Art and Civilization

Ruskin said: “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of deeds, the book of words, and the book of Art. Not one of these can be understood unless we read the other two, but of the three the only trustworthy one is Art”. What Ruskin is proposing is that art reveals truths about a culture even when it attempts to fabricate. In this course we will firstly consider the features which constitute a ‘civilization’, for example: is urban development or social stratification necessary features of any ‘civilization’. We will then look at the kinds of art produced by civilizations and ask whether they have shared features, and if this is the case then why might this be so. Next we will consider particular aesthetic theories. I will give an overview of the predominant aesthetic and philosophical theories from the ancients to now. Some of the aspects of art to be considered will be: Theories of beauty; Grandeur and obedience; Utopias and Arcadias; The Hero in art and the artist as hero. Lastly we will look at contemporary civilization and the kinds of art which it has produced.


  • What is Civilisation: Some features will be: complexity, urban development, social stratification imposed by a cultural elite, symbolic system of communication, and a perceived separation and domination over the natural environment.
  • The Rise of Civilizations: Why do civilizations develop and why do they last. There is much new writing on this intriguing question, we will consider a range of theorists.
  • Civilization and Art: This week we will look at the kinds of art which are developed by civilizations and whether they have shared features.
  • Who paints the Fall of Civilizations: Another important question to ask is what kind of art is produced when a civilization starts to crumble, and who it is that produces that art.
  • Changing Theories of Art: There have been many different theories of art through history; we will do an overview of the predominant aesthetic and philosophical theories from the ancients to now.
  • Beauty and Civilization: Is ‘beauty’ a concept which belongs to all art theories throughout history. Intrinsic to this question is what is meant when an artwork is described as beautiful, and who has the authority to give the power of truth to that description.
  • Grandeur and Obedience: Art of course has always had a political function; some believe it is the primary function of past art. We will critique this idea and see how it is played out in different civilizations.
  • Utopias and Arcadias: The visionary role of Art has a long history; it has produced many imaginary future societies and played a significant part in utopian political thinking. We will look at the difference between utopianism and arcadianism and how it has been manifested in art.
  • The Hero in Art and the Artist as Hero: Any society celebrates its triumphs in art and the hero is well represented. It is telling what a society chooses to celebrate. One kind of hero is of particular interest to us in this course: It is the periods of history in which the artist has been chosen as the hero; what does this say about that society.
  • The Contemporary World: Some contemporary philosophers have proposed that the idea of ‘civilisation’ is at its end and that globalization has killed many of the features of past civilizations. We will examine this idea and see if there is a connection to contemporary forms of art.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Identify the main features which constitute a civilization.
  2. Discuss ideas about: The nature of beauty; the hero in art; Utopias and Arcadias; and much more.
  3. Identify the different aesthetic theories and how they developed in history.
  4. Discuss the implications of the connection between art and society for our own time.

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