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Art and life in ancient Egypt
Art and life in ancient Egypt

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1.1 Exercising artistic skill

One of the commonest traditional ideas about art is that it involves the exercise of some kind of skill. It is as if a craft skill, woodcarving for example, or goldsmithing, could be taken to such a pitch of perfection that the resulting object transcended its original category and ascended into the category of ‘art’.

The post-Renaissance Academic tradition was largely about codifying the kinds of skills in the manipulation of a relatively restricted range of media that could result in producing a work of art. By way of distinction from ‘mere’ craft skill, however, the practice also involved the exercise of intellectual control: one thinks of ‘learned’ artists such as Poussin or Rubens. The concept of ‘fine art’ or ‘high art’ that was in place by the eighteenth century was quite exclusive – excluding many practices such as the ‘lesser arts’ or crafts that previously had counted as art, and by extension also excluding many practices of visual culture from around the world, past and present alike.

By contrast, the avant-garde tradition of ‘modern art’, and subsequently the contemporary development of so-called ‘postmodernist’ art have shown how the category of ‘art’ can survive and prosper even when divested of any craft-related concept of skill. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries learning and skill became the negative signifiers of academicism, increasingly trumped by individualistic notions of sincerity, spontaneity and feeling. In the later twentieth century, manual or craft skills became widely associated with more or less archaic ‘artisanal’ forms of production, and artists turned to contemporary modes such as industrial fabrication and mass production, or even the rejection of material production at all.

The expansion in the concept of art should have made us sensitive about offering exclusive definitions of what is and isn’t, can and can’t be ‘art’. Nonetheless, it is worth emphasising two important features of our modern thinking about art in order to highlight the differences and difficulties we encounter with ancient Egyptian art: autonomy and artistic authors.