Utility and Aesthetics in Ancient Art

Red-Figure Calyx Krater

Red-Figure Oinochoe

White-Ground Lekythos

Often beautiful in form and adorned with strikingly attractive images, artifacts of the ancient Mediterranean world can be classified in countless different ways. As stunning examples of artwork, antiquities often reside in museums of art. Many examples, however, would be equally at home in museums of archaeology, history, or even design.

Although Greek and Roman art in many ways laid the foundation for the modern and contemporary work shown in surrounding galleries, very few true artistic masterpieces survive from antiquity. For while ancient authors tell of the wondrous paintings of Zeuxis and Apelles, for example, and the epoch-making sculptures of Polykleitos and Lysippos, in most cases we now have little more than artistic echoes and copies to accompany these descriptions.

Ancient painted pottery, by contrast, survives in great numbers, but — despite its beauty — receives almost no mention from Greek or Roman authors, who clearly considered ceramics the domain of humble craftsmen rather than of fine artists. If its partially utilitarian nature somehow detracted from its artistic value in ancient eyes, however, ceramics were not alone in this regard; their value as vessels could replicate similarly functional forms in a range of different materials — from modest leather or woven fibers to glass, stone, or extremely costly precious metals. While many ancient statues and figurines remain much celebrated for their aesthetic value, on the other hand, their functions should not be ignored, whether votive, commemorative, or otherwise.

Aesthetics and utility can rarely be kept wholly separate, and these two aspects of a given ancient object deserve careful consideration. In this exhibition, drawn primarily from the Museum’s permanent collection, objects have been grouped together according to certain common features — from images, aesthetics, and individual style to form, utility, and technical details. In each case, the visitor is invited to ask questions: whether aesthetics or utility takes precedence; or whether a given object should be labeled art or craft, its maker artist or artisan.

Red-Figure Calyx Krater (Mixing Vessel), attributed to the Menelaos Painter,
Greek, Attic, ca. 440 B.C., ceramic. Tampa Museum of Art, Joseph Veach
Noble Collection, purchased in part with funds donated by Trenam, Simmons,
Kemker, Scharf, Barkin, Frye, and O’Neill, P.A. 1986.075

Red-Figure Oinochoe, attributed to the Harrow Painter, Greek, Attic, ca. 470
B.C., ceramic. Tampa Museum of Art, Joseph Veach Noble Collection
1986.072

White-Ground Lekythos, attributed to the Inscription Painter, Greek,
Attic, ca. 460 B.C., ceramic. Tampa Museum of Art, Joseph Veach Noble
Collection, purchased in part with funds donated in memory of Dorothy M.
Mosely 1986.079