Barbarians and Bureaucrats: The Minoans

Minoan Visual Culture

   While very little Minoan culture remains for us—no writings, music, or religious texts—we do have Minoan art. For the Minoans literally surrounded themselves with art, and that fact more than any has mesmerized all the scholars and students of the culture. It's hard, in fact, to distance yourself from the visual culture and view it dispassionately, for seeing Minoan art for the first time produces the illusion that you are staring at kindred souls. They are, of course, not kindred souls and the artwork had far different meaning for the Minoans than it does for us.




   While I'm unable to put into words the hypnotic quality of the art, I perhaps can account for the illusion that it is somehow approachable. For the Minoans seem to have been the first ancient culture to produce art for its beauty rather than its function. While much of Minoan art, like almost all the art produced in the Middle East and Egypt, had religious and political functions, the bulk of the art seems to be simply superfluous decoration. Art in Mesopotamia and Persia served political and religious purposes; while compelling and aesthetically very sophisticated, the art served a larger purpose. The Minoans, however, not only decorated their palaces, they decorated them with art; they used art for pleasure. To walk through a Minoan palace was to walk through room after room of splendid, wall-sized paintings. Minoan art frequently involves unimportant, trivial details of everyday life, such as a cat hunting a heathcock, or an octopus, or representations of sports events (rather than battles, or political events and leaders, and so on). This is simply design for design's sake and suggests a human imagination that is rapt by the details of life. Most depictions of human beings represent them in the less dramatic and meaningful events of life, such as bearing a vase or simply walking down the street.

   This, perhaps, is the greatest Minoan legacy on the Greek world, for the great revolution in Greek art involves precisely this idea of producing art for pleasure only, that is, a purely aesthetic purpose for art: "art for art's sake." This is no trivial matter in the development of Western culture, for applied to other pursuits, such as philosophy and mathematics, this attitude towards art produces theoretical knowledge, knowledge for the sake of knowledge, which doesn't exist until the Greeks invent it.

Richard Hooker



Next
Bull-Jumping


World Cultures
World Cultures Home Page


1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-12-97