The Unknown Artist / Euphorion

Quito, Ecuador, 2006

I’m sitting in the waiting room of the Visa Department of the Interior Ministry of Ecuador. Facing me on the opposite wall is a photo of a clay pot, decorated with all sorts of ornamental figures. I realize that it was crafted by an unknown pre-Inca artist who lived in some coastal desert of present-day Ecuador. It seems to be one of a few famous pots that have survived intact. Of course, there is no information about the person who crafted it below the photo, and we will never know anything about him, since the Inca, unlike the Maya, had no writing.

Suddenly, I have this strange thought: What if this particular artist was the worst in his town? What if the only reason his work is held in such great esteem today is simply because it survived due to overwhelming luck? What if he was not only a bad artist, but also the “village idiot,” whom his contemporaries mocked because he was considered so untalented? If so, who of his contemporaries could have ever thought that one day, after many centuries, his foolish work would be meticulously studied, handled in special archaeological laboratories, and photographed in professional studios so that its photo would be hung on ministerial walls for everybody to admire? Or that it would be an object of pride for millions of modern Ecuadorians, while the ceramic works of the great artists of the day have vanished forever?

But chance is not all. There is also humanity’s constantly changing aesthetic taste, which, without any rhyme or reason, randomly sheds its light of glory on different pieces of art at different historic times. Yet each epoch cannot hold its contemporary artistic standards to be the measure of all cultures at all times. There is no way for us to know how the society of this pre-Columbian artist viewed and evaluated his work. There is even the possibility that this pot was but a model for some greater work that has been lost. Or maybe its maker used it in his kitchen – it was an everyday artifact that had no special value whatsoever. All the significance we attribute to this extant artifact today is due to the scarcity of other objects from this period and to the value system of modern man.

I then think that there is a big chance that the masterpieces of all our great men alive today – be they artists, architects, musicians, or men of letters – may not survive into the next millennium, either because of some natural catastrophe or human wars. And that some of the worst pieces of art may survive the merciless passage of Time, elevating the mediocre or unknown artists of today to the altar of immortality by virtue of the fact that their works will have survived, or simply by virtue of the fact that the aesthetics of the future will favor them to the works of a Rodin or a Picasso. What a great prospect for all the unknown or obscure artists of today!




Nafplio, Greece, 2018

Years after I wrote the above essay, I discovered something extraordinary that may actually offer the definitive proof of the point I was making.

We all know and admire the three Ancient Greek tragedians and their surviving plays. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are considered the fathers of theater, their plays are still staged around the world, and some of them are considered models of theatrical writing to be emulated by modern playwrights. It is known that these three playwrights took part in the annual Dionysia theater competitions held in Ancient Athens in the fifth century BCE. Every year, only three playwrights entered the competition, each taking part with three dramatic plays (threes everywhere!) and one satyr play. The audience then voted for the best play through a quite elaborate system. While we do not have the results of these theatrical contests for every year in the fifth century, we do have the results for a few. The first thing to observe when reviewing the list of winners is that there are many names of writers who won the contests whose plays do not survive today, and therefore their names have been largely forgotten – the only trace of their existence is this list, known to specialist researchers. The second, but more shocking fact, however, is that quite often, the lost plays of these unknown writers came ahead of those of the three famous tragedians!

One of these great playwrights, named Euphorion, won the first prize in the Dionysia of 431 BCE, [1] leaving Sophocles in second place and Euripides in the third and last slot! [2] Furthermore, quite surprisingly, one of the three plays of Euripides that year was Medea, considered by many today to be his best. As it turns out, Euphorion was actually the son of Aeschylus. So we definitely know he had a great teacher. One cannot imagine how exceptional his plays must have been in order to have vanquished those of the two great tragedians in one go. Yet who has ever heard of Euphorion today? There is no great play attached to his name. Everything he ever wrote vanished forever in one of the fires at the ancient Library of Alexandria.[3]

Well, maybe not everything after all! The unknown artist may finally come to the fore, his greatness shining for all to see. The latest scholarship has almost proven that one of the plays attributed to his father Aeschylus was actually Euphorion’s. This play is none other than Prometheus Bound, one of the most original and influential theatrical masterpieces in history! [4] This unique play, very different in style and content from all other Ancient Greek plays, feels and sounds very contemporary, not least because the protagonist is immobile, chained to a rock, throughout the play. Various characters enter the scene and converse with Prometheus, who basically recites his life’s story in the process, relating it to the evolution of man. Prometheus Bound also explores aspects of the human condition, most importantly the relationship of Man to God. The lack of dramatic action is counterbalanced by the fact that most of what Prometheus has to say is original and quite captivating. Great writers throughout history were influenced by this play, including such names as Goethe, Byron, Nietzsche and Shelley – who even wrote his famous drama Prometheus Unbound after being inspired by it.[5]

Euphorion may one day soon come out of his two-thousand-year-old obscurity, and become a “known artist” at last. What is most disturbing in this story, though, is that, in the lost works of Euphorion and other unknowns of the same caliber, one may have the suspicion (if not the certainty) that a significant number of the best theatrical works of Ancient Greece were even greater than the best to have survived. On the positive side, this may support the assertion of some that the level of the Ancient Greek civilization was probably even higher than we think.

[1] The exact year of the beginning of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta that would continue on and off until 404 BCE.
[2] Incidentally, this is the only year in the fifth century BCE for which the names of all three participants, as well as the order in which they were ranked, is known!
[3] The only plays that survived the fires (there were many fires at different periods, not only one) were very few of the plays of just the three great tragedians. Out of the 120 or so tragedies of Sophocles, for example, only seven survive – not necessarily his best.
[4] However, this is not Euphorion’s play that won the competition of 431 BCE, since a number of experts believe that Prometheus Bound was written later, around 415 BCE.
[5] A good article exploring some of the aspects of the controversy, is this one by Alan Sommerstein, Professor of Greek at Nottingham University.

© 2018 Nicos Hadjicostis