learning of intention and ecology from the ‘ways of antiquity’ | reflecting on the Met

It’s tempting to oversimplify and romanticize the past, but a recent visit to The Metropolitan Museum of Art got me in my feelings and sparked questions in me – what is there to learn from the “ways of antiquity”? What, generally, could the ancients still pass on to us? What is there to carry into the future?

It’s something in the differences of approach to essential and daily habits – necessarily and naturally – between us now and those for whom society was a nebulous concept, and resources were basically whatever was there.

It’s like they bore the moral responsibility of working with the environment to survive, sure, but deeper than that, it was key to their being. These people did the same things we do, but with more intention, reverence for each piece, seemingly unaware or phased by the concept that defines them now, the ways of antiquity.

I mean maybe the pure golds, textures, jewels, and intricate designs were meaningless then – they certainly weren’t worth as much as in the present-day. Perhaps they were fully aware that they were not guaranteed the materials again, or they created without considering that they would need another of the thing before the time came. If so, it wouldn’t be a replica. Maybe that conservative approach laid the foundation for engaging fully in creative, constructive processes, in the development of skill.

Perhaps the value we calculate was the result of one person or village’s act to reinforce the significance of that object to them – the utility in its being and the craftsmanship in its creation manifest, without division.

For the first time – and it could be that I’m projecting emotional vulnerability at this time in my life – a museum made me feel sentimental. Looking at the art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas actually felt so intimate: ogling jewelry, critiquing letter openers, admiring instruments, observing texts, that belonged to people across the world. These items were built to last beyond that glass – they aided people’s social, spiritual, and physical well-being. 

Now, we humans mass-produce, ship internationally in a day, and digitize ourselves – surely, quality, artistry, and economy exist in another realm as a result. What of our history? Will it be told in the mundane and unique, in the fantastic outliers?

When there are millions of the same forks in circulation, what will future humans place in museums to identify where they’ve come from? Sure, a fork isn’t spectacular, but the tradition of sharing meals is ancient, and to be witness to that is telling of the impact of our ancestors on us.

It’s like they left pieces of shared memories, snapshots for us, where the age on it and difference in era is obvious. But you squint, and wonder, are we so far apart? Have we falsely separated ourselves from them? Old and new ways may merge yet. Necessarily, in my opinion and hope.

Much of the skeleton of those societies remains with us; humans continue to pray, to nourish our bodies, to gather, to trade. So they have left these artifacts behind on their way, and I wonder what this era’s imprint will be. We should ask, “how some of the same human activities manifest?”, considering the problem of many hands and short-sighted economic development, with wasteful practices and the costs of innovation making it difficult to start for many people.

As the wake of industrial capitalism takes its toll, though, there are more and more viable, ecologically-attuned alternatives rising as well; some take us back to ancient ways and others project our future – and both, of course.

I use “wake” because I believe it’s on it’s way out. Times change, and opportunity grows where we are present to reinforce it. Now, we have room to employ updated philosophy and morality regarding the pieces and practices that fill our homes, making conscious decisions about what we produce and consume and trade by considering both past and potential. The scope of wastefulness and wants that plague us in contemporary living demand that we do.

So about what it is we can learn from folks long gone – it can be the little things that have deep meaning in the scheme of it all.

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