Week 4: Neo-Assyrian kings

The reading assignments and images are available for this week (see page to the right for the files).  You can also download a copy of the whole assignment (together with a little mini-guide to the kings we’ll be dealing with) here: Week 4 Reading Assignment.

Blog Assignment Week 4:  Violence in Art

Ever since the discovery of Assyrian palace reliefs in the 19th century, observers have been particularly struck by seemingly cavalier depictions of violence and brutality; some commentators have maintained that this is a reflection of the particularly brutal nature of Assyrian society and culture, and assume that their imperial reign must have been particularly harsh, as opposed to (for example) the Persians, whose empire has been regarded more favorably by historians. Not coincidentally, Persian imperial art is practically devoid of violence.  (To be fair, these opinions are also shaped by the Old Testament portrayal of Assyrians as evil and the Persians as good, especially Cyrus the Great who allowed the Jews to return from exile.)  But this begs the question: what does the employment of violence in art really say about a society? Can we use its presence (or lack of presence) as evidence about the level of violence in day-to-day life of that society, or in their dealings with foreign nations/peoples?  How much does art truly mirror life?

Due Wednesday, Feb 2, by 10 pm.




7 responses to “Week 4: Neo-Assyrian kings

  • Lili Dodderidge

    In Stephanie Reed’s article, “Blurring the Edges: A Reconsideration of the Treatment of Enemies in Ashurbanipal’s Reliefs,” violence in art is discussed as a method of increasing authority within a king’s reign. The ideas Reed presents reflects much of the same basic ideas of art as a source of political propaganda that we have been reading about, and further relates to more modern examples of violence-depicting art.

    Reed emphasizes that the violence of the Assyrian art aimed to depict the kingdom as invincible and powerful. She writes, “Battle narratives lined the palace walls in order to awe the spectator with the power of the king and the state.” Commissioning art that portrays the violent, yet successful, campaigns of the king sends a message of strength and authority. Not only would these images propagate the king’s kingship, but it would further enhance the power and prestige of the kingdom itself.

    Reed also argues that the art set an important message about and for the enemies and foreigners of Assyria. She writes that the defeated people in the art were treated by the artists with “detached scrutiny.” In other words, while the victims were obviously seen as weak and defeated, the Assyrian artists maintained a prevalent image of the foreigners and paid great attention to detail in their formation. Reed suggests that this treatment shows a sort of benevolence in the Assyrians in the sense that they were not ignorant of the plight they put these people through. However, the detailed suffering of the defeated was not a purely considerate act by the artists; the torture illustrated in the artwork served as a warning to citizens to remain loyal to their country.

    Reed’s essay reminded me of the first week’s readings, specifically, the passage we read from Elsner. In his piece, Elsner talks about the importance of understanding the culture to which the propagandistic art is given, as that specific community will interpret the art in a certain way as to gain a necessary knowledge of their country and people. This message is seen clearly in Reed’s writing. She is not trying to suggest that the art of the Assyrians were reflective of a bloodthirsty people. Rather, the frequent images of violence were used to convey a sense of power and strength in the kingdom that could be understood universally by both citizens of Assyria and foreigners of enemy states. The violence in the art is used to send a message of superiority. This same ideal used back in 7th century BC can be seen in a relatively more modern example of the picture of the Boston Massacre at the commencement of the American Revolution (http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/archive/d/df/20070203104015!Boston_Massacre.jpg&imgrefurl=http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boston_Massacre.jpg&usg=__gKG7lmZdX-vKTavf4Tr7143I2ew=&h=463&w=506&sz=72&hl=en&start=2&zoom=1&um=1&itbs=1&tbnid=dbKQuTNE2ugNpM:&tbnh=120&tbnw=131&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dboston%2Bmassacre%2Bart%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dsafari%26rls%3Den%26tbs%3Disch:1&ei=rjpHTcCdN8Kt8AaB89G0A). This picture, by an American artist, paints the British in vibrant red coats, the same red he uses to paint the blood from the fatal gunshots given against the protesting colonists. This violent image employed graphic violence to emphasize the evil and tyrannical qualities of the British, and inspire in viewers of the art a sense of patriotism and passion for supporting the revolution. In this case, violence was not used to show the invincibility of the Americans, but rather send an urgent and inspirational message of the necessity of uprising against the English oppressors.

    As in every type of art, the symbolism and images used in the work are relative to what the artist aims to convey. Not a truly accurate portrayal of societal life, art rather depicts the concerns, the ideals, the passions of the society and its rulers, working as political propaganda. The Assyrian art serves as a time capsule of Assyrian rulers’ wish to expand their authority figures and reassure citizens of the kingdom’s invincibility; the violence in the art is purely a tool to further the propaganda efforts of the time.

  • Ena Dekanic

    As we have seen, a common characteristic of imperial art is that it portrays society not as it actually is, but as the ruling authority wishes it to be portrayed. Persian imperial art may not be devoid of violence because the Persians were exceptionally peaceful, but because they desired to construct an image of themselves as such. In other words, the employment, or lack thereof, of violence in imperial art does not necessarily correlate with the actual level of violence in a given society; rather, it offers insight into the ways in which the society and its ruling authority wished to be understood. As Russell states, in imperial art, “a statement of the way things ought to be was presented as though it was a statement of the ways things are, regardless of whether this assertion was fully supported by the facts” (261).

    Reed argues that the representation of foreign captives in the royal propaganda of Neo-Assyrian reliefs served a “dual role” (115). On one hand, vanquished war captives were depicted in the midst of brutal battles scenes, emphasizing the superiority of Assyrian authority and power. On the other, the emotive, empathetic rendering of captives highlighted the humanity of the Assyrians. By alternatively presenting war captives as enemies and victims, Reed contends, imperial art stressed the king’s dual role as conqueror and shepherd. Russell makes a similar point. The palace reliefs served to maintain an imperial image founded on a “balance between military conquest and domestic construction” (260). While violent depictions of military campaigns reinforced Sennacherib’s power among the court and ruling class, peaceful images of building projects extolled “a benevolent and stable government…that serves not just the king and court, but all of the governed” (260). Thus, in both articles, the authors show that the presentation of violence is employed strategically, manipulated in order to convey a specific view of society and imperial ideology.

    At the same time, however, Taylor, in our reading from the first week of class, argues that propaganda, particularly propaganda related to war and violence, is most often based upon facts and credible arguments, grounding itself in as much of the “whole truth” as possible rather than in emotion. Given Taylor’s reasoning, it is difficult to imagine that the presence of violence in art does not have at least some relation to the presence of violence in life, especially in ancient civilizations.

    Finally, especially with respect to violence, we should ask ourselves not only whether art mirrors life, but also whether life mirrors art. Ostensibly, depictions of violence in ancient propagandistic art served as models for subsequent kings and society at large to act on. The concern for the mutually constitutive relationship between art and life with regards to violence can be seen even today. There has been continued controversy, for instance, over excessive violence on television and movies and in video games. Has our society become more violent because of these depictions of violence in popular entertainment, or do these depictions of violence in popular entertainment simply reflect an increasingly violent society?

  • Danny Rivera

    The role of violence in art is entirely dependent upon the subject of the work and the context in which it is created (we can get an even better idea if we know the artist or the intent of the work, but this validity of this information is often hard to prove, especially in the case of Ancient Mesopotamia). An image carved of a king defeating enemies in battle, then placed in his throne room is a chronicle of his victory. One of him overseeing the imprisonment, enslavement, or even death of his enemies furthers the image of his strength and victory. An image of him treating his subjects that way, however, is an image of fear, blatantly telling all who view the image to stay in line. As Lili pointed out in an earlier post, discipline of the royal subjects are implicit in images of the kings victory, as if to say, “Look at what he’s done to these guys, you don’t want him to do that to you, do you?” The effect of the image is greatly dependent upon the relationship of the viewer to the subject. Images of a victorious king seen by loyal subjects will bolster his image, heightening their respect for him. The same image seen by enemies will remind them of their defeat, and his prowess.
    Images of military prowess aren’t the only images of a king, however. We have seen several this week of the works a king can do for his kingdom, be it through infrastructure or agriculture. Even if violent images were the only images we have, however, there are still the accompanying annals that list–in detail–what the king has done for his people, often times the most benevolent things. Now, of course it is hard to believe–just from the laws of numbers–that every king who could create an inscription would be that benevolent, but that is also hardly enough justification to assume that violent images meant a violent king. Because information is so scarce, all we can do is look at the image, and make our best guess as to its effect: an image of a king’s military victory, probably placed in the throne room, can most likely have been used to bolster his image. Just because the images are violent does not mean we can assume his entire reign was therefore violent. Sometimes graphic imagery just gets the point across. My point is, there isn’t enough information to say so either way, and anything beyond that is conjecture.

  • Brendan Dorsey

    It seems to me that the role of violence in art is heavily dependent on the purpose of the art in which it is found. Art can, among other things, be propaganda, entertainment, visual or aural philosophy, satire, or, political commentary, and can be expressed through many different media. With this wide variety of roles, even the exact same image can convey wildly different messages just by being presented in a different format, or in a different context, or to a different audience. This makes it difficult to assert that violence in art is the hallmark of a society where violence is commonplace.
    Generation Kill is an excellent example how a change in medium radically affects the message and intent of imagery. The book, compiled from a series of articles by Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright, chronicles the author’s time embedded with a front line combat unit of the Marine Corps during the invasion of Iraq in early 2003. More than anything else it is intended as a window into the daily life of junior frontline soldiers in a combat zone, the many challenges they face, and how they cope with and are changed by them. Its colloquial (even coarse) style, the violence described, and its lack of reference to the wider course of events during the war are intended to capture the author’s observation and experience of the people and events around him at the time.
    The HBO miniseries took the same events, from the same perspective, and created a war drama where before there was something much closer to a memoir. This change, however small it might seem, is significant. The miniseries, being meant to entertain, elicits a much broader range of responses from the audience. Where nearly everyone I’ve spoken to about the book talks about how incredible the conditions and characters described are, people who have only seen the miniseries have described it as everything from cool and exciting to memorably horrifying. I feel this range of responses is due to how war dramas are intended and received by modern audiences, that is generally, either as diverting entertainment (like an action flick) or as expressions of anti-war sentiment.
    To bring this back to the prompt, I think we have to have reasonable understanding of the purpose of art before we can assign it too much meaning or infer a great deal about the society that produced it. Taking the modern example a little further, the high number of books, TV shows, movies, etc. that have violent subject matter could lead the proverbial alien anthropologist to conclude that early 21st century America was rife with violence of all kinds, or at the very least had a particularly bloodthirsty population. That is not an entirely accurate picture. Therefore it seems logical to me that Assyrian and Persian art may have differed in their depiction of violence just as much because of a different intended message or changed cultural norms surrounding the art that we have recovered as for a different level of harshness or violence of the society as a whole.

  • Sarah Murphy

    The prevalence or absence of violence in art in a particular society does not necessarily relate directly to the prevalence or absence of violence within that society. Because such little evidence remains concerning daily life and practices in ancient society, it is nearly impossible to determine whether the violence in art conforms to or differs from the society’s regular practice. For example, violent images in the Neo-Assyrian reliefs that we studied has conflicting images; according to Reed, depictions suggest that “Assyrians were not indifferent to the plight of the conquered,” but these depictions also show harshly treated prisoners (103). It is impossible to understand the opinion of the Assyrians relating to violence simply by looking at artwork of the period.
    While it is difficult, if not impossible, to generalize about all art within a specific society, one can see that artists may either glorify or brutalize violence depending on the work. The attitude that the artist takes in portraying violence depends on the message that the artist is trying to convey. The reliefs on the palace walls can be considered as depictions both in daily life and in dealings with nations. The palace was both a public and private space, and the reliefs help to demonstrate a message to viewers; both ambassadors and personal visitors would see the violence on these reliefs.
    The inclusion of violence in these reliefs, however, does not necessarily mean that the Assyrians were particularly violent. The reliefs could possibly be an exaggeration of actual violence or they could be realistic; the images could even be understatements of brutal acts of Assyrians. Because we have no manifest of artistic symbolism or of regular battle practice, we cannot know whether the reliefs can be taken as evidence of violent behavior.
    Perhaps there is no accurate way to determine whether the presence of violence in art correlates to violence within society as a whole. Even when looking at a society with more information available, it is difficult to determine whether the art in the particular society mirrors the society itself. While particular works of art may depict life, one may never be able to separate reality from the intention of the artist and the message of the work.

  • Ryan Day

    Violence in art, I think, says less about the amount of violence in a society than it says about how a society wants to portray itself both to itself and to it’s potential competitors. I doubt that these images of violence are indicative of a particularly violent society. It is difficult to argue that any one society is more violent than another, because human beings are inherently very similar. The portrayal of the Assyrians gives the impression that they are powerful and merciless conquerors. These images can give fellow Assyrians a sense of pride in their society, and particularly in their leaders. Showing themselves as conquerors also sends a message to their neighbors. Its the equivalent of saying “don’t mess with us or this will happen to you.”

    I also think that the images of rulers, like Ashurbanipal, can help to give legitimacy to their rule. Even now we consider physical strength and power an important factor in selecting a ruler (consider how very few U.S. presidents have been under six feet tall). So clearly, the Assyrians valued the combat prowess of their leaders, and when you have an image of yourself killing a lion with your hands, very few people are going to challenge your rule.

  • Danielle Lee

    While reading the different translated historical sources, I realized how vivid and physical the Assyrian language was. Everything described in the king’s annals paints clear and succinct pictures of what occurred. For example, in one of Sennacherib’s records he wrote, “I made him sit on the royal throne over them and I imposed on him my royal tribute” (346). Here, Sennacherib implies and manifests his authoritative influence by creating the image of physically sitting the king Padi on the throne so that he could demand reparations. Then, of course, there is the vividly gory passage on page 348 where Sennacherib describes how he personally rampaged like a lion and inflicting painful and fatal wounds on his enemies. At one point he claims, “I hacked off their lips and I destroyed their pride” (348). Again, the narration juxtaposes this physical act of violence to the abstract destruction of their pride.

    Now what does all this have to do with art reflecting (or not reflecting) violent society? Well, I felt that language is one of the most apparent reflections of a culture. For instance, Japanese has at least 10 (if not more) ways of apologizing and each has its own innuendo and corresponding circumstance. That, to me, reflects on the incredible need for politeness in Japanese society. By the same logic, the physically descriptive language of the Assyrians shows that all things, abstract concepts included, would be described or spoken in physical terminology—as seen above. This corresponds with Russell’s assertion that very few, if any, Assyrian citizens would have been comfortable reading the texts we read for class. Melville also explains that these records of military conquests would have been read by officials like Tab-shar-Ashur before the tablets of the text were put into the temple. Since the majority of the audience, no matter what class they were from, would probably not have been able to read the text, they depended on the imagery created by the narration to understand what was being said.

    If the written language—and probably the spoken language—needed to be thusly explicit in narrating the military conquests of the king, then it is no surprise that the art would be equally vivid and descriptive of the scenes. Citizens could supplement that which they have heard of certain battles by observing artistic depictions of the same scene. Since the art was not being commissioned simply for the pleasure of its enjoyment but for its ability to communicate messages and tell stories, it is expected that they would be as gory as possible.

    From this perspective, it does not seem to me that the violent nature of the art implies a violent society. The simple fact of the matter is that warfare was a constant reality for the Assyrians. The depiction of the men working in the quarry says it all. Quarrying has no dramatic or glorifying allure. It was simply a part of the Assyrian life and was thereby depicted in its art.

    So while I would agree that art can reflect society, I would not say that the abundance of violence in Assyrian art indicates that the Assyrians were any more violent than other civilizations with not as many violent pieces of art. Rather than looking at the content of the art as indicators of social values, I regard the vividness of the depictions as indicative of the language and communicating style of Assyrian society.

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