So Ivan Massow (chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts) thinks conceptual art is rubbish. Oh dear. According to Pliny the Elder (who died investigating the eruption of Vesuvius in ad 79), one of the finest paintings in Rome was nothing but a few lines.
According to Pliny, Apelles (fl. c. 330 bc) from the island of Cos ‘surpassed all painters before and after him’. He published volumes on the principles of painting and was modest enough to recognise excellence in others; indeed, he thought Protogenes his equal, except in one respect — that he (Apelles) ‘knew when to remove his hand from the picture’. He was never so busy that he did not find time every day to practise, by drawing a line. This became a proverb, ‘No day without a line’ (nulla dies sine linea).
Protogenes lived in Rhodes (not far from Cos), and Apelles, who at the time knew his work only by reputation, decided to make a visit. He turned up at Protogenes’ studio to find the artist away, but saw that there was a large panel ready for painting, guarded by a single old woman. When the woman asked him who she should say had called, Apelles said, ‘Say it was this person’, took a brush, painted in colour a very fine line on the panel and left.
When Protogenes returned, the old woman told him what had happened. Protogenes inspected the line and said it was Apelles who had come; no one else could have done that. He then took a brush and drew a yet finer line, in a different colour, on top of the first one, adding that if the visitor returned she was to show him the addition and tell him that this was the man he was after. And so it happened. Apelles returned and, ashamed to be worsted, took a brush in another colour and added a yet finer line on top of Protogenes’. When Protogenes saw it, he admitted defeat and decided that the panel should be handed down to posterity for the admiration of everyone, particularly artists.
Pliny goes on to say that the panel found its way into Augustus’ palace on the Palatine in Rome and in ad 4 was destroyed by fire there — but not before ‘we had much admired it, containing as it did on its vast surface nothing but those elusive lines. Indeed, among the many other fine works of art there, it looked like a blank space; and that was what attracted attention and made it more esteemed than all other work.’
Anyone up to drawing a line or two for next year’s Turner?
Last week’s column described how, according to the Natural History of the Roman encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder (ad 23–79), the famous 4th-century bc Greek artist Apelles offered a useful subject for next year’s Turner-prize entrants — three lines on a panel. Pliny himself could have gone on to recommend the virtue of unfinished paintings too, which ‘are held in greater esteem than finished works: for in these the sketch-lines remain and the actual thoughts of the artist are visible, and even as one is charmed by their excellence, there is sadness that the artist’s hand was stilled as he was working on the picture’. Much further thought there for the aspiring Turnerista. Remember, you read it here first.
This week, however, Apelles has useful advice to offer that national figure of fun Lord Birt, who, having virtually destroyed the BBC, has now been asked by the Prime Minister to see, presumably, if he can make it two out of two with the railways, and rid the country of the problem once and for all.
According to Pliny, Apelles rated the general public a better judge of his pictures than himself, and when one of his works had been put on display he would hide behind it in order to hear what the man on the Subura omnibus had to say. One day a shoemaker faulted a picture because, in drawing someone’s sandals, Apelles had put in a lace-hole too few. Apelles promptly corrected the error, and next day the shoemaker was thrilled to see that his remarks had been taken into account. Fancying himself a critic, he now proceeded to make fun of the leg; at which point Apelles peered out from behind the picture and said a shoemaker should not judge anything higher than a sandal — or, as we would put it, should stick to his last.
Apelles took the same attitude even with Alexander the Great. Alexander frequently visited Apelles’ studio, having published an edict forbidding any other artist to paint his portrait. The problem was that he would bang on endlessly about painting when it was perfectly clear that he knew nothing about it whatsoever. Even though he was addressing Alexander the Great, who was known for the ferocity of his temper, Apelles gently advised him to drop the subject, saying that the boys who were grinding the colours were laughing at him.
No, no, Lord Birt, no one (splutter) is laughing at you (snort), honestly.
As the rail system disintegrates before our very eyes, it is some comfort to know that the Romans had the same problem. With them, it was the roads.
Vegetius, a civil servant, composed the only surviving Latin treatise on war — his Epitome of Military Science (late 4th century ad). He asserts that ‘more dangers tend to arise on the march than in the battle itself ...so wherever the general intends to wage war, he should find out about the distances between places, the quality of the roads, the short-cuts, by-ways....’
Roman roads were originally planned with the military in mind, and were therefore built to provide a firm footing for legionaries to march along under all conditions. They were constructed on firm bases and surfaced with paving blocks of flint or basalt, secured by kerbstones. The poet Statius leaves us our only account of Roman road construction in a poem praising the emperor Domitian for building a short-cut along the Via Appia in ad 95, reducing travelling time from a whole day to two hours (beat that, Connex): trench; secure grounding; foundation material; paving-stone; kerbs — and all involving vast squadrons of workers. Designated public highways were constructed at state expense, sometimes with help from local landowners. Other roads were public-private partnerships, funded by a combination of state subsidy, imperial donation and local financing from townships and roadside inhabitants.
But construction practices varied all over the empire, and while some roads lasted for hundreds of years, others required continual upkeep. Inscriptions, often on milestones, describe how so-and-so, usually at his own expense, repaired a road that had collapsed, subsided, broken up, been long neglected or badly constructed in the first place (ouch). The emperor Tiberius tried to persuade the people of Trebia to put into their roads money left to them to build a theatre (he failed). In the provinces, there was always a terrified scramble to repair the roads if the emperor was due to make a friendly visit. Upkeep of the roads for military use made heavy demands. In Macedonia, for example, we find Trajan (at war around the Danube) demanding that an important through-road be repaired to military standards, and the rich from a neighbouring city rallying round to help the locals bear the vast expense.
All roads, of course, led to Rome: an expression of Rome’s control over the empire’s landscape and populace. Roads sped communication and cultural and economic exchange. But, like the railways, they did not come cheap.
The two main political parties have announced that they are jointly going to attack cynicism. So that’s the end of Prime Minister’s Question Time, then. More urgent, however, is the cynicism of the electorate. Or is it merely idealism?
The inventor of the philosophy known as Cynicism, Diogenes (c. 410–320 bc), would certainly have said that he was an idealist. Admittedly, he and his followers were called Cynics because the Greek kyn- stem means ‘dog’, and dogs were renowned for their shamelessness, but shameless behaviour was simply part and parcel of Diogenes’ idealism.
Diogenes took the view that true values and moral standards were to be found only in animals, primitive man, barbarians and the gods. These held the key to the ideally virtuous existence, and civilisation had wrecked it by imposing its own un-ideal conventions like marriage, family, politics, the city, all social, sexual and racial distinctions, reputation, wealth, power, authority, literature, music, and so on.
As a result he tried to live, as he put it, ‘according to nature’. He learned to inure himself to all hardship, kept his possessions to the bare minimum and lived off water and vegetables, begging and stealing as necessary. He lived, not in a barrel or tub, but in a large clay jar used for storing wine. He performed all necessary functions in public — including masturbation and fornication. He taught anyone, anywhere, any time, being contemptuous of closed schools like Plato’s. Not that Diogenes had a consistently and fully worked out philosophy to offer — more a way of life. One of his claims was to be ‘a citizen of the cosmos’ — presumably because with his ‘philosophy’ he could live anywhere and get on with anyone. He certainly raised serious questions of the relationship between city-state institutions and ‘natural law’.
What attracted people to Cynicism was its demand for absolute standards of moral integrity, whatever the implications. Even Plato saw something admirable in him (he called him ‘Socrates gone mad’). So did Alexander the Great. He once stood over Diogenes while he was sunning himself in his jar and said, ‘Ask me for anything you want.’ ‘Get out of my light’ came the reply. Alexander is then reported to have said that, had he not been Alexander, he would have liked to be Diogenes.
Alexander was no fool. Nor is the British electorate. It is not to them that the MPs should look, but to themselves, for the cure for modern cynicism.