Warka Vase and Alexander Mosaic: order in art and letters

The Alexander Mosaic, as well as other later artistic and experimental evidence, shows that the visual conventions of writing affect art.  The Alexander Mosaic was found in a house buried in Pompeii in 79 GC when Mount Vesuvius erupted. The mosaic is probably a copy of a painting that Philoxenos of Eretria made about 310 BGC.  It shows Alexander the Great, wearing on his breast an image of Medusa, leading his army in a rout of the army of Darius III of Persia.  The mosaic’s macro structure is linear, like written text.  Moreover, the action depicted moves from left to right, like the typical direction of Hellenistic Greek text.

The Warka Vase provides an even earlier example of writing’s influence on art.  The vase was made in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk about 3,200-3,000 BGC.  Hence it was created at the same time and place in which writing developed in Mesopotamia.  The vase has in carved relief five horizontal registers.  The lowest register represents water.  The next higher register has a regular pattern of barley and palm plants.  Then comes a register of alternating rams and ewes facing right.  Above that is a register of nude men carrying baskets of goods to the left.  The top register shows the male ruler, proceeded by another nude male carrying a basket of goods, moving to the right to meet a female figure. The female figure is associated with the goddess Inanna.  The ancient Mesopotamian text Inanna and Enki declares, “her genitals were remarkable. …… her genitals were remarkable.  She praised herself, full of delight at her genitals.” Scholars thus interpret the Warka Vase as representing and explaining the sex-based distribution of goods in both ancient and modern societies.

The Warka Vase’s composition shares many features with early Mesopotamian writing (images of vase).  Early Mesopotamian writing consisted of impressed tablets used to account for goods.  The Warka Vase was closely associated with examples of such tablets within the stratum and location in which it was recovered in Uruk.  Among the common compositional features of the vase and impressed tablets:

  • parallel horizontal registers of figures
  • figural hierarchy, with the most important/largest figures in the top-most register
  • on a single line, more important/larger figure placed to the right of less important/smaller figure
  • larger figural size indicates greater importance/greater magnitude
  • boustrophedon (alternating directions) of the figural line

The Warka Vase shows images created to be read using the same compositional understandings that organized proto-writing.  Before the development of writing, art does not show this kind of literal composition.  The common sensory ecology of art and letters within the human body is echoed in artifacts.

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Note:  The above analysis of the compositional relation between the Warka Vase and impressed tablets is based on Schmandt-Besserat, Denise (2007) When writing met art: from symbol to story (Austin: University of Texas Press) pp. 41-6.  That source also shows that art before the development of writing did not have a literal composition.

COB-29: modern bureaucratic art

Modern bureaucratic art is unjustly deprived of the spotlight it deserves in leading museums and galleries in Washington, D.C. The Hirshhorn’s museum’s ongoing exhibition, The Panza Collection, leads the way with a needed expansion of artistic appreciation. One work exhibited is Lawrence Weiner’s REDUCED. The exhibition documentation explains:

Lawrence Weiner gained international recognition in the late 1960s when he began using text as his primary means of expression.

Bureaucrats have been using text as their primary means of expression since the invention of text in ancient Mesopotamia about 5000 years ago.

Hanne Darboven modern bureaucratic art

The modern artist who best exemplifies bureaucratic art unquestionably is Hanne Darboven. The Panza Collection includes her work 27K-No8-No26 (excerpt shown above). Technically, it consists of 149 pages of written numbers and some text. It has the feel of an accountant’s working papers, but is somewhat more tightly structured. The work brilliantly captures the process of making and editing documents. Best of all, it represents the astonishing volume of work that dedicated bureaucrats produce.

Surprisingly, Darboven received highly academic training at the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg, but apparently has no significant on-the-job experience in a major bureaucracy. Yet, as a great artist, Darboven seems to have intuited the essence of the bureaucratic form. An art critic insightfully observed:

Over time, time has become the focus of Darboven’s art. … The calendar, which subsequently formed the foundation of Darboven’s art practice, again offered a universal orientation, embodying a given, prefabricated, ready-made temporal system. Calibrated in her work in many ways over almost three decades, it has provided the basis of an arbitrary artistic system that has the appearance of objectivity. Conjoining a rigorous numerical process with free-associative roots, and tight rational thought with intellectual freedom, Darboven’s capricious sense of time has resulted in diverse monumental works that may span a month, a year, even a century, all recorded day by day.

A focus on time, recorded day by day, is central to bureaucratic art. On any given day, leading artists can tell you how many more days remain before they can retire.

Will Willkinson at Fly Bottle considers Technocracy vs. Liberal Democracy. He reasons:

So bureaucrats in a technocracy will be motivated to explore ideas, while bureaucrats in a democracy will be motivated to signal and recruit fidelity to the coalition’s pre-assigned ideas.

Will needs to ponder 27K-No8-No26. Bureaucrats in all types of organizations and political systems mark time.

Leo Babauta at zenhabits offers 10 Steps to Take Action and Eliminate Bureaucracy. But if you eliminate bureaucracy, there will be no one to study what action to take. Taking action without reason is unenlightened.

Scott Erb at World in Motion recognizes the importance of bureaucrats. The success or failure of any government depends on bureaucrats.

Marco’s Webdev Notepad considers the relationship between bureaucracy and agile software development. He declares that “bureaucracy is seen as inhibitor to software process improvement efforts and particularly to agile methodologies” and that a “cultural shift towards agile will make many ‘bureaucrats’ uncomfortable.” That’s absurd. As Moe convincingly shows, bureaucrats are extremely agile.

SengAun Ong at Tipskey submits Work Email Tips and remarks, “Bureaucrats at work like me can be efficient in email writing too!” Handling email more efficiently means that you can produce more documents in a given amount of time. Highly recommended.

Jay Wilkinson, writing on the blog of the Montclair State University sociology department, describes the Department of Motor Vehicles at the “epitome of bureaucracy.” Most DMV’s are outstanding bureaucracies. Nonetheless, only 20-30 localities have Top-10 bureaucracies.

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of Bureaucrats. Submit your blog article to the next edition using our carnival submission form. Submissions should conform to the Carnival’s regulations. Past editions of the Carnival of Bureaucrats can be found on the Carnival’s category page.

writing emerged from accounting

Writing is much more socially complex than making art and making music. Art and music draw on natural forms and make sense at a low level of neurological processing. A single person could invent a form of visual art or music that might be engaging to many others without a specific investment in teaching them. Inventing writing, in contrast, requires teaching a group of persons a common code for meaning-making.[1]

At least in Mesopotamia, the emergence of writing seems to be associated with accounting for goods.  Large-scale farming and industry, stratified societies, systematized economic tributes, and relatively high-density, geographically fixed population centers all developed together.  The general model is producers who are able to produce enough extra goods to pay tribute to the ruler and his associated administrative and military apparatus that forms the nucleus of a population center.  Systematized economic tribute requires accounting. The first writing in Mesopotamia arose from this accounting.[2]

A key innovation was the use of small, clay tokens.  A specific type of token represented a particular amount of a particular good.  For example, a spherical token might represent a small basket of barley, and three such tokens, three small baskets of barley.  Such tokens could be used to record goods collected or delivered.  The tokens thus provided a physical tool for thinking about quantities of objects.  Many such tokens have been recovered from Mesopotamian sites dating from 10000 to 5000 years before the present.

Tokens led to impressed and incised signs.  First, tokens associated with a particular person were kept in clay envelopes on which the person’s seal was impressed.  To indicate the tokens that were sealed in the envelope, the tokens placed within the envelope were also pressed against the outer surface of envelope. Those marks thus indicated with a one-to-one, geometric correspondence the tokens within the envelope.  Over time, the envelopes became writing slabs. The marks retained their meaning without the corresponding tokens being contained within the envelope/slab.  In addition, instead of impressing the marks using tokens, the marks were incised with a stylus.  Once the mental skill of reading written signs was well-developed and institutionalized, the physical tokens were no longer needed.

By about 5000 years ago, accounting signs had evolved into a general-purpose written language.  Signs related by physical quantities of goods (a large basket of barley vs. a small basket of barley) evolved into abstract numbers (the sign for the large basket came to mean, e.g., “ten times as much”). Pictographs were associated with the sounds of items pictured, and combinations of such pictographs were probably first used to indicate the sound of personal names.  Such pictographs provide more flexible and efficient attribution than personal seals.  Demand for funereal objects that could “speak” prayers for the dead through written phrases seems to have stimulated further development of syntax and sign repertoire.

The time scale of the development of writing suggests social network effects.  The use of tokens for accounting endured for about 5000 years.  Once such accounting had led to incised signs, a general written language developed within a span of about 500 years.  Incised signs could be created, copied, and circulated relatively cheaply.  Texts thus provided a new communication network.  That network in turn supported rapid social-symbolic innovation.

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[1] Humans have been making art and music much longer than they have been writing. Artifacts testifying to prehistoric art include ochre engraved with abstract markings (more than 70,000 years before the present [BP]), the Chauvet cave paintings (probably about 30,000 BP), a lion-headed figurine (32,000 BP), and various female figurines (about 25,000 BP).  Prehistoric musical instruments include a bone pipe from Geissenklösterle in Germany (36,000 BP). In contrast, the earliest writing occurred only about 5,500 years ago, with various evidence from China, Egypt, Uruk (Mesopotamia), and Harappa (Indus valley).

[2] My account of the development of writing is based on the work of Denise Schmandt-Besserat, as set out in her highly readable book, How Writing Came About (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996).  The development of writing in China may have been driven more by political and familial-religious demands.