Bow Before the Colossus: Progressions of Scale in Art

Art, power, and wealth have been linked for a great deal longer than there has been a formal study of art history, but nature of the works has changed greatly as the place of art in society has shifted. In ancient times monumental art was built on scales that visibly demonstrated the power of the ruler who commissioned them, and the size of these works was far more notable than a precise monetary value that might be estimated for them. Large scale statuary is less common now and with advances in building technology much more emphasis is placed on either the utility of large-scale art or on the dollar value that can be placed upon it. Often these changes occur in response to societal factors that are impact the ways that the public views art which in turn moves the kind of art that is being created.

The monumental buildings of Ancient Egypt were directly tied to both religion and government as the pharaohs were god-kinds who demonstrated power and control through their building projects. Large scale art and architecture was a reasonable expression of the beliefs cross many levels of society so colossal statues and elaborate mortuary complexes fit into the Ancient Egyptian understanding of the universe. In fact, at the time the statue was build a statue’s practical place in a religious context may have drawn more consideration than the artistic value of the work. As a result, statues like the ones that appear in funerary temples would likely have been considered impressive rather than outrageous. These statues are sometimes displayed in pieces like the head of a statue from Amenhotep III’s funerary temple which stands over a metre tall on its own and is located at the British museum. Ancient artifacts like those of Ancient Egypt create challenges because the modern conception of art means that the places art is now viewed are unequipped to deal with large scale pieces (or cope with the ethical issues surrounding the movement of monumental artworks).

There isn’t as much attention given to physically large works of art anymore, instead colossal art is best defined by the price tag attached. A Banksy piece can sell for over a million pounds even after it has been shredded while the abstract expressionist creations of Jackson Pollock run in the multi million-dollar range. These are not pieces that most people would say fit into their world view, in fact for those outside the art world taking cracks at abstract painting can be the most accessible avenue in fine art. Unlike the monumental statues of the Ancient Egyptians the subjects being depicted in art are no longer a central part of how society is ordered. The scale of art for the lay person is often defined by its value and even then, the average person would probably be quick to disagree with the amount of money being spent. Although this is perhaps most clear in the modern context it is a change that began much closer in history to Ancient Egypt than to today. The Colossus of Constantine had the head and extremities carved from marble while the main body had a brick or wood framework covered in bronze which was later scavenged. What was originally an imposing testament to the power of a great leader at some point became a place where resources could be reclaimed. By the time Michelangelo was looking at the stature during the Renaissance it was more a matter of imaging how pieces may have once fit together than it was looking at true statue of Constantine.

The political climate has obviously changed a lot since then and governments can find themselves in art spending controversies. Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire offers an interesting case study because it is a painting where both large scale and large price tag overlapped to be part of a notably controversy. The Voice of Fire painting is blue with a single bright red stripe in the middle third of the painting, it is over five metres tall and was purchased by the publicly funded National Gallery of Canada. After the purchase price of the painting became public there was widespread outrage over the use of public money to buy such a simple painting for so much money. This was not a debate in art community over what a painting in that style was worth, but it was far more attention than traditional media usually gives to the purchases of the National Gallery. In recent Canadian history this is what colossal art has become: expensive and certainly not representative of the ways most Canadians view themselves.

Whether talking about giant stone statues or abstract paintings the scale of artwork is impacted by the cultural attitudes of the larger society. The progressions of scale in art may encompass both the physical size and their price tags but these changes are representative of the shifts in the place art holds in the public view. Even the fragmented pieces of colossal statues like the one on display in England can suggest the place of the god-kings of Ancient Egypt while the controversies of expensive prices on works like The Voice of Fire demonstrate some of the modern concerns over what is ‘good’ art. How society understands art, its purpose, and its worth, changes and thinking about large scale art by any factor can illuminate some of those changes.

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