Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Fjordman: Minoan Civilization and the Birth of European Art

Fjordman’s latest essay has been published at the Brussels Journal. Some excerpts are below:

Although the Incas in South America are sometimes described as a “civilization without writing,” most historians are reluctant to use that term for non-literate cultures. If we limit ourselves to urban, literate cultures then the first true European civilization we possess evidence of appeared on the island of Crete in the eastern Mediterranean more than four thousand years ago. The erection of the first palace-centers and the appearance of large towns took place there around 2200-2000 BC. The peak of their civilization came between 2000-1600 BC. The inhabitants created a sophisticated, thriving society with royal courts, large-scale architecture, cities and towns, and above all magnificent works of art. Their earliest writing system, pictographic or hieroglyphic, appeared before 2000 BC. By the 1700s they had adopted another kind of script, Linear A, which so far remains undeciphered. A third script called Linear B was adopted from the 1400s BC by the invading Mycenaean Greeks.

No extensive literature or descriptive writings have survived from this Cretan culture, and there are those who believe it never existed. Since their language is undeciphered it is theoretically possible that there is a Minoan Aristotle or Archimedes hidden away in their records, but from what we do know about them there is little to indicate this. The Minoans were apparently not brilliant mathematicians or natural philosophers like the Greeks were centuries later, but they were great artists who impressed some of their contemporaries.

Western culture is the only culture in the history of mankind to develop realistic, faithful depictions of beings and matter in our paintings and sculptures, rather than merely stylized depictions, creating ways to depict three-dimensional subjects in a two-dimensional format. A similar perspective was lacking in all other types of early art, be that Chinese or Japanese, Indian, Mesoamerican, African or Middle Eastern. Could this conceivably be because the Western man has perceived space and spatial relationships in a different way than others?

Some of the oldest, if not the oldest, works of art clearly identifiable as human and animal figures were created in Europe during the Upper Paleolithic, from ca. 40,000-10,000 BC. They include the Venus of Hohle Fels from Baden-Württemberg in Germany, which is almost 40,000 years old, cave paintings in Altamira in Spain or in Vila Nova de Foz Côa in Portugal, located in the famous Alto Douro wine region, not to mention Chauvet and Lascaux in France. The painted walls of Lascaux are among the most impressive artistic creations of the Paleolithic era. A few of these drawings show traces of techniques similar to perspective.
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A case can be made for the claim that the creation of unusually lifelike art for its time has been the hallmark of European civilization since its inception more than 4,000 years ago. This does not mean that artistic realism has been equally prominent in all places or at all times; it was not important following the collapse of Minoan civilization, just like it was not important during the Early Middle Ages after the collapse of Greco-Roman civilization. However, in all periods of great cultural dynamism, from Minoan civilization at its peak via Classical Greece to Renaissance Italy as well as Germany, France, Spain and the Low Countries, artistic realism has been a distinguishing trait of European culture. This constitutes perhaps the single most important thread of continuity in European culture, arguably stretching as far back as the Paleolithic era. This begs the following question: Does this have a genetic basis? Did European man view the world differently from his neighbors, perhaps even quite literally?

Several potentially serious objections can be raised to this hypothesis. The first one is that it is not at all certain that the genetic profile of the Minoans on Crete four millennia ago was comparable to that of Italian Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo, Masaccio or Raphael, not to mention painters north of the Alps like Rembrandt, Jan van Eyck, Vermeer or Albrecht Dürer. Europe is a big place after all. For that matter, it is not at all certain that the people who inhabit Crete today are quite like the Minoans. Four thousand years is a long time. This objection becomes even more serious if we consider Paleolithic art. Just to name one example, geneticists believe that not a single human being on Earth had either blond hair or blue eyes when the Lascaux cave paintings were created. Obviously, these are just among the most visible mutations, but it is likely that there were other evolutionary traits which affected mentality, too, especially since the rise of agriculture and associated diets happened after this.

These are weighty arguments that cannot be easily dismissed. Nevertheless, the incredibly rich history of Western art suggests that the hypothesis deserves serious consideration.

Read the rest at the Brussels Journal.