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Ancient and modern

The arts, the Ancient Greeks and Maria Miller

4 May 2013

9:00 AM

4 May 2013

9:00 AM

The Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, has said the arts world must make the case for public funding by focusing on its economic, not artistic, value; it must ‘hammer home the value of culture to our economy’. The ancients would have wondered what she was taking about.

There was no concept of ‘the arts’ in the ancient world; nor any concept of ‘art’, at least among the Greeks. What we call ‘art’ was, in Aristotle’s definition, ‘the trained ability to make something under the guidance of rational thought’. It was, in other words, craftsmanship. So ‘artists’ were regarded rather as we would regard car mechanics or dentists. The only time the state put aside funds for ‘art’ was for the worship of the gods, resulting in magnificent temples decorated with superb statuary (the museums of the ancient world) and in splendid public rituals. But that, of course, had a strictly practical purpose — ensuring the security of the state. When Augustus dished out lolly for lyrics to Horace and Virgil, he was acknowledging the political potential of poetry to bolster up his regime. Otherwise, public displays of ‘the arts’ were paid for by individuals showing off their wealth and status: the tragic and comic festivals in the Greek world, gladiatorial shows, chariot races and plays in the Roman.


Oddly for a martial people, it was the Romans, bowled over by Greek craftsmanship, who invented ‘art’, i.e. artefacts removed from their original context purely for display elsewhere. Plutarch pointed the finger of blame at Marcellus, the Roman general who brought back wagonloads of ‘art’ from the Greek world and showed it off all over Rome, ‘so that the people idled away most of their days showing how sophisticated they were, wittering on about art and artists’.

And luvvies spend most of their time extolling the billions they bring into the economy. So why fund them at all? They can subsidise themselves. Bar a few 19th-century civic art galleries, they always have done; the Arts Council came into being only in 1946. Besides, what self-respecting luvvie kowtows to anything as banausic as government?


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