Are Artifacts Art?

In the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, a statuette Greek archaeologist are calling “7,000-year-old Enigma” is currently on display. It is a 14-inch bird-looking granite statuette with a pointed nose, round belly, and cylindrical legs. According to a BBC article, this statuette is mystifying archaeologists, who do not know exactly what it is or where it came from. They say it dates back to the Final Neolithic period, a time which did not have the benefit of metal tools. It is thought to be asexual, having no sign of breasts or genitals. BBC notes, “it is difficult to say whether this is a result of the challenge of carving granite without metal tools, or whether it was deliberate and could tell us something about the place of gender in Neolithic society.”

Clearly, just because an object is in a museum, does not make it art. No one would walk into a dinosaur exhibit and awe over pieces of art on display. Since the “7,000-year-old Enigma” statuette is in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, it can be thought of as on display as an ancient artifact. But is it also art? Was it art then but only an artifact now that it is so old? Maybe it is still art, but the purpose of it being on display is to show off its artifact-ness rather than its art-ness?

I think it is difficult to know if this is art or not. Was it created from divine inspiration? We don’t know. Does it transmit a message to the audience? We don’t know. Does it inspire the audience? Not me.

What is even more unknown is idea that maybe we are incorrectly assuming this statuette is a man-made artifact. The archeologists think it is an artifact, but consider the ‘mystery’ detail. Could the statuette not be the process of natural erosion? Of course, we do not have the archeological inspection report, which could provide key information about its creation, but considering Occam’s Razor, the philosophical idea that it is best to use the simplest explanation (everything else being equal), should this statuette be so readily deemed as a human created artifact? If, in fact, this statuette is a product of natural erosion, then it is certainly not art. So, is it free beauty? It is beautiful at all?

To take an even more philosophical route, how can we really know that the statuette is a product of human doing and not natural erosion. I bring up this consideration because in my Philosophy of C. S. Lewis class, we read a piece by Taylor on Metaphysics, which looked at an argument against Naturalism. It raised the point that we find apparently purposeful arrangements and contrivance around us all the time, but we cannot always conclude that they are in fact expressions of any purpose because there is always the possibility that what we see is a random expression of nature. Taylor gives the example of seeing white stones scattered about on a hillside in a pattern resembling the letters “The British Railways Welcome You to Wales.” We feel certain that someone purposefully arranged the stones in this format, but at the same time we cannot prove, just from the consideration of their arrangements alone, that they did not roll down the hill and just happen to stop in that pattern by nature. If we apply this to the statuette, then again, it certainly cannot be art.

But this philosophical consideration requires a montage project of its own and an answer to if the statuette is art escapes me, so I digress.

Link to the BBC article.

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