The Archaic kouros is a very conservative type of sculpture. Freestanding marble sculptures, of this greater than life-size-scale, are extremely expensive items in any period; and they must have been even more so in the Archaic period, which had few good sources of marble; a very small number of craftsmen who had the ability to carve such stone; and very limited means of transportation to move stone, craftsmen or sculpture from place to place. Kouroi can only have been commissioned by members of the highest social classes, because they were the only people who could afford them.
To understand the kouroi in relation to the social class responsible for commissioning them we need to turn for a moment to a tangential topic, burial of the dead in order to help explain the conservatism of the kouros. Through excavation archaeologists have established that in Attica over the course of the seventh and sixth centuries, there was a great increase in the number of burials. Some archaeologists have suggested that this change indicates there was a huge increase in the population. Other scholars more sensibly suggest that what the increase of burials means, is, simply, that that there was an increase in burials, meaning not that there were more people to be buried, but rather that more bodies being treated in this manner after death. According to this view, what we see here is an increase in the number of people who chose, or had chosen for them after they died, forms of burial which are easier than many other ways of disposing of the dead to find in the archaeological record.
What appears to have occurred during this early period is that a mode of burial which seems originally to have been the exclusive preserve of the aristocracy was used more and more by a greater percentage of the entire population. As a response to this widening use of what once had been a solely aristocratic mode of treating the dead, the aristocrats began to mark their graves with the large ceramic vases in an attempt to continue distinguishing themselves in death as they did in life.
The image on the left is an example of such a grave marker . We should note that it is almost 2 meters tall. Over time, this practice of using such vases as markers, also seems to have been appropriated by a wider range of people than had first used it, and in response to this more prevalent use, aristocrats began to use kouroi as markers over their burials. Being much more expensive than cermaic vases, and therefore well beyond the economic means of the vast majority of people, these kouroi remained the exclusive preserve of the aristocracy.
This explanation is not entirely satisfactory, as it is built upon a sort of trickle down model of social change. As well, it only accounts for the kouroi that served as grave markers such as the one of Kroisos and the example now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nonetheless this explanation may provide us with at least a crude outline of the changes that took place in Attica. And as crude as this hypothesis may be, this change in the mode of marking burials is similar to what happened to the epic poems. In the eighth century oral epic poetry seem to have been written down to preserve traditional heroic values. Kouroi then do very close to the same thing as the poems. As images of the heroic ideal they freeze what is basically a Homeric ideal, in this case into stone.
Kouroi then are backwards looking in their purpose, and I think that this is why they changed so little between ca. 650 and 500. They emphasized a traditional aristocratic view of the hero that remained essentially unchanged throughout this period. This is why they all look so similar.
What was the sculptor's place in all this? A sculptor's role in carving a work like a kouros was not that much different than the role of a lyric poet, such a Pindar, who wrote odes for the winners of the games at Olympia. They used their craft to make a living. Like lyric poets writing odes for winners at Olympia, a sculptor of Archaic kouroi used his craft for aristocratic patrons. In both writing lyric poetry and carving stone sculpture, there was no tension between the desire for individual expression and what one was expected to execute for a patron. Remember the archaic Greek kouroi that we have examined today: did not celebrate the artist. Instead they celebrated the ancient heroic dead, the patron or the class of patrons.
Thus, the ancient Greek conception of a sculptor is quite unlike the one suggested in this photograph made by the American artist Edward Steichen, in 1902 of the French sculptor Rodin in front of his all too famous statue, "The Thinker." In this photograph, Steichen clearly wants Rodin to be thought of as both a thinker, that is an intellectual, and a sculptor, as someone who has the ability of both mind and hand to execute a work such as his "Thinker." Today, we put a premium on this idea of the sculptor as the thinking intellectual who can make beautiful things, someone who we call in modern English, "an artist." Not so in antiquity. Here on the left a Greek painter of the fifth century BCE depicted what sculptors did as something quite different. On a kylix or drinking cup now in Berlin, this ancient painter depicted men sculpting by showing them as sculptors busy at work. In the center of the figure two sculptors are finishing a larger than life size bronze statue while two gods look on from either side. Note that these craftsmen are not shown in the act of thinking, but rather in the act of making.
The modern idea of the artist simply did not exist in antiquity. Neither ancient Greek, nor ancient Latin has a word that any where approaches the modern English word of artist. In fact, they did not have an equivalent of our word art. In antiquity, painting and sculpting very much belonged to the mechanical arts, that is, they were placed among the crafts and not the liberal or intellectual arts where we would place them today. In antiquity, artists were craftsmen and not intellectuals. In antiquity painters' or sculptors' works might be both highly valued and highly praised. Their works might even express complex ideas and values such as we have found in the kouroi we examined today. But it is the skill in execution that is valued most by their contemporaries, and not their ability to think through complex ideas. In the Iliad, there is a very famous passage (18: 460 ll.) describing the shield that the ancient Greek God of the forge, Hephaestos, creates for Achilles to take with him when he returns to battle near the end of the poem. In this passage, Homer praises Hephaestos solely for his ability to represent and not at all for the ability to devise the complex content of what he actually chose to represent on the shield. If we take a moment to reflect on what we have just outlined here, we can see that we are examining a culture that has no word or concept to express what people like Picasso or Rodin do. Having no such concept makes the Greeks, fundamentally, very different from us.
This fundamental difference between late twentieth-century America and ancient Greece is echoed by our earlier examination of the kouroi which we saw were memorials to heroic death, a death that was celebrated in ancient Greece but is very difficult for us to understand. These differences between the Greeks and us are often ignored in order to create a seamless continuity between the Greeks and ourselves. By seeing such false continuity we lose the chance to use ancient Greek culture to help us better understand the present. Such differences between the archaic Greek ideas about these subjects and your own can be used to reconsider the assumptions that you use to shape them.
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