Why is Greek art important?
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Ancient Greek Art

woman playing a sort of harp
A slave woman plays a kithara
(Athens, ca. 480 BC)

June 2016 - Artists in ancient Greece thought of art as a way of creating order out of chaos - taming wild things and making them into something human and good. Greek musicians took noise and turned it into regular patterns of sound, with rhythms, melodies, and harmonies. Greek musicians sang songs and played the lyre and pipes and a kind of tambourine. Greek philosophers like Pythagoras tried to figure out the mathematical patterns of music: how music and numbers were related to each other. Greek plays, which started as a kind of musical performance, brought music together with explorations of ethical questions and contrasted irrational emotion (often personified by female characters) with calm reasoning (often embodied by male characters).

nude sculpture of a boy
Kritios Boy (Athens, ca. 480 BC)

Greek architects also thought of their buildings as bringing order out of chaos; they took unformed rocks and carved them into regular blocks, and used them to form temples. They thought that architecture and music shared an interest in rhythm.

man defeats amazon woman
Achilles kills Penthesileia just at
the moment that they fall in love
(Athens, ca. 540 BC)

Greek sculpture was the same way: sculptors carved the naked male body, the height of perfect reason and control, and showed these men fighting scary forces of chaos: centaurs, Amazons, giants, foreigners, monsters. Nude women only came into Greek sculpture with the Hellenistic, as part of an artistic movement to carve chaos itself that also brought statues of foreigners, drunks, old people, and children.

Greek painters were concerned with the same issues. In the Bronze Age they painted battles between men and their enemies. In the Classical period, Greek pottery shows us, once again, scenes of the struggle between order and chaos: men fighting monsters, satyrs drinking and partying. But the paintings, which more often represent gods, also show us that to the Greeks, the gods themselves were often forces of chaos, and religious ritual represented man's effort to control the gods and force them into the realm of reason.

Learn by doing: Greek vase painting
More about Greek music

Bibliography and further reading about Greek art:

ancient greek artgreek art

Ancient Greek Art, by Susie Hodge (1998)- easy reading.

Greek Art and Archaeology (3rd Edition), by John G. Pedley (2002) A lot of good information and is pretty readable. Plus, the author is really an expert in this field.

The Archaeology of Greece: An Introduction, by William R. Biers (revised edition 1996) Biers writes very clearly and has a lot of good pictures.

More about Greek sculpture
Ancient Greece
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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