Visible Language

Lab 2: Visible Language

Museum of Fine Arts: Attentive Looking

Thoughts about Art

During our field trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, I made several discoveries and observations. The first discovery was that I stood by the wrong entrance. I had a nice discussion with an older man about the number of entrances the museum had as we waited for the glass doors to unlock. I thought that either I’m very early or everyone else is late. I figuring out quickly that it was me and made a run for the group entryway. We walked passed the theater and the cafe and made our way to the exhibit called Art of the Ancient World Collections.

I quickly made an observation about the title that caught my eye. Calling the exhibit “art” seemed a bit vague to me because I noticed that most of the artifacts had very specific purposes in ancient societies that conveyed more than art, it was for physical/mental/spiritual/societal stability. In other words, I feel that ancient pictures and texts that are on display at museums are sometimes looked at as artistic expression, but they have meanings that go beyond that. Ancient artists didn’t just make art for its own sake, it had a strong purpose. Images of Gods were carved into shields for protection in battle and detailed paintings decorated tombs for the dead to transfer safely to the afterlife.

As someone who did not grow up with a religion, I find the handcrafted imagery in these artifacts fascinating because they truly believed gods painted on a shield could save them from death (not saying it didn’t, but for someone who has a hard time being spiritual, I doubt the method). It was survival for them. This exhibit made me reconsider what the word “art” means to me and whether all ancient artifacts with any images and text can be defined as just art…or something different? and are we giving these artifacts less weight by defining them by such a loose word?…or maybe I’m thinking too deeply about a title of an exhibit?

In the Oxford Dictionary, art is defined as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Most of the artifacts I observed at the exhibit were of high importance either for burials, war, record keeping, religious practices, storytelling, and more. I guess what I’m trying to convey is that if you think of today’s definition of the word “art” (or my own personal definition which I guess I’m weighing this argument on), the formation of some these artifacts rise above being defined as that and are rather acts of survival, communication, and critical expressions of spiritual needs. I guess I can argue that art is important for survival, which it is, but for some reason, I can’t shake the thought that these specific artifacts I observed were more than what I consider to be art.

A better example is the African drums mentioned in Chapter 2 of Gleick’s book The Information. If we called the sounds of the African drums merely music, would we be undermining the medium as a language? As a crucial communication method? Are the African drums a form of speech or musical expression, or both? And depending on which descriptive word we choose, does the meaning or our understanding of the medium change? For example, in class we discussed Butler’s “Speech Sounds” and if it would be worse to lose understanding of the drums or ability to play them. If you view the drums as a language it’s easy to discuss within the realms of the story. If you see the drums as music without speech, does playing and understanding the drums convey bodily reactions/emotions without the need for language? Maybe, the drums would then be untouchable to the disease mentioned in Butler’s story. This discussion is hijacking my my field journal, but it really is an interesting thought; how we all have slightly different definitions of words and beliefs about where they are contextually appropriate.

Description of Two Artifacts

  1. Winged Deity of Northern Iraq:

As I was walking around the dimly lit exhibit, I locked eyes on a large slab of alabaster, which might have been due to its size and multiple spotlights surrounding it, but nonetheless, it was beautiful. Intricate carvings of images and text covered the surface. The description of the piece mentioned it’s origin, Northern Iraq 883-859 B.C. Its original home was the Northwest Palace of Calakh, Assyrian during the reign of Assurnasirpal II. During its younger years, it was decorated with colors that have now faded from aging. The image is a bearded, winged deity pollinating a tree. He wears fine jewelry, a hat, and from what I can assume are two daggers on his chest. From the image, I get a feeling of protection and prosperity. The image is covered with text across the middle of the Alabaster describing Assurnasirpal II’s achievements and victories.

From looking closely at the text, the language is made up of small triangular shapes dug into the surface. Each symbol is made up of a specific amount of triangles organized into patterns, representing either words or letters. It looks like cuneiform, although it’s not specified in the description. Each line of text is visibly underlined, resembling a paragraph on ruled paper. From looking at the inscription, I would imagine the written language was hard to learn. It’s incredibly dense and I can hardly differentiate between the triangular shapes. Since the artifact was hung up in a palace, I assume that this was commissioned by a someone very skilled. The size of the artifact tells me that the palace was a place of royalty and wealth. The description mentions how similar artifacts were hung around the palace for protection, guarding the king against trouble. It reminds me of my earlier argument, how to me it may look like a piece of art, but to Assyrians, the winged deities were necessary for safety. The text listing the king’s achievements was a form of storytelling as well as record keeping. Also to take it a step further, maybe it was a way to keep a peace of mind. Reading about past successes and victories makes it easier to imagine more in the future.

  1. Cuneiform Tablet in Sumerian

I decided to choose a smaller artifact to contrast the diety. Observing the tablet, I noticed it was very small, dense with Sumerian writing and images. Every space was filled to the edges. The small size suggested it was meant to be easy to travel with. The description mentioned it was used for trade as a receipt for grain during the Third Dynasty of Ur around 2037 B.C. Although not similar in size, the text on the tablet included some triangular shapes carved into the clay similar to the winged deity. The text also includes characters that look like early forms of Chinese symbols. This tablet was solely used for trade, yet looking at the stamp seal, it has figures of gods on it. To unfamiliar eyes, the seals look like art, but are actually used as forms of identification or signatures. I personally wouldn’t call a cuneiform tablet a work of art. I would call it an ancient medium for business, which as mentioned in the Lab introduction, developed into other mediums we now view as art and literature.

Comparison of the Two Artifacts

By looking at the artifacts, the difference between them is vast. The tablet, small and made out of clay, was used by traders and common folk as a receipt. The winged deity was a symbol of protection in a prosperous home. Yet, both archeological finds served very important, practical meanings during their times. Both were forms of record keeping; memories written down to be looked back upon and relied on. Writing as a medium for storing memory began a whole new chapter for humans. Before writing, humans relied on loyalty and mutual respect. Since there was no way to record information, a person’s word was the record.

In class, it was mentioned that writing has altered how we form memories, but I wonder if it’s also altered our perception of loyalty and trust. We no longer rely on memory and spoken words for storing information. Contracts are signed and voices are recorded to make sure our promises to each other are kept. We now charge interest if we lend money because lending anything for the sole purpose of being kind is rare. Did they have interest payment in ancient Sumer? I’m not sure if it’s all related, but I can’t help but feel a bit cynical about how our world has developed in terms of our connections to each other. Before writing, not that I know what it was like, but I assume that loyalty must’ve been a fundamental trait in order for a society to function. You kept your word while trading to make sure others did the same for you. Then again, I counteract that point by wondering if record keeping was invented because relying on loyalty wasn’t working out? So many questions! So little space and I can go on forever, but I’ll stop here and continue my explorations in another field entry.