455 .C. This was considered a very important position to hold in the democracy of Athens as it involved the protection of the city and all of its citizens.(17) Perikles was re-elected for fifteen years. Another member of this influential group was the philosopher Protagoras. Protagoras was a sophist, otherwise known as an expert. He was responsible for the education of the children of Perikles amongst others.(18) Add to this the scientist Anaxagoras, whose view of the world included ‘visible objects as a clue to invisible ones’(19), and there is quite a formidable gathering of power, influence and intellect. If we regard the visual effect of the classic style, with its sense of idealism, calmness in the face of adversity, we can get a good sense of the nature of these men. The contemporaries of Perikles were impressed by ‘…his serenity, his reserve, his stately calm which they called “Olympian.”’(20) This could almost describe one of Pheidias’ depictions of a god. What was going on in this group of powerful citizens? Pheidias’ alliances to this group holds a great deal more information as to the classic style of sculpture, than a mere declaration of his talent. Philosophy and politics played a very large part in the making of the Parthenon, and of the classical style. Unfortunately for Pheidias, his alliance with power was a double-edged sword that attracted a great deal of animosity, as well as admiration.

The struggle with power.

Powerful people tend to attract the wrong kind of attention. For those close to them life can be hazardous. For Pheidias, the hazards were deadly. One of his first difficulties was brought about by the depictions of himself and of Perikles on the shield of the cult statue Athena Parthenos. The adherents of the Athena cult saw this as sacreligious. (21) Because of this blatant display of ego an attempt was made to bring first Pheidias to trial, in order to test the waters for bringing Perikles to trial. The first attempt on Pheidias was a charge that he had appropriated some of the gold for the statue of Athena Parathions. Weighing the golden parts of the statue, which Perikles had asked Pheidias to design as removable, refuted this charge.(22) This was followed by a charge of impiety relating to the portraits of himself and Perikles on the Amazonomachy.(23) This charge was successful and Pheidias was found guilty. There are differing accounts as to his demise. Some state that he was able to escape for a while into work in Olympia, and was then brought back to die in prison in Athens.(24) Other accounts state that he died at Olympia where his workshop was discovered. In either case his close association to Perikles may have brought him the much coveted prize of the Parthenon project, but it also killed him.

In conclusion I would like to reiterate that I am by no means an expert in Greek politics, history or philosophy. However, some of the points I have raised are worth further study, or debate. The original intention was to create a comparison between Pheidias, Perikles, Lysippos and Alexander. The mountains of information on Pheidias alone were overwhelming. Time and space will not permit an efficient study of the points I wish to make.

Also, there may be a noticeable lack of visual information in this paper. This is deliberate. In consideration of the fact that most of our knowledge of this eras artists is written, and anecdotal, it is difficult for me to justify the use of the Roman copy, or a suspected original. The statement by Anaxagoras: ‘visible objects as a clue to invisible ones’ is a very poignant way to close, the unknown artist may be the real genius.


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