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Greek Art

Modern perspectives on what constitutes art and our clear distinctions between artists and craftspeople differ from the practice in ancient Greece. The Greeks did not have muses charged with responsibility for art and sculpture as they did for literature, music and dance. Indeed they did not have a word for “art” in their language using the word tekhne which translates as “craft”. Sculpture, pottery, metalwork and the creation of frescoes, mosaics and wall paintings fell into the realm of tekhne.

This attitude was often reflected in Greek wage scales and we see in accounting records where the architect of a major temple and a stonemason working on the same structure received essentially equivalent wages. That is not to say that their craftsmen weren’t held in high regard and that there wasn’t a generally recognized distinction between journeymen artisans and those whose skills had earned them greater prestige and esteem. Alexander, the Great insisted that busts of him be executed only by the renowned sculptor Lycippus and that paintings of him (e.g. Alexander, with thunderbolt) be done by the equally-famous Apelles.

Greeks with aristocratic roots looked upon any kind of manual labour with distaste. That certainly included sculpture, pottery and metalwork. Aristotle, enlightened in many ways, wrote that the title of “citizen” should be withheld from all those who earned their living with their hands, that it wasn’t possible to practice the civic virtues as a salaried worker. Others who expressed a similar view included Plato and Xenophon (but not Socrates who saw merit in honest labour and who practiced what he preached.)

The law-giver Solon notes that no well-bred young man could possibly want to be a sculptor and the pejorative word banausos was used to designate workers in at least some of the craft areas. This Athenian attitude, in a city admired for its art and beauty, is paradoxical and was not universal throughout ancient Greece. In many cities, particularly those with an industrial or commercial focus, the word cheironax was used to denote “master craftsmen” and these people were accorded honour and respect.

In the three sections which follow on architecture, sculpture and pottery the text is limited to the period extending from the Dark Age to Hellenistic times. Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean achievements in those areas are not covered.