Art Meets Design in the Ancient World

On a recent vacation to Houston, I had the opportunity to visit the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFA H). I’m not as keen on fine arts museums (I much prefer modern, or design) — but wow! was impressed. The building itself is gorgeous, and even though we seemed to have visited in a gap between a lot of special exhibits, their permanent collection was excellent.

One particular sculpture, which I was unfortunately unable to take a photo of (or find online) caught my attention. It was a beautifully intact, almost perfect condition. Roman in origin, the sculpture portrayed Dionysus, the god of wine (and certified party animal) posing with Pan, his little half-goat half-human freaky friend. According to the caption below, Pan was gazing adoringly at Dionysus, but I think it was more lust than love.

But what really struck me about the sculpture is described in the last paragraph:

The sculpture is remarkably intact. Complex pairs rarely survive two thousand years in such complete condition. The artist made careful choices to ensure the figures stability. A tree trunk supports the pair; Pan’s elongated arm is joined to Dionysus’ back; the god’s neck is reinforced by his bound hair, and this hand rests on Pan’s shoulders. Aesthetics, psychology, and engineering combined to create this remarkable work of art.

This is an awesome example of what I see as the intersection of art and design. Granted, I don’t have a formal education in either, but my very vague understanding of the difference between the two is that, while art creates beautiful things, design creates beautiful (possibly functional) things that can be reproduced on some appreciable scale. Art is created in a world of boundless possibility, while good design is forged under the pressure of constraints.

So this sculpture (ack I wish I had a picture of it :( ) is a great example of what can happen when an artist – a sculptor, in this case – takes into consideration particular constraints, let’s say longevity or robustness.

Would the sculpture have been more beautiful if the figures were prancing through a forest of small saplings as opposed to leaning against a single large trunk chosen by the artist? Perhaps. Would it be more moving if Pan’s “elongated arm” were outstretched,  frozen in some grand gesticulation in homage to Dionysus? Perhaps. But these decisions were made (in retrospect, for the better) and this work of art is no less stunning because of any sacrifices which may have been made.

Whether the particular constraints of longevity and robustness was imposed by the commissioner of this sculpture, or is due solely to the foresight of the artist, we can not know. But whatever the case, this sculpture, clearly built with a set of constraints in mind, has survived in almost perfect condition after two millennia! Have you ever owned a product that lasted that long ?


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This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 4th, 2009 at 9:43 am and is filed under Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Responses to “Art Meets Design in the Ancient World”

  1. Julia Says:

    This is so cool. Good eye!

    And I love the way you explain the distinction between art and design. I frequently find myself trying to articulate that to people, and I may borrow some of your phrasing from now on.

  2. Dan Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Julia, and feel free to borrow anything you find useful. Ack I wish I had a photo of that statue – it was gorgeous! Next time I’m there, I’m going to sneak one in ….

  3. lisa Says:

    here is a link to the piece I think you are talking about…

  4. lisa Says:

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