08 December 2011

Guest Post: Beautiful tableware? On beauty and 'doing' pottery

Today's guest post by Rinse Willet, a PhD student at KU Leuven and archaeologist at the Sagalassos project, is a meditation on beauty in objects and what it means for archaeologists who 'do' pottery.

In my study of Roman tableware, I find myself often in awe of the quality of the pieces of terra sigillata, so commonly found throughout the Roman Empire. Millions of these vessels were made from the mid-2nd century BC to the 7th century AD. During this period, Many production centers were active, though dominance of the ancient 'market' shifted over time. The shapes, decorations, and sizes of the vessels changed over time as well.

Yet for this entire period, terra sigillata is associated with the formal serving and eating of food and drink. Though I am intrigued by the sheer effort expended to produce and transport these vessels, but I also have to appreciate how beautifully most of them are made. Is this a fluke on my part, or did the actual users of these vessels think they were beautiful too?
The Portland Vase (Wikimedia)
More after the jump.

This question for me becomes even more intriguing when Roman tableware made in silver or glass is considered. Pieces such as the glass Portland Vase (early 1st century AD), the silver Boscoreale cups (1st century AD) or the silver Missorium of Theodosius (late 4th c AD) are renowned for their richness in decoration and complexity in design.

The Missorium of Theodosius
A cup from the Boscoreale Treasure, now in the Louvre, Paris (Wikimedia)
To see these as just utilitarian vessels is to overlook their design entirely. (Though the Portland Vase is famous, to my knowledge, little research has been devoted to its actual use in Antiquity!) The vessels served as signifiers of the owner’s and user’s status, identity, political alignment, and religion. These (rarely encountered) vessels in silver were copied, mimicked, emulated or ‘reimagined’ in terra sigillata as well. But again, I wonder when looking at these objects, whether they were also appreciated for their aesthetical value as well. Were these objects considered beautiful and if so why?

Left: Silver dish, Turin. Right: terra sigillata dish, Athens National Museum.
My intuition is that the ancients must have appreciated these pieces for their beauty. Through the study of Roman art and architecture we can establish the aesthetic values of the day. Ancient texts like Vitruvius help us in that respect as well. There seems a slim likelihood that all these objects were disliked aesthetically by their creators and users!

But how do we answer these questions scientifically? We can never really know the minds of people in the past - and we probably can all think of decorative objects we think are ugly. Basically, when we ask whether an object (or anything for that matter) is beautiful, we are asking a question about taste. In the best case, we can say that tastes are a product of the culture in which the arbiter is situated: in other words, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To try to enter the Roman mind via our personal taste for these Roman objects is rightfully critiqued by processual archaeologists such as Colin Renfrew (1994,6):
This total experience of 'being' that other, long-dead person, or at least undergoing an experience to be compared with theirs, is what characterizes the subjective, idealist and interpretationist approach of the anti-processual and 'postmodern' archaeologist. The cognitive-processual archaeologist is sceptical of the validity of this empathetic experience, and sceptical too of the privileged status which must inevitably be claimed by the idealist who is advancing an interpretation on the basis of this intuitive, 'I-was-there' experience.
Another (more scientific) way to reconstruct the ancient perception of beauty is to see if there is a non-culturally determined aspect of (the appreciation of) beauty. That is to say, are there any aspects of perceived beauty that are common for most humans in different cultural settings? Are aspects of beauty hard-wired in our brains? Is the experience of beauty in effect part of our human nature?
The study of human cognition can be traced back to philosophers such as Plato, Descartes, Spinoza and Locke, but the cognitive sciences took off in full earnest in the middle of the 20th century. Behaviorism was an influential philosophy in the first half of the 20th century in the quest for explaining human actions, thought and feelings. Bluntly speaking, behaviorism considers all human action as behavior, which is shaped by our responses to the environment and thus that our behavior is determined by past learning experiences. (Think for example of Pavlov’s dogs or the conditioning in the movie A Clockwork Orange).

The focus on behaviors as a ‘learned’ trait (such as language) was challenged in the late 1950’s by several scholars, notably the linguist Noam Chomsky. He argued instead that much of the knowledge of syntax (basically the grammar underlying the language) is innate. This explains why young children pick up a language very quickly and animals are unable to learn a language at all. This challenge to the behaviorist school paved the way for what is now called the cognitive revolution, starting from the 1960’s onward.

Chomsky speaks at Carleton College. Warning, talk is two hours! (YouTube)

Together with advances in neurology the internal workings of the brain and the mind are beginning to get unraveled. This has revealed how language and the mind relate: more recently, scientists at Berkeley have even developed techniques to visualize the movies in our the mind via brain scans.

To come back to beauty, recently the late professor of philosophy Denis Dutton presented the case for the more hard-wired aspects of aesthetics. In his book The Art Instinct, Dutton explores a Darwinian model to explain what and why various things are considered beautiful. He is not proposing a solution to aesthetics, but rather a tool to understand it better. He argues that the experience of beauty is the result of our evolved psyches. Next to natural selection – based on traits that increase survivability and which explains why certain foods taste good or smell bad – evolution also works with sexual selection to increase the chances of procreation. Think of the tail of a peacock, the antlers of a stag, or the songs, dances, or colorful display of some male birds, which they perform to attract the attention and interest of female birds.

Dennis Dutton: A Darwinian Theory of Beauty (TED Talks)

The experience of being attracted and interested can help make better adaptive decisions. Dutton connects this to the experience of beauty: in a sense, beauty has evolved in human culture to help us make better adaptive decisions. Dutton relates this directly to an observed cross-cultural preference for a certain type of landscape, similar to the savannas of the Pleistocene (and to which we are supposedly best adapted?). Dutton continues to link beauty to display of craftsmanship and the arts as well, whereby skilled performance and virtuoso display (among eleven others aspects) are the cross-cultural universalities in art. His book does not so much explain the diversity of beauty, but rather explores its commonalities.

Although I am not qualified to judge Dutton's proposal, I find it appealing that it can be applied to 'high culture' (whatever that means) but also to art or craft found in daily life: the landscapes depicted on calendars, or Acheulean hand-axes. Although he makes a clear distinction between art and craft (Dutton, 2009, 226-230), Thorstein Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption is also linked to sexual selection and the handicap principle. It basically states that if you can make an item that is not strictly utilitarian, or able to consume such an item, then you display your might ('I can take on the world with one hand tied behind my back!'). Think of the peacock, whose elaborate plumage impresses mates but lowers its chances of survival (Dutton, 2009, 156). In this framework Dutton also addresses the link between experienced beauty and perceived costliness:
The very idea that costliness and art are intrinsically connected in our aesthetic psychology may be a disagreeable possibility, but if it turns out to be true, it is a fact that is better faced than buried.
But does this explain my experience of Roman tableware – or, more importantly, the Roman experience of their tableware? Every expression of art has its own cultural peculiarities. It is one thing to say that the Portland Vase is a virtuoso display of craftsmanship, or that its general shape is symmetrical, which is a trait commonly appreciated by people living in many different cultures.  But this does not explain directly what is displayed in the (asymmetrical) scenes, and why. The Boscoreale cups are a display of skilled craftsmanship – and of the consumption of craftsmanship –  but this is only part of the story. Terra sigillata can be made to resemble ornate silver vessels, but they were probably not as highly regarded as the silver. If Dutton is correct this is not just because the material is less costly, but because of a different appreciation of their beauty as well.

The beauty of the ‘Art Instinct’ is that it provides a very human side to the analysis of art. As archaeologists, we try to bind the past and the present together through the study of material objects. Dutton’s model, which tries to explain the experience of beauty as something which connects all humans, can help us in our quest – which makes it doubly sad that he did not live long enough to further develop and apply his ideas.

Further Reading
D. Dutton, 2009, The Art Instinct. Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution, Oxford University Press, Oxford
C. Renfrew, 1994, "Towards a cognitive archaeology", in C. Renfrew and E.B.W. Zubrow (eds.), The ancient mind. Elements of cognitive archaeology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 3-13
J. Hayes, 1997, Handbook of Mediterranean Roman Pottery, British Museum Press, London
E. Swift, 2009, Style and Function in Roman Decoration. Living with Objects and Interiors, Ashgate, Aldershot
R.E. Leader-Newby, 2004, Silver and Society in Late Antiquity. Functions and Meanings of Silver Plate in the Fourth to Seventh Centuries, Ashgate, Aldershot

1 comment:

  1. Modern terra sigillata is made by adding a deflocculant such as sodium silicate to a watery clay/water slip mixture and then allowing the clay particles to separate into layers by weight. For undisturbed deflocculated slip settling in a transparent container, these layers are visible within a day.