BMCR 2005.11.23

Ancient Art and Its Historiography

, , Ancient art and its historiography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. x, 213 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521815673 $60.00.

Winckelmann’s ghost haunts this fascinating collection of essays on ancient art and its historiography. Based on two College Art Association colloquia (“Ripeness is All: Metaphors of the Classical Norm in Ancient Art” [1997] and “Same As It Never Was: Issues in the Historiography of Ancient Art” [2000]), the volume treats the general legacy of nineteenth-century Classical scholarship, particular aspects of Winckelmann’s formulation of Classical art history and our current struggle with both. It is a welcome contribution to the history of ancient art that will spur interest in the methodological and epistemological models that most of us take for granted. In general terms, it is a must for students of ancient visual culture.

While the book is unified by common historiographic concerns, the individual chapters treat different subjects and vary in terms of mode and effectiveness of argument. For this reason, they are treated below individually.

Following an introductory Chapter One by Alice Donohue that sets out the concerns of the volume, Julia Assante treats us to “From Whores to Hierodules: The Historiographic Invention of Mesopotamian Female Sex Professionals.” Here, Assante describes how nineteenth-century European popular culture provided a fertile bed from which the mythological seeds of ritualized prostitution, sacred marriage and other forms of Near Eastern “sexual aberrancy” could blossom into “historical fact.” Yet, Assante’s paper is far more than a commentary on Victorian ideology and the links that existed between the academy and its social contexts. Careful documentation of early visual and literary evidence allows him to demonstrate how a nineteenth-century obsession with Mesopotamian sexuality served to obscure the complex and nuanced distinctions that exist — still predominantly unexplored — within the archaeological record. Particularly compelling is Assante’s discussion of Near Eastern “fertility cults” and the manner in which early scholarly rhetoric regarding the “licentious rites of sympathetic magic” obscured an ancient concern with the perils of over-population. Assante’s documentation of the unsophisticated and uncritical methodologies applied to ancient culture should give students of ancient art pause. Her insistence on the intricacy and recoverability of early Mesopotamian systems of meaning provides an ideal model for those interested in writing complex and meaningful histories of ancient art.

Jacob Isager’s ” Humanissima ars : Evaluation and Devaluation in Pliny, Vasari and Baden” is the subject of Chapter Three. Here Isager briefly explains Pliny’s view of ancient art and how this key Roman source was used as a model for later art historians. For those who have read Isager’s other important work on Pliny, the article provides little that is new. For those who have not, the article is a good introduction to Isager’s ideas. While the connection between Vasari and Pliny is very well known, one aspect of the article is fresh, namely the connection between Torkel Baden — a non-entity in the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen — and Pliny’s Natural History. The three pages treating this relationship are fascinating for the simple reason that Baden would have been lost to ancient historiography without them.

Chapter Four, “The Fate of Plate and Other Precious Materials: Towards a Historiography of Ancient Greek Minor (?) Arts,” by Ken Lapatin is a triumph. Building on a concern first expressed in his landmark study of chryselephantine sculpture ( Chryselephantine Statuary in the Ancient Mediterranean World [Oxford Monographs on Classical Archaeology] [Oxford 2001]), Lapatin exposes and explains the long standing academic prejudice against “minor” objects — fine jewelry, gems, textiles and metal wares — within the history of Classical art. While aspects of this problem have been treated before (most famously by Charles Seltman in Approach to Greek Art [New York 1960]), Lapatin brings a new seriousness and self-consciousness to the problem. Moving with agility from ancient texts to ancient objects to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historiographies, Lapatin weaves a tale of suppressed evidence and selective aesthetics, a tale that, in the end, demonstrates absolutely the importance of precious objects and their makers to the history of Greek art. The chapter is fundamental, not only because it stands as a powerful example of creative, holistic thinking regarding ancient material culture but also because the issues raised by it are of deep importance to our conception of what the phrase “early Greek taste” might have actually meant to an early Greek. It is necessary reading for students of ancient Greek art and archaeology.

Mark Fullerton gives a concise and authoritative overview of the historiography of stylistic retrospection in Chapter Five. As with Lapatin’s article, the piece is key for students of Greek art who want to understand the assumptions that have governed the last 200 years of writing on style. After reviewing the problematic notion of stylistic retrospection and Winckelmann and Furtwängler’s role in shaping our current ideas about how style was used (and reused) in antiquity, Fullerton moves into the twentieth century and presents summaries of Georg Lippold, Heinrich Bulle and Eduard Schmidt’s contributions to the study of stylistic retrospection. Of particular importance here is Fullerton’s call for a deep methodological awareness on the part of ancient art historians, a point made vivid in his discussion of Winckelmann’s and Furtwängler’s intellectual environments and their corresponding art historical agendas. Fullerton’s point that past and present epistemological assumptions and preoccupations have dictated many of the established “facts” of Greek art history deserves constant repetition as does his belief that a meaningful history of Greek art is possible so long as each object is examined on its own merits, in its own context, and with full awareness of our own intellectual models and modes of enquiry.

“The Peplos and the ‘Dorian Question'” is treated in the sixth chapter by Mireille M. Lee. Drawing on a chapter from her 1999 dissertation (“The Myth of the Classical Peplos” [diss. Bryn Mawr College]), Lee carefully constructs an argument regarding what we cannot know about the so-called “Doric peplos.” Drawing on both literary and material evidence, Lee argues that our present understanding of the “peplos” was built by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century (primarily German) scholars on biased readings of the ancient evidence. Her treatment of the historiography is interesting as is one of her most provocative conclusions, namely that the “peplos” may have been used as a heroic or divine signifier in early- and middle-fifth-century art. Her main points — that the word peplos might not correspond to the pinned dress seen everywhere in fifth-century art and that this same garment might not be specifically “Doric” — are clearly presented. Problematic, however, is the fact that no alternative vocabulary for the ubiquitous dress is developed. Also puzzling are Lee’s archaeological arguments, which rely almost exclusively on negative evidence. The ancient insistence (e.g. Herodotus [5.87-88], Thucydides [1.6.3-5] or Aeschylus [ Pers. 181-183]) on a distinction between “Ionic” and “Doric” dress is also left unexplained. Lee dismisses these ancient authors with standard positivist rhetoric, a move that sidesteps a basic principle of modern archaeology (especially the archaeology of ethnicity), namely that what a given people thinks of itself — the stories that it tells itself — are just as much a part of its cultural identity as its “real” history, whatever that may be. The ancient authors cited above believed that Doric garb could be distinguished from Ionic and Persian dress. For the fifth-century Athenian mind, in other words, the difference existed. It was not invented by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germans. This fact should probably factor into any discussion of Greek costume and its historiography.

In Chapter Seven, Mary Beard presents an interesting treatment of the (in)famous Mrs. Arthur Strong’s contribution to the history of Greek — as opposed to Roman — art. To this end, Beard’s essay re-contextualizes Strong’s early scholarship in relationship to Giovanni Morelli, Adolf Furtwängler and, most importantly, Sir John Beazley. In addition to demonstrating how closely Strong’s (then Miss Eugénie Sellers) early training was tied to the British academy (a point that Strong glossed over with her famous remark “All my archaeology was taught me by Germans”), Beard re-demonstrates Stong’s important role in the “translation” of Furtwängler’s monolithic Masterpieces of Greek Sculpture. The quotation marks are used here because Beard shows that Strong’s “translation” of Furtwängler’s volume was actually a new edition of the book carefully and consciously filtered through “Morellian” methodology and language, a point that was immediately noticed by contemporary readers. (Beard also demonstrates how the name “Morelli” had actually become a slogan for a particular intellectual stance in late-nineteenth-century Europe, hence the quotes yet again.) This observation becomes significant because it helps illustrate one of Beard’s key points, namely that Strong was a self-avowed practitioner of Morelli’s “method.” This fact has been forgotten by modern historians of ancient art who instead posit a relationship between Morelli and Sir John Beazley, a relationship that Beard powerfully debunks.

The book concludes with Joanne Monteagle Stearns’ “Jargon, Authenticity and the Nature of Cultural History Writing: Not Out of Africa and the Black Athena Debate,” an attack on Mary Lefkowitz and her famous assault on Afrocentrism. While many of Stearns’ jabs at Lefkowitz are politely delivered and might be seen as well-deserved by some, scholars with training in theory will find the article a frustrating read. Stearns displays no awareness of the vast literature that surrounds Adorno’s The Jargon of Authenticity and the ferocious debate that this book has generated in philosophical circles for the last forty years. Stearns also cites Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals (or, rather, cites at length Raymond Geuss’s opinion about what a genealogical history might have meant to Nietzsche) but then ignores Nietzsche’s “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life.” This well-known pamphlet, first published in 1873, formed a primary launching point for Adorno’s project and actually does exactly what Stearns wants Adorno to do, namely, to demonstrate that histories are always constructed with deep and sometimes unknowable agendas. (This is a key point since a basic understanding of Adorno’s development as a thinker is the necessary ante in what is considered by some to be a very serious game.) Stearns’ definitions of “history” and “historiography” are also questionable. For philosophers of history, “history” is a literary genre that purports to describe or explain, by various means, events that happened in the past. Likewise, “historiography” is a literary genre that purports to describe or explain, by various means, why and how histories are composed. Stearns’ definition of “history” as “an event or series of events, that is, a process occurring in time” (p. 173) — in other words, a definition that sets up history as virtually indistinguishable from the “past” — not only has no precedent in the philosophy of history outside the nineteenth century but also negates, in a sense, her important observation (borrowed from Nietzsche, Adorno and Foucault, among others) that an objective or omniscient representation of earlier happenings is impossible. (How, exactly, can “history” be critiqued if it is defined as an ontological category as opposed to a genre ?) But these are all minor points. The most serious issue that might be taken with the piece is that Stearns participates — innocently — in exactly the sort of discourse of authenticity that she purports to critique. In her attempts to out-maneuver Lefkowitz, Stearns adopts a position of (false) theoretical superiority, a position that she implicitly urges us to believe is valid or authentic. Now, had this position been adopted consciously, the article might stand as an important example of methodological self-awareness in the field of ancient art historiography. As it stands, however, the opposite is true.