William A. P. Childs on Greek Art and Aesthetics in the Fourth Century B.C.

Greek Art and Aesthetics in the Fourth Century B.C. analyzes the broad character of art produced during this period, providing in-depth analysis of and commentary on many of its most notable examples of sculpture and painting. Taking into consideration developments in style and subject matter, and elucidating political, religious, and intellectual context, William A. P. Childs argues that Greek art in this era was a natural outgrowth of the high classical period and focused on developing the rudiments of individual expression that became the hallmark of the classical in the fifth century. Read on to learn more about fourth century B.C. Greek art:

Why the fourth century?

The fourth century BCE has been neglected in scholarly treatises with a  few recent exceptions: Blanch Brown, Anticlassicism in Greek Sculpture of the Fourth Century B.C.; Monographs on Archaeology and the Fine Arts sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America and the College Art Association of America 26 (New York, 1976); and Brunilde Ridgway, Fourth-Century Styles in Greek Sculpture, Wisconsin Studies in Classics (Madison, WI, 1997).

One reason is simply that taste has been antithetical to the character of the century. Thus literary critics disparaged the wild reassessments of mythology by Euripides at the end of the fifth century as well as his supposedly colloquial language, and treated the sophists as morally dishonest.

Socially the century was marked by continuous warfare and the rise of  a new, rich elite. Individuals were as important, or more important, than society/community; artists were thought to have individual styles that reflected their personal vision. This was thought to debase the grandness of the high classic and replace it with cheap sensationalism and pluralism that defied straight-forward categorization.

The age-old hostility to Persia was revived, it seems largely for political reasons, while Persian artistic influence permeated much of the ornaments of the new, wealthy elite: mosaics, rich cloth, and metal work. At the same time Persia was constantly meddling in Greek affaires, which produced a certain hypocritical political atmosphere.

And, finally, Philip of Macedon brought the whole democratic adventure of the fifth century to a close with the establishment of monarchy as the default political system, and Alexander brought the East into the new Hellenic or Hellenistic culture out of which Roman culture was to arise.

Clearly most of the past criticism is true; it is our response that has totally changed, one assumes, because our own period is in many respects very similar to the character of the fourth century.

What is the character of the art of the fourth century?

On the surface there is little change from the high classical style of the fifth century—the subject of art is primarily religion in the form of votive reliefs and statues dedicated in sanctuaries. The art of vase-painting in Athens undergoes a slow decline in quality with notable exceptions, though it comes to an end as the century closes.

Though the function of art remains the same as previously, the physical appearance changes and changes again. At the end of the fifth century and into the first quarter of the fourth there is a nervous, linear style with strong erotic overtones. After about 370 the preference is for solidity and quiet poses. But what becomes apparent on closer examination is that there are multiple contemporary variations of the dominant stylistic structures. This has led to some difficulty in assigning convincing dates to individual works, though this is exaggerated. It is widely thought that the different stylistic variations are due to individual artists asserting their personal visions and interpretations of the human condition.

The literary sources, almost all of Roman date, do state that the famous artists, sculptors and painters, of the fourth century developed very individual styles that with training could be recognized in the works still extant. Since there are almost no original Greek statues preserved and no original panel paintings, it is difficult to evaluate these claims convincingly. But, since there are quite distinct groups of works that share broad stylistic similarities and these similarities agree to a large extent with the stylistic observations in the literary sources, it is at least possible to suggest that these styles are connected in some way with particular, named artists of the fourth century. However, rather than attributing works to the named artists, it seems wiser simply to identify the style and recognize that it conveys a particular character of the figure portrayed. This appears also applicable to vase-paintings that may reflect the styles of different panel painters. There are therefore Praxitelian and Skopaic sculptures and Parrhasian and Zeuxian paintings. Style conveys content.

The variety of styles as expressive tools indicates that there is a variety of content. A corollary of this fact is that the artist is presenting works that must be read by the viewer and therefore do not primarily represent social norms but are particular interpretations of both traditional and novel subjects: Aphrodite bathes, a satyr rests peacefully in the woods, and athletes clean themselves. In brief, the heroic and the divine are humanized and humans gain a psychological depth  that allows portraits to suggest character.

Was the cultural response to these developments purely negative as most modern commentaries suggest?

The question of the reception of art and poetry in the Greek world particularly of the archaic and classical periods has occupied scholars for at least the last two hundred years. It has been amply documented that artisans and people we consider artists were generally repudiated by the people composing the preserved texts of literature and historical commentary. For example, Plato is generally considered a conservative Philistine. Most modern commentators are appalled by his criticism of poetry and the plastic arts in all forms. Yet the English romantic poets of the late 18th and early 19th centuries thought Plato a kindred spirit. It was only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the negative assessment of Plato’s relation to poetry and art became authoritative.  However one wishes to assess Plato’s own appreciation of poetry and art, it is eminently clear that he had an intimate knowledge of contemporary art. Equally his criticism of people who praise art indicates that precisely what he criticizes is what Athenian society expected and praised. It does not require a large leap to surmise that Plato is the first art critic with a sophisticated approach though somewhat disorganized. His student, Aristotle, had the organization and perhaps a more nuanced view of art, but it is perhaps not an exaggeration to suggest that Aristotle was not as sensitive to art as was his teacher.

The fact of the matter is that from Homer on, the descriptions of objects, though very rare, are uniformly very appreciative. For Homer the wonder of life-likeness is paramount, a quality that endures down to the fourth century despite the changing styles and patent abstractions before the fourth century. At least in the fourth century artists also became wealthy and must have managed large workshops.  So the modern view that artisans/artists were considered inferior members of society appears to be a social evaluation by the wealthy and leisured.

In the fourth century BCE Greek artists embark on on an inquiry into individual expression of  profound insights into the human condition as well as social values. It is the conscious recognition of the varied expressive values of style that creates the modern concept of aesthetics and the artist.

ChildsWilliam A.P. Childs is professor emeritus of classical art and archaeology at Princeton University.