‘Democracy has bad taste’, declared potter Grayson Perry in his Reith Lectures on the BBC about art. Tell that to the inventors of democracy.
Ancient Greeks would have been appalled at the reverence accorded the views of potters, artists, chefs and other riff-raff about their work, let alone anything else. The satirist Lucian says of the would-be sculptor: ‘You will be nothing but a workman, doing hard physical labour and investing the entire hope of your livelihood in it. You will be obscure, earning a meagre and ignoble wage, a man of low esteem… a workman and one of the common mob… Even if you should emerge a Pheidias or a Polykleitos and produce numerous marvellous works, so that all praise your art, there is nobody who, if he had any sense, would pray to be like you.’
Artists, then, were simply technicians, like bricklayers or cobblers. So the question what art was ‘for’ had no interest for the ancients at all, except to please the punters, because if it did not, the technician would not make a living. To judge by classical art, one did that by blurring the distinction between ‘art’ and life.
Zeuxis was thrilled when a bird tried to peck his picture of a bunch of grapes. His rival Parrhasios said that if he wanted to see something even more realistic, he should look behind the curtain in his studio. Zeuxis did and found the curtain was a painting on the studio wall. Not that ‘art’ stood still: far from it. But it built on what had gone before. As a result, the public — the consumers — were always engaged.
The consequence was a universal passion for art, sculpture and pottery. When Roman generals brought back the stuff by the lorry-load from their conquest of Greece in the 2nd century bc, Romans went mad with excitement, ‘spending all their leisure time in fancy chat about art and artists and showing off their sophisticated critical skills’.
If Mr Perry thinks classical art in bad taste, more fool him. But as a purveyor of luxury goods to the wealthy, is he the man to expatiate on democratic taste in art?
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