A Totalizing Aesthetic without Distinctions

Reading “Art: A New History” by Paul Johnson

In the second chapter, Ancient Egypt and the Origins of Style, Paul Johnson focuses on two-dimensional art and spends most of the chapter discussing the meaning and intent of Egyptian style in its totalizing perspective. That is, that there is no distinction between art, religion, social or political life.

Sketch of detail from false door, limestone relief, c. 2400 BC

Egyptian art is a communication system and Johnson notes, “the Egyptians never allowed the purely pictorial forms to escape from their primary task of communicating information.” Egyptian art is so concerned with communication, that perspective is disregarded; the larger elements are not closer to the viewer, they are larger because they are more important. Objects are shown from their most distinctive angle; a pond is is rendered as though viewing it from above, but the fish swimming in it are seen from the side; the human figure is designed with the head and lower body in profile, while the eye and chest are shown frontally (sometimes with two right – or left – hands, so the thumb is clearly visible).

Egyptian art, Johnson argues, is ultimately about order. We observe this in the stiff postures of statues, in the consistent conformity to the style, in the archetypes of pharaohs and gods. All art had a function and there was no “fine art” or art for art’s sake. This totalizing aesthetic was created by Imhotep (chief minister to the Pharoah Djoser) during the Third Dynasty (2686–2613 BC) and continued as the predominant art form in Egypt for 3,000 years. “For sheer tenacity, durability and dedication, there has never been anything to match the art system of ancient Egypt.”

Sketch of Portrait of Pharoah Amenhotep III, 1391–1353 BC, granodiorite sculpture

There was one small blip in all this consistency which occurred during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten (18th dynasty, 1353–1336 BC). This is where the lack of destinction becomes especially apparent. He introduced a new style into Egyptian art based on his belief in one god. Art was so rooted in religious life that an alteration in belief required an alteration in art. The “new art” was seen by his contemporaries as a distortion of the traditional cannon of art forms and he was viewed by many Egyptians as apostate. At first glance, this art appears more expressive with its relaxed postures and seemingly more realistic portrayals, but it was still dictated by the ruling class and was still a political tool. Paul Johnson thinks of this period as a usurpation of fashion over artistic order, in part because even some of the leading artists of this style did not practice it in their own personal work.

In contemplating Egyptian art, I’m reminded of the most pervasive form of art we all experience daily: advertising and marketing. While each brand has its own set of rules and there is definitely more variance within the designs, it’s primary purpose is communication and all the elements, such as color or imagery, are all ultimately about that communication. Interestingly, these concepts of design and marketing have spread into virtually every sector with seemingly every organization (even many religious institutions and non-profit organizations) leveraging marketing and design for brand recognition. Our society appears to have a totalizing aesthetic with a consistent underlying principle: the economic.

Sketch of detail from a wall-painting in the tomb of Khnumhotep, c. 1900 BC

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