Figures, Figurines and Colin Renfrew
Klein, Leo S., Antiquity
The new book by Colin Renfrew (2003) is a remarkable phenomenon both in art criticism and archaeology. He poses the eternal questions (what are we? where do we come from?) and hopes to figure them out with the help of the parallel vision of archaeologists and artists. By artists, Renfew does not mean people of the arts in general, nor artists of those epochs to which the archaeological monuments are dated. No, he has in mind, rather exclusively, the artistic avant-garde, modern sculptors and painters practising abstractionism, cubism, symbolism, conceptualism and primitivism: those who make pop-art installations, indeed those who make any activity into art. It is this kind of work that he compares with the most ancient monuments of mankind.
Renfrew admits that initially he didn't perceive this art as art, didn't comprehend it. Yet gradually he became interested in some artists and acquainted with them, began visiting their exhibitions, showed them in his college at Cambridge and became involved in collecting their works. He mentions well-known names--Richard Long, Alberto Giacometti, Eduardo Paolozzi, Constantin Brancusi, William Turnbull and others. Then he began to realise how much this art offered him for comprehending archaeological monuments, for penetrating the distant past, for rethinking the most important questions of being: what we are, where are we from and where do we go?
In the book's first chapter Renfrew tells the story of his acquaintance with Richard Long, for whom the art of a sculptor is not reduced to the making of an end product, the sculpture, but rather lies in the process of construction itself. In practical terms, he simply walks across the world and leaves everywhere incisions, traces of his existence: something like 'Kilroy was here'. Since Renfrew already had suggested that megalithic graves were signs of property and each had marked the centre of a community, Long's activity appeared very interesting to him.
The second chapter raises the question 'What is art? The tyranny of the Renaissance'. Here Renfrew places the photo of one of the first finds of Cycladic images: the Bronze Age marble head from Amorgos that was published more than one hundred years ago by the German professor Paul Wolters who characterised it as, 'This repulsively ugly head.' These days such artists as Brancusi, Giacometti and Henry Moore find it astonishingly beautiful. The point is that at the time that aesthetics was developed, it depended on the idealisation of classical models, maintained by the Renaissance. It is only since the late nineteenth century that the liberation of art from the tyranny of the Renaissance began. Unfortunately, Renfrew does not touch the issue of the part that the appearance of photography took in the revision of ideals of the representative arts. One of the missions of art was the mastery of representation, but after the introduction of photography, simple imitation lost its impact. Divergence from nature turned from weakness into virtue. 'Realism is a lot of rubbish ...' Giacometti said (quoted in Renfrew: 76). So the comprehension of what is beautiful has changed, as well as the comprehension of the role of beauty in the making of art. What is art today? The third chapter 'Off the plinth: Display and process' considers some aspects of this broadening of the concept of art. Sculptures came off the plinth or the pedestal, and frames, separating pictures from life, disappeared. On the other hand simple things began to be considered as items of art due to a simple declaration by an artist and being put on display: like the urinal declared by Marcel Duchamp to be a fountain, or the Reichstag wrapped by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in a giant plastic bag. The borders between figurative art and material culture are washed away. Archaeology and figurative art appeared to have one and the same subject matter.
The fourth chapter is called 'The human condition: Being and remembering'. …