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Friday, May 18, 2007

Arts & Letters

All So Long Ago

Athens-Sparta, sponsored by the Onassis Cultural Center in collaboration with the National Archaeological Museum of Greece, New York, December 6, 2006-May 12, 2007.


This is a handsome show in every respect. Two hundred eighty-eight objects of all kinds—coins, vases, inscriptions, bronze figurines, even larger marble pieces—are augmented by a splendid catalogue in which photographs of the highest quality provide a permanent record and, in the case of items difficult to see, much welcomed enlargement. It is a luxury to study the photographed coins and small bronzes up close, as it were. The lines on the lekythoi are suddenly so distinct as they never seem to be when gazed at in the vitrines. The Onassis Cultural Center is a treasure not that well known. The exhibition hall is small, and the wallspace limited, but, in this show, the objects are arranged for maximum ease of viewing as well as for reasonably good circulation. Whenever museum burn-out threatens to descend, the visitor can escape to an adjacent cafe with the now only too ubiquitous waterfall. Some viewers will want to settle into the cafe with the catalogue, in which one can read longer, fuller versions of the captions affixed to the objects on display. Most visitors, I suspect, will want all the clarification they can get.

The pride of the exhibition is the famous marble bust from the archeological museum of Sparta identified (on no particular authority) as a representation of Leonidas, the king of Sparta who led his band of soldiers to their deaths defending the pass at Thermopylae against the invading Persian forces of Xerxes in 480 bce (in case you haven’t seen 300). Its iconic value is such that there were reportedly demonstrations in Sparta objecting to its exportation even on a temporary basis. For those who will never get to Sparta, this is a rare treat. But of considerably greater interest perhaps is the small, marble grave stele of a young man, also from Sparta’s museum, which is dated to the second quarter of the fifth century. It displays a dejected youth seated, his drooping head propped up by his left hand. His upper torso is bare while a himation drapes his lower body and thighs, thus allowing for the modeling of an adolescent chest, as well as the folds of fabric against limbs. The piece is exquisite for the refinement of carving, for a sentimentality that is more than a hint but hardly excessive, and it will come as a surprise to many viewers who entertain the notion that Spartans of the fifth century were indifferent to the arts in their singleminded pursuit of military prowess.

There are many Spartan surprises in the show, which is its great merit. The world knows, or thinks it knows, the artistic achievements of Athens. Sparta is often a blank page in the book of cultural history. True enough, the Spartans’ cultural production was demonstrably nowhere near the quality or quantity to be found in Athens (although excavation has also been nowhere so pervasive in the area of ancient Sparta). But an item such as a structural detail of a marble throne for the god Apollo designed by an Ionian working in Sparta, which combines features associated with Ionic and Doric architecture and is dated to the late sixth century, shows a society open to experimentation and foreign influence. The vases on display reiterate the well-known fact (to professionals at any rate) that Athenian vase-painting owed much in its earlier years to the Laconian ware exported from Sparta. Some of the Laconian pieces are a revelation, such as the kylix by the Arkesilas painter depicting Atlas and Prometheus, which was lent to this show by the Vatican Museum. The intensity, the drama of the painting of the two figures, is remarkable in an art form that seems to celebrate stasis above all else.

One wonders about the type of audience the curators had in mind in creating the show, however. A chronology (geometric, archaic, classical, etc.) or taxonomy (Corinthian, Laconian, black-figure, red-figure, etc.) that is right out of a Classical Archeology 101 handbook seems to be directed at the neophyte viewer (although he/she would need a crash course in relative and absolute chronologies), and indeed one would imagine that a public exhibition such as this (with free entrance, to boot) is catering to a crowd off the street. In thanking the curators for inviting his contribution to the exhibition, Paul Cartledge remarks that the exhibit “marks a ‘first’ for the presentation of a selection of Spartan artifacts en masse in a North American context.” We may assume, therefore, that the target audience is New Yorkers or tourists visiting Manhattan. On the other hand, the exhibition captions demand some level of expertise. Terms such as “protomes” to describe the head and shoulders of a horse, or “coroplastic workshops” (places in which small terracotta figures were produced), like the use of the Latin title of an ancient Greek text, produced in this reviewer a frisson of déjà vu, returning him to graduate school. The same narrowness that a reliance on technical language suggests seemed reflected in the omission of references to analogous or complementary material in the extraordinarily rich collection on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It might have been a big help to the man on the street who might want to stroll just some 30 blocks up Fifth Avenue. Likewise, the viewer might have welcomed an explanation of what is meant by saying that a scene painted on an Attic red-figured pelike “is imbued with the ethos of the Parthenon and Erechtheum friezes.” While looking at an eighth-century geometric pyxis from Sparta, this viewer was astounded to read, “This pyxis is representative of Laconian pottery produced in the second half of the eighth century b.c. At the end of this century, which coincides with the end of the First Messenian War, the Parthénies (the lineage founded by Spartan women who bore children to helots during this war) founded the colony of Taras (Tarentum) in Italy. The presence of corresponding pottery in Italy indicates that relations between Sparta and Taras were close.” Hey, wait a minute. Helots? Spartan women? Adultery while the men were at the front? With social inferiors? Everybody lived to tell the tale? More information, please!

So much needs to be explained, the “archaic smile,” for instance, on the Leonidas bust; likewise, the nudity of small, bronze male figurines that are described as a “trumpeter” or “a rustic.” A viewer puzzling over why a bronze “man putting on his greaves” would put on his shin-guards without bothering to slip into some underwear might also ask what, exactly, is a greave? The quotation from Theognis written in over the head of a male reclining at a banquet depicted on an Attic red-figure kylix is properly identified as a homoerotic and pederastic sentiment, just as the curator notes that the hare depicted on the vase is a commonplace erotic gift to youths. But why hint when everywhere else the didactic tone is so relentless? Don’t ask, don’t tell, just hint. The curator omits to mention that this is a stag party: “lots of dancing, singing, reciting,” he says, but should have added “lots of flirting.” What is an ill-informed person to do with these hints, especially a contemporary American who has been educated to demonize homosexual experience? There is no reference to the great value placed on homoerotic relationships by the aristocracy of both Athens and Sparta, or the belief among conservatives such as Xenophon that homosexual relationships among Spartan males—a hallmark of their culture—was one of the reasons for their superiority.

In a show that is meant to encapsulate Athenian and Spartan cultures, its organizers have encountered the usual dilemma of offering up ideas when visuals are what are displayed. Essentially, they count on the viewer knowing the tried and true story of Greek-speaking peoples in the sixth and fifth centuries bce: the invention of the alphabet, the invention of coinage (although really a Lydian invention, the Athenians and Corinthians seemed to have perceived its use as money and for commerce), both of which made democracy possible; Spartan subjection of their neighboring populations, and their subsequent evolution into a controlled and repressive society, vaguely reminiscent of South Africa; the Persian War, in which a relatively small group defeated the mighty hordes of Persians, thereby illuminating the virtues of steadfastness, courage, and self-sacrifice; the establishment of the Delian League, which brought unprecedented prosperity to Athens, allowing for the “Greek miracle” of fifth-century Athenian high culture—the Parthenon and all that (ignoring if possible the underpinning tribute money demanded of what started as allies in the League and became de facto subjects). Allusions and discussion of all this are to be found here and there in the exhibition captions, as well as in the two essays on Greek history, one by Cartledge, an eminent authority on Sparta and professor at Cambridge, and the other by Donald Kagan, the Yale professor, some of whose writings on Athens and the Peloponnesian War have sparked controversy for his conservative political reflections on contemporary events. He is more subdued here, but both men, while exalting courage and steadfastness in the face of danger, also view the story of Athens and Sparta—and their military engagement with Persia—as a clash of civilizations: democracy, individualism, and capitalism against totalitarianism, faceless hordes, and irrationality. The average viewer might easily succumb to thoughts of the conflict of Islam and the West as it is played out in the media. Well, maybe we are meant to see Charles Martel in Leonidas although history repeating itself is an idea pretty much discredited nowadays. As Louis MacNeice so memorably wrote in his poem, Autumn Journal:

And how one can imagine oneself among them
   I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
   And all so long ago.

Professor Kagan seems to be warning us, who have allowed our self-discipline to soften into decline here in the West, when he says on page 267: “The result in 338 was a major Macedonian victory at Chaeronea that brought an end to the era of the independent Greek polis and the Hellenic period, Greece’s most creative epoch.” What does it mean to say “Greece,” one wonders. There was no nation-state, not even a rudimentary structure that allows for the word, Greece, one would imagine. How was the independent Greek polis such as Athens to continue? There were no annual operating budgets, no economic base to the society other than tribute money. That did not make for political stability. Sparta, with its diminishing population, had been in decline for some time. (Rosa Proskynitopoulou has an excellent if brief assessment of Sparta on the way out at the close of her essay on Laconian metalworking.) Kagan makes it sound as if it could have been otherwise. Maybe, when all is said and done, the Macedonian victory was a natural consequence of the situation? What, in fact, does most “creative” mean? What is the broad overview? Maybe the metaphor should be sought in the destruction in the battle at Chaeronea of Thebes’s Sacred Band, the battalion of men who fought with their lovers to the last against Philip. Isn’t it finally all about adaptability?

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to greekworks.com, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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