Thursday, June 29, 2006

BBC production examines the 'why' of art

BBC production examines the 'why' of art: "'How Art Made the World' may sound like a grandiose title, but the five-part series makes some good arguments in support of that saucy assertion.

Co-producers public television station KCET and the BBC reject the predictable chronological format of 'who did what when' and focus on the question 'Why?' Why are representations of the human body frequently so unrealistic? Why do abstract patterns appear in prehistoric cave paintings? Why do humans create images of death?

The episodes visit sites both remote and spectacular on several continents (Asia is not represented, but that's a longer series) to explore the earliest known examples of artistic expression. They couple those objects -- which range from figurines to temples -- with the latest thinking of not only art historians and archaeologists but of psychologists and neuroscientists.

Highlights of some of the episodes are cave and rock paintings in Europe, Africa and North America, presented with evidence that their abstract patterning derives from trance states, and the filming of such a ritual; works commissioned by the likes of King Darius of Persia, Alexander the Great, and the Roman Augustus for political empowerment and propaganda; a first-century Greek grotto with digitally re-created statues depicting a dramatic scene from Homer's "Odysseus"; an Australian aboriginal storytelling ceremony that amplifies the impact of archetypal painted images; and an Etruscan tomb wherein heavenly and hellish scenes of the afterlife encourage self-sacrifice for the common good over surrender."

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Heroic literature's role in reducing warrior violence

I have now started a new lecture series about the High Middle Ages and find it interesting that with the loss of an emphasis on education and classical literature there seems to have been a precipitous decline in what I would call social conscience during late antiquity up to the High Middle Ages. Dr. Philip Daileader is presenting this lecture series too and he described how severe the problems of noble violence became. Where in the Roman Empire, the wealthy elite were expected to provide civil service and public works, a large number of the warrior elite of the early and high Middle Ages simply used their power to brutalize and extort more wealth from those around them whether another noble, merchant, or peasant.

Dr. Daileader said that clerics tried to stem the tide of violence with the peace and later truce of God movements but the most successful efforts to rein in the aristocracy were achieved with the introduction of chivalric literature modelled somewhat after classical heroic literature.

Dr. Daileader's description of early tournaments was also quite eye-opening. Like war games with fully loaded weapons, these tournaments would be as hazardous to those living near the site where the tournament was to take place as it was to participants. He said that if an opponent hid in a farmhouse, a participant would often burn down the farmhouse to "capture" the opponent, apparently without any concern for the farmer whatsoever. He also described kippers who were peasants with clubs hired by tournament participants to run out on the field and club an unhorsed knight senseless so he could be more easily stripped of his armor. If the person died, I guess that was just considered the breaks! These activities didn't sound any kinder or gentler than gladiator combat!

Monday, June 19, 2006

Depopulation as a primary cause of the fall of the western Roman Empire

In the concluding lecture of "The Early Middle Ages", Dr. Daileader
points out the shortcomings of the "fall" theories of both Edward
Gibbon and Henri Pirenne. Instead, he points to widespread
archaeological evidence of severe depopulation occuring between the
2nd and 7th centuries as the factor underming both the Roman economy
and the Roman military.

He stated that there was evidence of urban decay as early as 200 CE
with successive footprints of towns and cities growing smaller and
smaller. Although some of the urban population may have moved back to
the country, studies of laws dealing with deserted lands also became
increasingly more desperate from the 2nd century onward.

He admits climate change and increased warfare may have played a role,
but there is evidence that new diseases introduced during the second
century, measles and smallpox (probably from China), were devastating
even before the Bubonic plague made its first appearance in the 6th
century. The resulting deurbanization severely impacted such Roman
institutions as its educational systems.

Although he attributed the loss of organized institutions to
depopulation it still leaves the question of why there was a cessation
of tutorage among the elite unless they, too, became so impoverished
they could no longer afford tutors?

As for Pirenne's theory of economic collapse because of disruption of
trade routes by Islamic conquests, Dr. Daileader points out that
current research shows that trade was still quite active through the
Northern Arc via Viking traders. In fact, Daileader points out that
the number of major routes (via Russia) connecting the Mediterranean
with Carolingian Europe actually increased sixfold. He highly
recommended Michael Mccormick's book "Origins of the European Economy:
Communications and Commerce" that was published in 2001 as an
excellent study of this phenomenon.

Church efforts to reshape Roman and Barbarian family structures

I continue to be enthralled by Dr. Daileader's course "The Early Middle Ages" offered through The Teaching Company".

Another fascinating area that Dr. Daileader expounds upon is the
evolution of the family structure during Late Antiquity and the Early
Middle Ages. Dr. Daileader pointed out that Roman and Germanic
families shared several important traits. These include the fact that
a family was based on a concept of household rather than core family
unit. The household would include servants, clients, and property.
Heads of households wielded extensive power over its members including
the acceptance or rejection of newborns. Both Roman and Germanic
peoples practiced marriage but accepted other relational forms such as
concubinage and divorce was an acceptable practice to terminate a
relationship. Both Romans and Barbarians favored indogamy (marriage
within the kin group) to preserve concentrations of wealth within the
extended family. Adoption was also viewed as a totally acceptable way
to augment a family if appropriate heirs had not been produced.

But, significant differences existed as well. Romans practiced
monogamy while polygamy was widely practiced among Germanic tribes.
In a Roman marriage, property was transferred from the bride's family
(dowry) to the groom while in Germanic marriage, the property transfer
went from the groom to the bride in form of bride price and morning
gifts. A Roman marriage required the freely given consent of the two
individuals but a Germanic marriage did not. (He pointed out that
under Roman law a pater familias could involk the death penalty if an
offspring refused to go through with a prearranged marriage but the
marriage itself could not be performed unless both parties agreed to it).

As the two cultures began to fuse and Christianity spread, however,
the church sought to openly reshape family patterns. The church began
to impose sanctions against marriage within the kin group going as far
as the sixth cousin and even forbid marriage to members of godparents
families and even in-laws family members. The church condemmed
infanticide but also opposed adoption. The church opposed divorce but
also opposed remarriage of widows and widowers. Lastly the church
condemned concubinage.

Historian Jack Goody theorized that the church attacked these
practicies because they were strategies of heirship designed to
maximize the possibility of producing an heir so family property could
be transmitted to the next generation. He speculates that this was
done to increase the chances that the church would ultimately receive
bequests of property and increase its concentration of wealth.

Historian David Herlihy argued that the church condemed these
practices for reasons of morality, theology, and social utility. As I
do not see what the moral purpose was for opposing adoption,
remarriage of widows and widowers, and marrying extremely distant
relatives, I find it hard to accept Herlily's argument. It was also at
this time that the Carolingians introduced the 10 percent tithe
extracted with the force of secular law from all practitioners in an
effort to increase church finances so a network of churches could be
built throughout the Carolingian empire. So I personally would be
more receptive to Goody's theory than Herlihy's.

Friday, June 16, 2006

'The Rape of the Sabine Women' Will Preview at the Nasher Museum of Art

'The Rape of the Sabine Women' Will Preview at the Nasher Museum of Art: "The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University will present the preview exhibition of a new video, ?The Rape of the Sabine Women,? by Eve Sussman and her international company of collaborators, The Rufus Corporation, from July 6 through Sept. 24.

The new work is a video-musical inspired by the French neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David?s masterpiece, ?The Intervention of the Sabine Women? (1794-1799), documenting the ancient Roman myth of abduction. It features choreography by Claudia de Serpa Soares, costuming by Karen Young and an original score by composer Jonathan Bepler.

The video, about one hour long, will be on a continuous loop on a large screen as the sole exhibition in one of the museum?s main galleries. The NasherMuseum is the first venue to preview the video, a work in progress that Sussman and The Rufus Corporation will continue to edit.

The Nasher Museum of Art is a major new arts center on Duke?s campus that serves the university, Research Triangle area and surrounding region with exhibitions and educational programs.

The Rufus Corporation?s sources for the project include contemporary news photography; paintings by David, Peter Paul Rubens and Nicolas Poussin; early modern architecture in Greece and Berlin; and experimental films of the 1960s. The video was shot on location in Greece and Germany.

?The Rape of the Sabine Women? is a modern process piece that pits the mid-20th-century ideal of ?better living through design? against such eternal themes as power, longing, aggression and desire. Months of improvisation went into creating a work in which the banality of a love triangle grows to epic proportions. Women and children ultimately intervene in a battle that develops from the modernist dream gone awry.

The final fight is staged at Herodion theatre in Athens. Five iconic locations (the PergamonMuseum and the TempelhofAirport in Berlin; the Athens Meat Market; a seaside home built in 1961 by the architect Nikos Valsamakis and the Herodion Theatre at the Acropolis) metaphorically echo classic, fascist and modernist themes behind the power struggles played out by the characters."