Art as Communication
As a communications studies major, I was always taught that nonverbal communication is the most ineffective way of relaying messages to others. Nonverbal messages can be difficult to interpret because nonverbal cues are multi-channeled; that is, they can be transmitted in a variety of ways simultaneously. People can convey nonverbal messages through their facial expressions, voice qualities, eye gazes, postures, and gestures, all of which have a different meaning for different people. Thus, it can be challenging to accurately understand and interpret nonverbal messages from others. As a result, many people rely on articulate sounds and written text to communicate because these messages are often straightforward in meaning. For example, me sighing does not necessarily convey the message that I’m tired because a sigh can also be an indication of boredom. Explicitly stating “I’m tired” through speech or writing more effectively conveys the message.
However, upon visiting the Ancient Worlds Collections at the MFA last week, it became apparent to me that many of the sculptures and murals that lacked written statements were able to clearly convey themes and ideas. I began to explore the concept of visual art as a form of communication. I realized that although words and text on art can be an effective complement, they are not the primary way messages are conveyed. I was particularly interested in the funerary decorations of the Geometric phase to the Classical phase of Greek art.
I learned that during the Geometric period, kraters, such as the Dipylon krater, were widely used for funerary decoration. The Dipylon krater was a terracotta krater what was placed on top of a grave, serving as a grave marker. The Dipylon krater had the first depiction of humans, and the repetitive, patterned images of the humans and animals on the exterior depicted the cycle of life and death. The purpose of the Dipylon krater is communicated nonverbally with this repetitive and cyclical pattern. These kraters also depicted funerary rites. The size and intricacy of these vases reflected the status and wealth of the dead. Bigger and more elaborately decorated vases indicated that the deceased person was of high status. Without having to describe these various areas in written text, the status, education, and wealth of the deceased person are all displayed via images on the Dipylon krater.
Transitioning to the Archaic period, decorative kraters and vases for funerary rites stopped being used. Actual life-size statues were used instead. The human aspect was still present from the Geometric period, however, the statues were not placed on top of the grave but instead inside the grave, serving as gifts for the Gods. For example, the Kouros Kroisos statue served as a grave marker for a fallen young warrior named Kroîsos. At this time, death was considered as a new stage in one’s life, so it was important to enter this stage as confident and satisfied. The nonverbal gestures depicted on the statues’ faces suggested that the subject was alive. Most notable on the Kouros Kroisos statue is his “archaic smile,” which nonverbally communicates his well-being and happiness.
The Classical period still harbored the human aspect, however, funerary decoration did not consist of kraters and statues but of steles, which were upright stone slabs or columns that served as gravestones. The Grave Stele is a marble slab that served as the entrance to a temple. Depicted on the slab are two women, which continues the theme of humans. However, it depicts only one scene, not a bunch of scenes as we saw on the Dipylon krater. The woman standing must be the servant because she is delivering the woman (who is sitting in an elaborate chair) a jewelry box. Through this image, the audience is able to understand that the stele is recognizing a prominent and wealthy woman figure who is being delivered a jewelry box (a symbol of wealth) by a servant. Similar to the works presented above, the status and wealth of the deceased are communicated nonverbally through art.
While observing the funerary decorations of Ancient Greece, I was reminded of the African talking drums described in “The Information” by James Gleick. The African drums are a means of communication because they involve the relaying of messages through their sounds and tonal aspects. The vibrations and paralinguistic qualities of the drums are what communicate messages. Gleick states: “the extra drumbeats, far from being extraneous, provide context. Every ambiguous word begins in a cloud of possible alternative interpretations…Listeners are hearing only staccato drum notes, low and high, but in effect, they ‘hear’ the missing consonants and vowels, too. For that matter, they hear whole phrases, not individual words” (25). People make meaning by listening to the drums and understanding the paralinguistic qualities of the messages. This is similar to understanding the messages presented in the art I described above. In both cases, no text is being used to aid the understanding of the medium’s message. However, it is still possible to understand the messages and ideas the medium is trying to convey through sounds, images, and other nonverbal data. For example, when played on the African drum, a faster beat means something different than a slower beat. Similarly, a more intricate carving of a Greek stele means something different than a less intricate carving.
I also observed the Mesopotamian “Foundation deposit of Warad-Sin of Larsa” of the Isin-Larsa period. This foundation deposit was found in Iraq around 1834-1832 BC. A few similarities between the Ancient Greek pieces and this piece is that they are both made of durable material, which indicates that they were built to last. The funeral markers of Ancient Greece were either made of metal or limestone, and this Foundation deposit of Mesopotamia is made of limestone. According to the placards and translations, the foundation deposit was set in the foundation of a temple so that “future generations…would find it and remember who had ordered the original work.” Thus, this medium served the purpose of communicating messages to future generations, and these messages were engraved into the limestone so they could be passed down from generation to generation. This is where the Foundation deposit is characteristically different from the Ancient Greek pieces. The Foundation deposit contains various symbols and characters engraved on it. The inscriptions are clearly displaying a message, however, if one doesn’t know how to properly decipher the characters and symbols of a message, then one will not understand it.
All of the pieces I observed at the MFA—in one way or another—intended to communicate some sort of message. In Ancient Greece, I realized that the primary purpose of art was to communicate wealth, status, and emotion; there is a correlation between how intricately the piece is engraved and wealth, as well as the facial expressions depicted on the person and emotion. However, the Ancient Greek pieces were able to communicate these messages without any written component. On the other hand, the Mesopotamian Foundation deposit employed text and symbols to communicate messages. In conclusion, I was surprised at how effective the Ancient Greek art pieces were in communicating ideas and concepts. I learned that there are different methods of relaying information, and even though one necessarily is not more “effective” than the other, words and text aren’t the only components essential to communicate a message.