There is not much that ancient people could do that we
cannot do better.
No-one would suggest that any ancient society could produce better steel than we can, better
medicine than we can or better smartphones than we can.
Yet our culture has become permeated with the laughable idea
that a handful of ancient ‘masters’ represent the pinnacle of human artistic
achievement, and that all modern art is simply a pale reflection of their
We have, over thousands of years, honed the craft of
literature, music and art, just as we have honed the craft of chemistry or metallurgy
We are not living through an artistic ‘dark age’, but a new Renaissance, where the .PSD has replaced
the brush and canvas, where the .DOCX has replaced the quill and ink, and where
the collected insights from thousands of years of storytelling and artistic
expression are freely available to anyone with an internet connection.
These tools we take for granted would have been the stuff of
wet dreams to those ancients.
Our ability to stave off boredom through entertainment
eclipses that of all civilisations up until this point.
This is why you go home and watch Game of Thrones rather
than a Shakespeare play.
This is why you read novels like Harry Potter rather than
epic poems like Beowulf or the Illiad.
This is why you listen to blues or death metal or trance
techno, art forms that fly in the face of the rigid rules that governed
Thousands of years honing the craft of storytelling has made
us objectively better at expressing
Yes – objectively.
You can see this progression very clearly in art.
In ancient art – from cave paintings to Celtic gold smithing
– we see artists struggle with basic things like the body proportions of human
figures and animals. The result is pieces that are symbolic almost to the point
of being childish to our eyes.
If you look at classical and medieval artworks, you will
notice the artists capture the line work and proportions of figures, animals
and buildings quite well – but there is still something missing.
You can see them struggling with perspective.
You will see a general lack of shading and a pretty poor use
of light in general.
Facial expressions are practically non-existent.
How to replicate perspective, realistic lighting and
convincing facial expressions were not something that we, as a species, always knew how to do.
It had to be discovered.
It was during the late middle-ages and early Renaissance
that artists ‘discovered’ how perspective really
worked, how lighting really worked.
Now this knowledge is so common we take it for granted.
Hop on Deviantart and see thousands of talented artists who
wipe the floor with Da Vinci and Caravaggio, with Monet and Rembrandt.
This is one of the reasons why artists, musicians and
writers simply do not get paid very much in our society – we are living in a
period of ‘talent inflation’, where anybody can learn any artistic skills with
a few YouTube videos and a bit of persistence, skills that were only available
to the wealthy elite in the ancient world.
Music is particularly notorious for its peculiar brand of
Blues would have seemed appallingly simple to the likes of
Mozart and Beethoven – and yet the genre is so soulful that it has taken the
world by storm, spawning spinoff genres like rock-and-roll and RnB that make up
most of what we think of as ‘modern music’.
Electronic music was an even greater leap forward, allowing
artists to manipulate sounds directly and ‘engineer’ music to elicit the exact
emotional responses they desire.
Listen to some trance techno, and tell me that it has less
of an effect on your mental state than a classical symphony.
In literature, the novel – a staple of what we think of as ‘storytelling’
– wasn’t even invented until a few centuries ago, with the publication of works
like Le Morte D’Arthur, Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe.
Before them, ‘literature’ consisted mostly of epic poems
like Beowulf, the Illiad and the Epic of Gilgamesh. These poems usually begin
with elaborate genealogies – a great list of ‘who-begat-who’ – and often get
caught up on minute details of history and mythology.
This is typical of a time before people discovered the value
of ‘hooking’ the audience straight away, or crafting truly compelling
characters, a time when attention spans were longer and thus left more room for
Even reading those early novels is a mission-and-a-half, in
fact I find reading anything from before the 1940s is pretty hard going.
In the last half-century, graphic novels, film and video
games have taken our ability to tell engaging stories to another level entirely.
Virtual reality will continue this trend.
The truth is that those ancient ‘masters’ would have LOVED
to have the tools, technologies and insights that we have had.
They did the best they could with what they had, and their
immense skill is all the more admirable precisely because they did not have the tools we do.
But let’s not kid ourselves – those tools allow us to do so
much more than the ancients could ever have dreamed of.
I came to this realisation when I first became interested in
metallurgy and lost-wax casting.
When I built my first
forge, I tried to painstakingly replicate the exact tools and materials used by
bronze-age artisans – a furnace lining made from clay dug out of the ground,
charcoal made from pre-burning huge piles of hardwood, hand-powered bellows for
forcing air into the chamber.
I knew I could get better results using diesel as a fuel, a
compressor as an air supply and refractory cement as a furnace lining, but to
me that seemed like ‘cheating’.
Then it hit me.
“If they ancients had diesel furnaces, they sure as shit
would have used them!”
Yes, they would have
So stop bitching and moaning about how Shakespeare is the
pinnacle of storytelling, or how classical music is the best thing since sliced
Let us proudly stand on the shoulders of giants, striving
for more in every aspect of life, not getting hung up on some fantastical,
bygone ‘golden age’.
And let us have the humility to admit that in a thousand
years, our sorry excuses for art and literature will be seen as bland, childish
and unsophisticated compared to whatever multi-sensory sci-fi shenanigans our
descendants cook up to keep themselves entertained.
Such is the way of things.