What Was the Function of Egyptian Art? Why Were People Not Supposed to See It?
The meaning of the Egyptian art can be defined as a combination of both ideology and aesthetics. While one could not exist without the other, it is essential to address these elements to identify the function of the Egyptian art and its impact on the ancient Egyptian civilization. The primary idea of any piece of Egyptian art was to state the particular view, related to the place of an individual in society.
That is, the Egyptian art was a so-called open book, produced for the sake of ideology, regardless of the esthetic perception of the object. The secondary features of Egyptian art included its functionality, that is, the purpose for which the particular object was designed, and the sophisticated technology used for the artwork production; but the primary feature of it was its ideological impact on the citizens, the mysteriousness and the secretiveness, which made the individual feel his insignificance in comparison to the gods or the representatives of sovereignty.
A piece of the Egyptian art always reflects the particular thought, while the art object itself is the way to transmit the idea from the representatives of the sovereignty to the society. Logan states that when comparing the art of the ancient civilizations of the European continent with the Egyptian art, the ideological significance of it becomes even more observable for the occasional watcher. The author reports that “Egyptian art has an “objectivizing” orientation, and Greek art a “subjectiving’ one… It is true that an Egyptian may be said to place his object for depiction in the centre and to encircle it with thoughts” (Logan 425). Such thought makes it harder to separate the initial meaning of the Egyptian art, and today’s insights concerning it, which are oriented mainly on the aesthetic features of the art objects. Simpson states that “the Egyptian art in many of its forms is propagandistic” (Simpson 266). The assumption can be verified by the attempts to combine both aesthetics and the ideology when observing the particular piece of the Egyptian art – the Abu-Simbel temples. The massiveness of forms is the main characteristic of this object, and the solemn representation of the pharaoh, Ramesses II, makes the building a significant aesthetic piece of the Egyptian architecture. However, its significance is hidden in the purpose of the creation of the temple (Simpson 266). When looking at the size of the statues guarding the central entrance, and correlate it with the average size of a human, one begins to wonder about the original meaning of the Abu-Simbel temples. The ideological message, in this case, is clear: the citizens should be aware of the fact that in comparison to the pharaoh they are the life forms with no significant meaning. If an Egyptian entered the temple, he/she would be amazed by the size of the statues, and by his or her nothingness. Pharaoh and gods were the ones genuinely significant – that was the main ideological code of most works of Egyptian art.
The meaning of the Egyptian art was limited to its function and the target audience for which an object was designed. Not only the ideological role, which was addressed in the previous paragraph but also the function as it is: the practical purpose of the particular object. Baines states that the word “art” was understood by the ancient Egyptians as “crafts,” which implies the availability of the practical purpose. The author states that “Egyptian category of ‘art,’ the nearest approach to such a thing being the word hmt, which is normally rendered ‘craft” (Baines 68). Additionally, the author reports that there were few people who could have access to an art object not only for the sake of perception but the producing of an object. He claims that “Characteristically Egyptian artistic culture of the Dynastic Period (from c. 3000) transformed its prehistoric precursors, and the new art and culture were available only to the elite” (Baines 70). Such attitude to the art forms production can also mean that they were designed to extend the gap between the representatives of the supreme authority, and average non-wealthy citizen.
Most of the art objects could be characterized as those, available solely for the ones who deserved to see them. Such unavailability of art made it be associated with the mysteriousness and secretiveness. Art was limited by not only ideology but also societally predetermined purposes. The fact that there was no “art” as it also supports the point that the function of it was either defined by the ability of an object to be of some practical use, or by the possibility of using it for support of the hierarchical system.
The next issue supporting the idea of the ideological purpose of the Egyptian art is the concept of canon, the availability of which proves the correctness of the point that not only was the number of the possible watchers limited based on their societal status, but also that the author himself did not have much freedom of representation. Robins and Fowler, when exploring this phenomenon, create a division between the so-called informal art (which is of no significance in this particular case), and the formal art, which, according to the authors, had a predefined way to the picturing of figures, and had “a limited number of poses, standing, sitting, or kneeling” (Robins and Fowler 21). The existence of the canonic ways of representation implies the obvious societal gap between the classes, as it makes art itself the concept which reflects the ideas of the representatives of the sovereignty. Davis states that such principles of the representation “are best referred to as the “canon” of official, Egyptian art; thus, a certain kind of art – the official, academic style commissioned by highly placed or royal patrons are imitated by other classes – makes up the canonical tradition” (Davis). Canon in ancient Egypt served as the method of influencing people by the repeatable forms, which reflected the guidelines of the sovereignty.
So, the function of the Egyptian art was limited primarily to its ideologically preset purpose, that is, art objects reflected the ideas produced by the representatives of the authority. The main views that were reflected in the artworks were the insignificance of an individual in comparison to the greatness of the gods and the pharaohs. Additionally, the art itself was available only to the elite, which contributed to the extending of the social gap between the classes. Finally, Egyptian art was produced according to the canon, that is, the pre-set way of depicting anything. All the listed features prove that the Egyptian art was limited by ideology, and the mysteriousness and secretiveness of it existed only to support the existing hierarchical order of the ancient society.
Baines, John. “On the Status and Purposes of Ancient Egyptian Art.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal, vol. 4, no. 01, 1994, p. 67., doi:10.1017/s0959774300000974.
Davis, Whitney. “Canonical Representation in Egyptian Art.” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics, vol. 4, 1982, pp. 20–46., doi:10.1086/resv4n1ms20166676.
Logan, Vernie, et al. “Principles of Egyptian Art.” Leonardo, vol. 9, no. 4, 1976, p. 336., doi:10.2307/1573378.
Robins, Gay, and Ann S. Fowler. Proportion and style in ancient Egyptian art. Thames and Hudson, 1994.
Simpson, William Kelly. “Egyptian Sculpture and Two-Dimensional Representation as Propaganda.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, vol. 68, 1982, p. 266., doi:10.2307/3821643.
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