Explain how Greek visual art, artifacts, literature, and history complement one another and add to our knowledge of ancient Greek culture.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

All art, be it in the form of painting, architecture, sculpture, or literature is but the recording of the human experience. Thus, it is a tangible embodiment of a country's history and culture in different mediums. Certainly before people could read, architecture told the story; that is, man communicated through architecture. In his novel written to save the Gothic cathedrals of Paris, especially Notre Dame, Victor Hugo contended that the language of architecture climaxes in the Gothic cathedral, for this design liberates man's spirit. Rob Zaretsky,professor of French history in the University of Houston Honors College observes,

Poets, in the guise of architects, gave flight to their thoughts and aspirations, in flying buttresses and towering spires.

One example of how Greek art adds to the knowledge of the history and culture of the ancient Greeks is in the sculpture of the 5th century B.C. in which Greece reached its "Golden Age." Having finally defeated the ever-threatening Persians, Athens began reconstruction of its temples on the acropolis. In an era of optimism and wealth with democracy flourishing, sculptors solved their earlier problems of creating movement.  In place of the former stiffness, then, muscular bodies bend gracefully, reflective of a period of classical peace.

The statue of Doryphorus by Polyclitos is an example of what is called this "peak in Greek sculpture." As Doryphorus, a standing athlete, who orignially held a spear that balanced upon his shoulder, rests his weight on just one leg, his hips and shoulders are titled very slightly, with a long fluid S-shaped curve that runs from his head to his toes. Further, he is perfectly symmetrical as a great athlete. So perfect is this statue that the ancients considered it the standard of harmony and perfection.

The architecture of this 5th century B.C., too, is perfection. Perhaps the most brillant surviving example of Greek architecture, the Parthenon, built of pure white marble, contains elements of perfect harmony. This perfection was accomplished by the use of the curved line to adjust to the building's being viewed from below because the line would be distorted by someone viewing from below the hill. Indeed, this structure displays an uncanny understanding of the optics of man.

Certainly, in this discussion of Greek art,  John Keats's poem "Ode to a Grecian Urn" is recalled. The figures upon this lovely urn are immortalized, but they can never complete their love as they are fixed in time and place. Yet, Keats declares that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."  That truth is frozen in its beauty is clear as the beauty of a glorious age is preserved on that vase. For the Greeks, vase paintings were constantly refined, and the portrayal of people became very realistic. However, ultimately, the portrayals transcend mere mortals, and scenes of gods and men in convincing engagement communicated the perfection of Greek society.

Thus, like the cultures and histories of a country, art evolves and passes through a process reflective of its history. Perhaps, though, the most influential of the Greek arts is the tragedies, although during the peaceful Classical age comedy was more prevalent than tragedy and the satyr play. In the late 6th century B.C., Athens exported these plays as well as the festival to Greek colonies in order to foster a common cultural identity. That these works remain and are yet read is a testament to the preservation of the culture and history of the Greeks.