Three Thousand Years of Practice

This scholarly gothic is majestic in range, means, vision, and execution. Seltman wants to make a simple rule about all art and he wants to tell the story of ancient Greek art 2500 B.C.E. to 400 C.E. as Greeks should have understood it themselves. Which project is more outrageous? To defend a universal binary classification scheme for art or to unify ancient Greek art according to “their” view? I don’t know, but both are lots of fun to read. Also the images in this book are fantastic.

Look at all these details to give a fuck about. So dope.

Seltman on All Art Ever


Originally, men worked with wood or mud (clay). (Yes, he gives us a “since the dawn of time”intro! The book was originally published in 1948.)

With wood, they cut, bent, and joined it. With mud, they molded, pushed, cut, and textured it. Women worked with hair and other things, but this was not considered fine art, so Seltman says we should ignore it! Bold.

What did men make with these materials? Mostly useful things, which Seltman considers craft and boring. But sometimes they made art. And why? “[Man] may make useless things with these materials in part because he enjoys it, in part because he finds others to enjoy his creations and it does him good to be appreciated” (p8). From this perspective, patronage is essential to art. The artist has either got to enjoy the work or enjoy the results of others enjoying the product.

Working with wood, men learned to model and to sculpt, though the emphasis is usually on modeling. Sculpting is a negative process of removing things from an original material. Modeling is when you add things, building up a nice form. Generally, Seltman claims, modeling has a better time with realism (prose) and sculptures have a better change at formalism (poetry).

When men get access to new materials, such as stone, they treat it either as wood or mud. Stone worked better as mud. Seltman is here making the transhistorical claim that existing cultures assimilate new media on the basis of their understanding of older media, and that this makes a lasting impression in how they use the new media. I’m sure he’s mostly right, though he points to work done in stone that draws from metal, and most artists I know come to real materials with much more experience in software, making them unprepared for wind and torque and slippage. Anyway, a nice idea and maybe important for the Greeks.

Prose versus Poetry

All art is either prose or poetry. Seltman writes most of a chapter about this claim, but also points out many others have made similar fundamental, universal distinctions. What does this distinction mean in the plastic arts?

Prose is imitation of the ordinary form of seen objects. If you are looking at something while you work, you are probably making prose. If you are trying hard to represent a thing, you are probably making prose. Prose isn’t just for writing, it’s for all art forms. Cinema, sculpture, and speaking can all be prose.

Poetry is patterned arrangements of objects, forms, and figurative uses differing from ordinary or natural phenomena. If you are very particular about where the pattern repeats or does not, you are probably making poetry. If you are using meter, rhythm, grids, or strict sizing rules, you are probably making poetry. (Visual design and architecture, by the way, would count as primarily poetic.)

Both of these moods can be done better or worse, and it is possible to blend them. But it is essential that we respect the difference.

In other works, Seltman will expand this claim to say that prose is common in free societies, with poetry dominant in unfree ones. If you aren’t allowed to say what you are thinking, it does make sense that prose would go poorly. Again, though, it’s another wild universalizing claim from an old white man. So do take it with a pinch of particularizing salt. “Maybe this is just an artifact of his completely specific experience of art!”

Most of the book focuses on Greek art. But these few points of universal art theory are why I reread the book: to clarify the distinction for myself between prose and poetry in interactive installation art. If your installation is trying to show some particular thing — if it has a referent — you are making prose. If your installation is driven more by internal consistency and pleasant arrangement, you are doing poetry. Both are fine, but we should interpret each according to its own terms and not fault one for failing to be the other.

Seltman on Greek Art

The best part of this book may be the writing.

As the grey breath of illusion drifted away from the anxious soul of medieval man he began to know himself as an individual, even as the Greek had known himself long centuries before. And so in Italy, the rebirth of humanism came to pass, ushering in the modern world. Men turned to the glory of the ancients in literature as in the arts, and dwelt enraptured with their discoveries. A social world had arisen “which felt the want of culture, and had the leisure and means to obtain it. but culture, as soon as it freed itself from the fantastic bonds of the Middle Ages, could not at once find its way to the understanding of the physical and intellectual world. It needed a guide and found one in the ancient civilisation with its wealth of truth and knowledge in every spiritual interest (p11, quoting J Burckhardt, The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, Phaido ed. 1944 p 107)

Damn! I miss the elitist world where the publisher lost money on a book written like this confused why no one would read it, and where the potential audience felt that their inability to grapple with the prose might be some reason to try harder, rather than quit! Anyway, the content is good too.

We tend to think that marble sculpture was the high point of Greek art, but they actually preferred celature, which you have probably never heard of, due to patronage relationships across classes and social groups. Marble was just a rock to Greeks, and they usually painted and waxed it, using techniques from celature. In fact, the marble bowls and things they made in 2500 B.C.E. were already very well made, so this was old hat by the time of the Greek civilization we tend to find interesting.

Celature is working with precious metals, precious stones, and ivory. The smith who could do this was much appreciated for the entire historical period considered here (2500 B.C.E. to 400 C.E.) and had, in addition to earlier mythological giants and things endowed with his power, an Olympian god to honor his work, Hephaistos. (This ancient name draws from one of the old mountain giant names, and is from some language no one is really even sure which.)

Who loved celature? “[Chieftains] honoured the smith for the splendid armour he could make, sailors and adventurers admired him for the luxurious merchandise which his art could furnish, and farmers loved him because the warm forge was the village club” (p18). Seltman rarely calls attention to this, but he always locates the specific patronage relationships that sustain those practicing an art. He follows how patronage tutors the art, encouraging different modes at different times, sometimes to its benefit or detriment.

Ivory and gold figurine from Minoans on Crete. Circa 1600–1500 B.C.E.

The technique was already fairly well developed by the time great asiatic states departed the greek mainland. Seltman emphasizes that these people were leaving a somewhat religious place, and leaving behind its religion, thus becoming free thinkers. Ephesus, Samos, Chios, Lesbos, Rhodes, and Miletus are all good in his book and made really quality art.

In 650 B.C.E. Greeks encountered Egyptian art and were very impressed. The scale was much larger than Greeks had seen before and the bodies were poetic, making little attempt to describe specific real bodies. The Egyptian work was in decent stone, but the Greek islands had quality marble. The Greeks also had the opportunity to reinterpret meaning-bound monstrosity into free-wheeling artistic motif:

Sphinxes, gorgons, harpies, eagle-griffins, lion-griffins, centaurs, winged bulls human-headed, pegasus and dread chimaera, and the lurid creatures of Ezekiel’s vision, these were mostly sprung from oriental minds prone to imagine such horrid and mighty ministers dancing attendance on sinister and vindictive gods. But the gay, sceptical Greek adopted these creations mainly for entertainment value and for the fun you might get from playing artistically with monsters. (p21)

From 650 to 550 B.C.E. there was a great rush of marble carving, with most of the work done by a small number of families that were in a position to employee assistants and tutor new talent.

At about the same time (630 to 480 B.C.E.), Athens became a hotbed for art and culture, with a population under 200,000 it outdid any other time and place for art. Their painters worked on pots rather than paper, because there wasn’t any paper and papyrus wasn’t available either. This book doesn’t explain the roots of Attic industry or intellectual property or anything, but it does seem like Athens had highly skilled laborers painting pots and pushing product with great success. It’s baffling to me you can run with pottery as your main industry, but that’s how Seltman describes them. A few generations like this and the place was great. Anyway, in 430 B.C.E. there was a nasty plague and there was a war that dragged on too long so all was lost.

During this period, Seltman tracks a change in the patronage pattern, with art mostly made for temples and institutions in the 6th century, then for authority figures and men of power in the 5th, and finally to flatter women in the 4th. He definitely thinks the last phase was the best.

Demimondaines were killing it in Corinth, and this mirror case of Aphrodite was probably made for some sultry class climber to party hard and look great in 4th century Corinth. Seltman says this is really high quality work here.

Eventually, Greek art became archaic in style, copying the existing great work. Everything was remakes, made to sell, or outrageous and made to show that it was bigger and better than anything before. The state of greek art just declined during the Roman period, though celature remained sharp.

Seltman especially hates the Farnese Bull at the baths of Caracalla, which was a 2nd century C.E. Roman remake of a Greek sculpture, that is way over the top. Of this, Seltman spaketh: “Two young men tying a helpless woman to a mad bull is not an attractive subject save to some jaded habitué of the amphithreatre” (p113).

In this sculpture, two guys tie a woman to a mad bull so she’ll be dragged around and die because she may have been unfaithful to some other guy. Typical awful subject matter.

Then the Christians gained power in Rome just as they were getting really ascetic and ruined everything. This incredible paragraph ends the book.

Whatever the spiritual advantages of the new faith it was certainly a misfortune for the art of the people that some promoters of christianity should at that time in the fourth century of our era lay an overwhelming emphasis on qualities which to a Hellenic mind must have seemed not virtues but perversions. A wistful admiration for the life of contemplation and penance, fear of the world fo men, preparation for the tedium of a very concrete heaven, a haunting preoccupation with sin, a crazy exaltation of virginity, human sacrifice — not the simple kind that ends quickly with the stroke of a knife, but sacrifice through years of starvation, filth and flies in the burning sand of deserts; when such things happen in the world, art must wilt. (p118)


This book is fantastic and totally crazed. It’s inspiring that someone can look at so many tiny, somewhat destroyed objects and become completely confident about what art is and how it should be judged. Also the point about patronage and the inheritance and improvement of technique over time is quite nice, though it doesn’t quite tell you how to do it yourself.