Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.43

Jeremy Tanner, The Invention of Art History in Ancient Greece. Religion, Society and Artistic Rationalisation.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  Pp. xv, 331; b/w ills. 62.  ISBN 0-521-84614-5.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Balbina Baebler, Georg-August-Universitaet Goettingen (
Word count: 2112 words

Questions about ancient art history, whether, when and how Greeks and Romans reflected on their art, so far have been the subject of only a few specialist articles by German archaeologists (mainly by B. Schweitzer in the 1930s and F. Preisshofen in the 1970s).

In the present book, Tanner (T.) offers an extensive treatment of the subject, for which he has set himself the very ambitious goal of providing new understandings of Greek art and its cultural and social implications. It is divided into six chapters: 1, an introduction about "Art and Society in Classical Art History" (1-30); 2, "Rethinking the Greek revolution: art and aura in an age of enchantment" (31-96); 3, "Portraits and society in classical Greece" (97-140); 4, "Culture, social structure and artistic agency in classical Greece" (141-204); 5, "Reasonable ways of looking at pictures: high culture in Hellenistic Greece and the Roman empire" (205-276); 6, "Epilogue: art after art history" (277-301).

The introduction provides a summary of classical art history (1-11) and outlines the concepts that were institutionalized in "modern high culture" mainly by Johann Joachim Winckelmann: the phases of development of art, analogies between literary and artistic style, and also "a culturally normative style of relating to works of art" (5). T. then gives a critical analysis of the challenges of the "Hellenist ideology" (mainly by the structuralists) and outlines his own methodology for understanding art (19-30). His goal is to provide tools for exploring what he calls the "tacit background," i.e., the institutional arrangements for the production and reception of art.

The second chapter is perhaps the most daring, not least because the so-called "Greek revolution" has already been explored so thoroughly. T. wants to develop new interpretative and explanatory strategies by analyzing "naturalism", whose emergence marks the boundary between the archaic and the classical periods, as a cultural system and asking "what does naturalism do as a functionally differentiated component of Greek religious culture?" (40). He therefore focuses first on classical statues of deities (38-55), whose specifically religious significance he thinks has been overlooked. During the archaic period the aristocratic elites, according to T., controlled and appropriated the sacred (55-70), and assimilated themselves, by giving the god-like ageless kouroi as votives, to the gods (62; an equally symbolic display was provided by family tombs: 65). T. analyzes iconography as a system (with the statues of Demeter and Kore as examples, 70-84) and concludes that the "presentational style of naturalism transformed the sensory ground of worshipper/viewer-deity interactions" (84; 89f.).

One may harbor doubts about T.'s interpretation of the changes at the end of the archaic period (outlined especially in the summary "causes and consequences", 92-96). The impact of Kleisthenes' reforms might well seem overstated: Were the old aristocratic gene really progressively displaced and marginalized (92)? Can we speak of the "overthrow" of the old aristocratic regime (94)? T. concludes that the "most obvious consequence of the Greek revolution was that motivational energies tied up in the legitimation of elite hierarchy were released for other purposes" (96). But the same old aristocratic families were still in charge long after the Kleisthenic reforms, and old religious associations (e. g., phratries) continued to flourish.1 It seems to me that many of the social changes that T. attributes to Kleisthenes and links directly with the Greek revolution unfolded only later: the Areopagus (93) lost its power only about two generations later, and it was only during the Peloponnesian War that people of non-aristocratic origins were able to assume leading political roles (and were still amply ridiculed in Attic Comedy precisely for their origins). I feel moreover uncomfortable with the above-mentioned analyses of interaction between viewer and statue and the claim that only naturalism invited the viewer to be a role partner (84f.). T. never mentions that the "aristocratic" kouroi very often bear inscriptions that directly invite the viewer to stay and look (and mourn, in the case of grave-markers).

Another reason why T.'s explanations fail to convince completely is that "naturalism" flourished also in those parts of the Greek world where oligarchic or aristocratic, regimes stayed in power. In my opinion the Persian Wars (which T. does not mention at all) were much more decisive for the development of civic consciousness, the feeling of identity of Greek citizens and their impact on artistic development.

Chapter 3 illustrates how the Greek revolution transformed not only the representation of gods, but also that of men; T. demonstrates by specifically Athenian examples the sociological interpretation of art as a cultural system developed in the earlier chapters. The author shows how the Greek revolution created a new secular representational space and a new type of image, the public honorific portrait (97-108). He demonstrates by several well-known portraits (Homer, Pindar, the tyrant-slayers, Pericles) that the Greek eikon has nothing to do with realistic portrait-likeness; the main aspect of Greek portraiture lies not in concerns with identity and the self, but in the prestige system of the polis, which is also a concept of "reward symbolism," for a civic portrait had to be debated and agreed upon by the boule and assembly. Portraits are expressions of particular social categories or roles (general, statesman, etc.); their facial features, bodies and gestures (116-134) were used to show values like self-control that are also attested in many contemporary sources as cardinal democratic values and equally important for public speech (121).

The complexity of the interactions between artistic and political development is stressed in the last part of the chapter, "Portraits and society" (134-140): portraits were brought into being by the democratic social order, but they also served to make and sustain it; "the very presence of portraits in public space fed into the political process" (140).

The fourth chapter seems to me a central (but also very complex) one: it is the most focused on the subject the title of the book announces. T. thinks he can advance the debate about role, status and autonomy of the artist in the Greek world that has been going on for about a century now by shifting its terms (again with the means of modern sociology of art) regarding the three concepts of status, role and agency (144). "Agency" means looking at actors within their structural, organizational and cultural environment, by which they are constrained, but also at the material and cultural resources (e.g. stylistic and iconographic schemata) upon which they draw to transform it. This concept leads--in T.'s opinion--to a better understanding of patterns of tradition and innovation.

T. shows how difficult it was to place any positive value on manual work (156-158), the pervading ideology being that of the "ideal citizen," a style of self-representation that artists also sought. This led to more theoretical reflection and writing (161), which in turn changed the artists' relationship to their work. The artists attempted a leap from the ranks of craftsmen to that of the intelligentsia, which shaped the contemporaneous civic life. This was also the beginning of producing art for aesthetic pleasure.

T. presents a convincing picture of the intellectual climate and the interactions between artists and intellectuals in classical Athens (158-182), which are visible, e.g., in the close parallels of the representation of the body in medicine and sculpture, works like the Doryphoros with its predilection for measurement and numbers (168), and, especially, in the emergence of theoretical artistic treatises that develop a critical vocabulary and show the increasing professionalization and scientific status of art.2

I am rather more skeptical towards the last two sections of this chapter (191-204) where T. suggests that "certain limits were placed on artists' attempts to enhance their status and their practical autonomy by the countervailing ideological commitments of the contemporary intellectual elite and by the material constraints of contemporary social structure" (149). Concerning the intellectual elite, he concentrates mainly on Plato and Aristotle; their and their predecessors' concepts he thinks stimulated the attempts of fifth- and fourth-century artists to rationalize their aesthetic practices (191); philosophers gave "new, rational grounds for traditional moral and ethical criteria for the judgment of art" (202). I am far from objecting to T.'s analysis of those philosophers' thoughts as such, but I would like to ask whether they were really of such enormous relevance for contemporary artists--or for the citizens of Athens at all. After all, Plato was an outsider totally at odds with his polis.

Chapter 5 explores the fundamentally different setting of art during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, when art history actually developed. Classical sculptures (or their copies) were disembedded from their original contexts, and a socially and culturally distinctive ethos of viewing emerged, which was characterized by an extensive formal aesthetic vocabulary, a knowledge of classical artists' names and of the history of classical fifth- and fourth century art (208f.) T. explores the deep shift in appropriation and display of art from a political and religious practice to an aesthetic one in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. This new interest in art as such led also to new practices as collecting (not least in Attalid Pergamon and Ptolemaic Alexandria: 205-212. 219-234), dealing, forging of old masters and touristic travelling. A comparable shift occurred also in art writing--examples are Xenocrates, Duris, Antigonos--, namely from artists writing for other artists to intellectuals, some of whom happened to be artists, writing for other men of culture (215), and working with similar tools as the poet scholars at the libraries in Alexandria and Pergamon, like alphabetical lists of painters and sculptors, lists of genres and those who worked in them. These are also used by Pliny, to whom T. devotes a section of this chapter (235-246).

Thus art became an "autonomous province of meaning" (233) and a central part of paideia, the culture of distinction (246-276). Several contemporary sources--Varro, Quintilian, Cicero, Pliny--indicate how a cultivated person should admire works of art: he (or she) has to master the formal aesthetic vocabulary of art criticism, to have a knowledge of art history, but also of the iconographic codes and of Greek mythology (248). This "rational sensibility" is also confirmed by its opposite, e.g. Trimalchio (249f.), or the emperor Tiberius, who, according to Pliny, "fell in love" with works of art (255-257), which goes equally against the philosophical ideal of the rational man. T. correctly stresses the importance of rhetorical knowledge and skills for a cultivated viewing as well as displaying of art (272f.).3

The epilogue focuses on the role and social status of artists in a society "after art history," mainly by looking at issues of copying and the concept of phantasia (283-294). T. shows how classical art was both distanced from the present and authoritative for it (288), so that the artist's main role now was to rationally adapt a given repertoire of forms and styles to the shifting requirements of patrons (298).

The various sections of the book leave behind an uneven impression. The main part of it is actually not about the invention of art history, but about Athenian society. The author obviously intends to trace the whole development of art and artists within their society from the beginning, but in my opinion the links he shows between the specifically Athenian polis and the Hellenistic centers where art history developed are not strong enough. Athens seems to be the representative model for archaic and classical Greek societies as a whole, but in fact research is often focused on Athens simply because we have more written sources there than elsewhere. Many of the sociological explanations about art and artists seem to me to break down as soon as you look at other parts of the Greek world. My main objection against the "sociological framework" is that it obliges us to link every stylistic development with changes or events in contemporaneous society, which in my opinion does not always work out, as e.g. in the case of the Kleisthenic reforms. It also leads to overly sophisticated interpretations of works of art (e.g. Lysippos' "Kairos", 180f.), because they all have to be an expression of contemporary social circumstances. Ascribing something simply to the genius or an idea of an inventive artist thus seems hopelessly outdated.4 To understand the arguments, one is sometimes required to have quite a lot of theoretical knowledge and the corresponding vocabulary of sociology; I wonder whether the average "student of classical art" at which the book is aimed is always up-to-date in these matters. However, the book is on the whole thoroughly interesting and stimulating; I think it is also a merit to provoke dissent. It will in any case further the discussion about role and status of art and artists in ancient Greece.

The book is beautifully produced and illustrated, with almost no misprints in the text.5


1.   See, e. g., R. Osborne, Greece in the Making 1200-479 BC (London 1996) 301 f. 313; P. Funke, Athen in klassischer Zeit (München 1999) 17, 25.
2.   At this point the excellent book of Nadia J. Koch, Techne und Erfindung in der klassischen Malerei. Eine terminologische Untersuchung (München 2000), should have been mentioned, esp. pp. 57-122, where the author deals with the technical terminology developed in the workshops of classical time and with the rise of specialization.
3.   On this subject see Nadia J. Koch, "SXHMA. Zur Interferenz technischer Begriffe in Rhetorik und Kunstschriftstellerei, International Journal of the Classical Tradition 6, 2000, 503-515, and ead., Bildrhethorische Aspekte der antiken Kunsttheorie, Jahrbuch Rhetorik Bd. 24, 2003, 1-13.
4.   As to that, I think T. is sometimes very harsh in his judgment of earlier literature. To mention only a few examples: on p. 147 Ridgway's arguments are ranged among those that have "an extraordinarily primitive, undifferentiated character"; p. 143: Stewart concludes his essay "with a truly desperate argument"; p. 173 n. 128: Pollitt is "sociologically naive and ahistorical".
5.   I would have wished for equal care concerning the titles of German publications in the bibliography, where literally every word is mangled, articles, endings and umlaut added or left out at random. To mention only a very few: p. 304 (Berger): read vorhippokratisch (instead of vor Hippokratisch); p. 305 on top: read Gaehtgens (instead of Gaehgtens); P. 310 (Giuliani): read zum (instead of zur); p. 312: (Himmelmann 1971): read zum Problem (instead of zur Probleme); (Hoepfner): read Bücherschränken (instead of Büchershranken); p. 317 read Nesselrath (instead of Nesfelrath); p. 318: (Pfister 1938): read zur (instead of zum); (Philipp 1990): read von der Homerischen Zeit (instead of von Homerischen Zeit); p. 322 (Tancke): read im Schloss Fasanerie (instead of in Schloss Fanaserie); (Troppenburg): read Glyptothek (instead of Glypthothek [twice]). Etc. Etc.

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