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Art and Artifact

Exploration of the relationship between artifact and sacrifice. Written by Matt Hecht for Jayel Aheram.

As a student of the classics I have always found myself drawn to the allure of mankind’s past achievements, those efforts and artifacts of “divine inspiration” or royal vanity which so defined much of what we know of ancient Egypt, classical Greece, and the Renaissance. Past artistic achievements which we still maintain define civilizations with systems of aesthetic value that seem far grander in scope than our own societies—with our advanced technology and global economies—can possibly muster.

It would seem that through the course of history, in abandoning old ways for the conveniences of modern life, we have confined much of our art to the space upon the perched and temporary canvas; there is little room remaining for the quintessential master, pouring his entire life into one masterpiece. Likewise, there is no longer a place for the monoliths of kingdoms. The question is: have we gained or lost in this exchange? Better still, is there any hope for the resurrection of the artifact in a middle class world which values convenience over quality?

In turning to the truly massive works of the old monarchies we see what initially existed not as art, but as testaments to the potency of a ruler’s power over his people; in many cases these were only delusions of divine providence. Achievements which today cannot be replicated, the Egyptian pyramids at Giza and the ziggurats of the Mesoamerican jungles represent the zenith of manpower pushed to its often fatal end. They remain particularly simplistic in their aesthetic appeal, yes, and yet it can be said that the sheer determination of their commissioners—often dedicating their entire reign to the construction of one immense monument—provides enough mythical origin to render these constructs art in their own right. The same stands for the more pleasing vistas provided when strolling before Notre Dame in France, or Bernini’s Piazza di Pietra before the Vatican. Unfortunately, we come upon our greatest challenge to the resurrection of these epic projects in perusing the sacrifices made to create them.

It was purely through the implementation of slave labor that Khufu built the largest pyramid at Giza, and surely the religious imperialism displayed by the cultures which built the latter monuments can be called into question as inhumane. Today we see a similar quality in the means by which certain nations construct their own monuments to power—the gargantuan structures rapidly cropping up in Dubai come to mind, here, with a desert populated almost entirely by underpaid and commonly mistreated foreign laborers. In this sense, it is not with regret that we have abandoned our aspirations to pierce the firmament with our tangible ambitions. While precious to the modern world, these classical epics remain monuments largely to those who died needlessly to create them; it is inarguable that abandoning wanton torment of a people to construct art is a benefit—rather than a loss—to mankind.

It is further notable that advances in technology have led to a slimming-down of the artistic process. Our pigments are no longer procured through the grinding of semi-precious stones, nor are our mighty blocks hauled from quarries by mules and bleeding men. The forward march of industry provides us with the mechanized tools to throw up an entire skyline in less time than it took Brunelleschi to engineer the dome on the Florence Cathedral. Famous print-makers no longer exist, as our printing is computerized and mass marketed.

Even in the arena of painting and illustration, it seems we sell the works of human imagination short simply because of the existence of digital alteration. There are too many opportunities for second chances without loss of quality in the revision process, and the spontaneity of the painter’s brush has been dimmed by a Photoshop cloning tool. And how many modern artists’ names are household in this day and age? Beyond Frank Lloyd Wright and Andy Warhol, we find a dearth of renowned talent beyond the 1970s, not because there is none about, but because these talented minds have been buried by the sheer proliferation of access—to tools, to ease of use, to information. The title of “artist” thus becomes no more significant than that of “office administrator,” making it nearly impossible to gather the adoration enjoyed in life by a da Vinci or a Picasso. Of course, this is not to suggest that there is anything less “artful” about a drawing colored with agonizing detail in Photoshop, but the ease with which these abilities and options proliferate is worth considering.

And yet, we turn to one final glint of hope for the artifact in art, the very inspiration for this article. It appeared in the news recently, in passing, a little human interest story to break up the monotony of the world’s natural and man-made miseries. It is a simple thing: an eleven-foot-long tapestry of golden yellow cloth with native Madagascan designs embroidered into its surface; one might think to see it at a roadside tourist trap in a down-and-out nation halfway across the world, though the needlework is rather exquisite. Of course, the origin is moreso: this unassuming tapestry was woven from golden silk pulled from the spinnerets of more than one million golden orb spiders, painstakingly milked by numerous laborers over the course of four years. They used only hand-operated machines developed over a century ago to extract the silk, and all of this for one piece of immaculate, absolutely unique cloth.

While magazines and newspapers may rail on about the special scientific qualities of the fabric, it is the nature of its creation that makes it among the greatest, true artistic artifacts this world has seen in quite some time (or, at least, the first to see so much daylight.) Its conceivers sought only to accomplish an astonishing feat, pouring in finances and manpower over a tremendous period of time to create something that will sit merely as a desirable piece of museum finery—it serves no other purpose. For this reason, moving beyond all the bloodshed of the past, and the flimsy needlessness of today, there is yet hope for a revival in the object as art. It requires only an altruistic kind of surrender.

It is in sacrifice—willing, honest, committed sacrifice—that an artistic artifact is born. It is in Michelangelo’s painstaking brush strokes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, just as it is in the murals of London’s Banksy, who gives up identity for the sake of his work. It is in the manuscripts of Hemingway, who once said great writing required only that one “sit down at the typewriter and bleed,” and it is in the kissing art of Toni Garcia, who literally poisons herself for the sake of her portraits. With this understanding we can perhaps answer the questions asked at the beginning of this article. It is clear that mankind has only gained by disparaging the terrible monuments of the past, but we have not traded away our sense of artful significance—it has only taken to the shade in a crowded and capable world. It is up to the individual, as audience, to seek out artifacts, and for the artist to continue suffering for the sake of them.

Matt Hecht is a graduate in English literature from the University of Central Florida, with interests in fiction writing and editing. Follow him on Twitter at @Matt_Hecht.