H is for Hieroglyphics

| February 25, 2014

This past Friday, I visited the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and this descriptive plaque in the Egyptian wing gives a particularly compelling explanation of how the Ancient Egyptians viewed art and aesthetics. Though we consider their hieroglyphic writings and artifacts as “art,” or at least possessing some kind of aesthetic value, this culture held a more didactic and/or functional approach, using glyphic writing and decorative elements to communicate ideas and practices. A hand mirror shaped like a sun disc reiterated myths of the sun god and seasonal cycles, connecting its user to a shared belief system. Statuary served as a tool of public relations, upholding a desired image of current and previous rulers. Tomb paintings and writings depicted the daily functions which were believed to continue in the afterworld, and contained instructions for the rituals which made this continuance possible. Education, in Ancient Egypt, was an aesthetic experience, and aesthetics were inherently didactic. Even the artistic techniques used during this period derived from the practices of scribes–that is to say, they were inherently tied to writing and communication, and pictoral writing placed the scribes in the role of “artist.” This perspective serves as an interesting contrast to our culture’s perception of “art for art’s sake,” which implicitly divides form and function, or casts them as somehow mutually exclusive when determining what qualifies as art.

(For my part, when looking at ancient artifacts I always tend to marvel at the idea of someone using that comb or bowl or dagger thousands of years ago, completely unaware that their household item would one day be put behind glass and stared at by thousands of strangers).