BMCR 2011.07.21

Looking at Greek Art

, Looking at Greek Art. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xiv, 253. ISBN 9780521125574. $27.99 (pb).


Students of Greek art seeking an introduction to the methods and theories of their discipline have traditionally found themselves in an awkward position. Introductory textbooks to Greek art tend to privilege the presentation of objects and chronologies over discussions of method or theory, while the standard texts on art historical theory (such as Nelson and Shiff’s Critical Terms for Art History 1) devote relatively little space to antiquity. Because so many approaches outlined in the latter type of text depend on the availability of information that is lacking for the Classical world, their relevance to the study of ancient art has not always been obvious. What has been needed for some time is a book that introduces art historical method and theory in a way that takes into account our particular state of knowledge about Greek art, and – Looking at Greek Art answers this need. The book targets two types of reader: the student who has been assigned an object-focused essay or research paper and the tourist who wishes to acquire a deeper understanding of the art he or she encounters in museums. In view of the academic tone and the emphasis on theory, I suspect that the book will prove more popular with the first type of reader; however, the writing is accessible throughout, and Stansbury-O’Donnell does a commendable job of balancing discussions of the theoretical “big picture” with analyses of individual objects.

The book was born, Stansbury-O’Donnell tells us, out of his own need “to grapple with various theoretical approaches to Greek art, first as a student and then as a scholar and teacher” (xiii). The range of approaches it presents is impressive and is, in my opinion, one of the chief virtues of the book. The reader is offered concise introductions to approaches as varied as hermeneutics, information theory, psychoanalysis, and Marxism (to name only a few); although space constraints necessitated a certain amount of selectivity,2 one walks away from the book with a good sense of the broad range of thinkers to whom historians of Greek art are indebted.

A second major virtue of the book is its presentation of theory as a vital component of the discipline. Theory and interpretation are not, for Stansbury-O’Donnell, exercises to be undertaken only after the sober business of empirical analysis is complete; they are present, and must be reckoned with, at every stage of investigation.3 This point cannot be emphasized strongly enough, and I wish that every introductory text took it as seriously as this one does. Stansbury-O’Donnell is careful not to privilege more established methods over more recently adopted ones, nor to dismiss the former out of hand as outdated or unfashionable. Both Panofskian iconography and postcolonial theory receive their due as tools that are useful under some conditions and subject to criticism under others, and both are recognized to be products of particular historical and intellectual circumstances. This approach is both balanced and sensible, and it goes a long way towards demystifying a genre of scholarship that is often (sometimes rightly) accused of needless obfuscation.

Other aspects of the book are more problematic, however. A number of prominent theorists—Saussure, Marx, Freud, and Lacan among them—are discussed at length in the text without ever appearing in the notes or bibliography; unless one is familiar with their work already, it is difficult to know where to locate the original positions. While I suspect that the citations were kept out because the aim of the book is to introduce students to theories of Greek art rather than to theory in general, their omission sends the troubling message that it is not essential to read the works that provide the foundations for one’s own approaches. This absence of critical bibliography makes the book less useful than it could be as an introductory text. A second difficulty with the book is the absence of clear definitions for certain key terms. Although a helpful glossary at the end defines many of the terms and ideas used throughout the book (221-231), major concepts around which whole chapters are organized—such as meaning, context, and identity—are never explicitly defined.4 Both the omission of citations and the absence of clear definitions can at times make the text difficult to understand. An example is Stansbury-O’Donnell’s observation that “Critics of semiotics and structural analysis would argue that interpretation cannot be separated from context, and that the study of unchanging structure is artificial when compared to the more varying and changing use of signs in spoken language or visual art” (93). While this may be true, the statement is difficult to evaluate without more information about who the critics are and what precisely is meant by “context”—the latter may conceivably refer to historical, iconographical, discursive, archaeological, or ideological context, any of which would alter our understanding of the sentence considerably. Most of the difficulties I had with the book arose from this sort of imprecision in terminology or citation; while I sympathize with the need to simplify complex ideas in the interest of making them comprehensible to readers who are encountering them for the first time, too much simplification can lead to confusion.

Despite my misgivings about the vagueness of some of the author’s conceptual categories, the overall trajectory of the book is logical and easy to follow. An introductory chapter on “The Study and Presentation of Greek Art” considers settings in which modern viewers typically encounter works of Greek art—mainly textbooks and museums—and argues eloquently for the constructed nature of these encounters. For Stansbury-O’Donnell, the viewer is always an interpreter, and interpretation is always conditioned by the circumstances of viewing; both the textbook and the museum display will encourage some types of questions while discouraging others, so understanding the logic behind the presentation of information is crucial. In addition to being an important point in its own right, this is an effective way to introduce a discussion of interpretive method and theory. Equally effective is Stansbury-O’Donnell’s choice of three works—the Siphnian Treasury, a bronze caryatid mirror, and a cup attributed to Douris—as case studies for many of the comments ahead; in continually returning to these objects throughout the book, he drives home the point that no single line of inquiry can be definitive.

The next four chapters deal with specific approaches to analyzing art, each chapter adopting a progressively broader focus. Chapter 2 (“Description and Visual Analysis”) focuses on the close study of objects, addressing questions of style, chronology, medium, and artist. The discussion of stylistic and formal analysis is for the most part sensitive to the subjectivity involved in description, although I wish the term “realistic” had been used with qualification (22), since this concept has been extensively criticized by art historians and others.5 Chapter 3 (“Meaning”) tackles issues of iconography, narrative, semiotics, information theory, and postructuralism, among others; the tables of definitions and key terms included throughout the chapter are especially useful. While I had some quarrels with the author’s interpretations of specific methods and objects, the chapter on the whole gives a good sense of what is at stake in the approaches under consideration. Chapter 4 (“Context”) introduces Marxist criticism, Gell’s theory of agency, ritual theory, cultural poetics, and object biography, in addition to considering some physical contexts in which Greek art was encountered in antiquity. The chapter shows a keen awareness of the difficulties presented by the fragmentary condition of our information, although Stansbury-O’Donnell is cautiously optimistic about the possibilities presented by the approaches he considers. The fifth chapter (“Identity”) deals with psychoanalysis, feminism, ethnicity, postcolonialism, and a variety of related topics; it also aims to put into practice many of the approaches outlined in earlier chapters. I found the most to argue with in this chapter,6 although given its ambitious scope, some disagreement is not surprising; if anything, it attests to the provocative quality of the approaches Stansbury-O’Donnell has chosen to include. There is a brief concluding chapter, devoted mainly to a discussion of Pausanias as a viewer of art.

The fact that I disagree with the author on certain points does not diminish my respect for what he has accomplished. Stansbury-O’Donnell’s book will give students of Greek art a good sense of the range of interpretive tools they have at their disposal; it will also, I suspect, help more experienced researchers to identify the weak points in their own mastery of method and theory. In fact, the articulation of a body of theory in which historians of Greek art should be able to claim competence may ultimately prove to be the most significant achievement of this book.


1. R. S. Nelson and R. Shiff, eds. 2003. Critical Terms for Art History. 2nd ed. Chicago/ London: University of Chicago Press.

2. See, e.g., p. 214, where it is noted that a more complete discussion of psychoanalysis would discuss Klein, Kristeva, and Winnicott.

3. This argument is present throughout the book, but it appears in its most explicit form in the discussion of the Siphnian Treasury, pp. 6-7.

4. The first chapter lists the questions that pertain to each key concept, but questions are not substitutes for definitions. For instance, the heading of “meaning” is said to encompass the following questions: “Who are the figures that decorate the cup, and what story is being represented? What would the story have meant to the ancient viewer? What principles, ideologies, or morals does it represent, and why might they have been important to the artist, the viewer, or the society? How is the representation similar to or different from the literary versions of the story, and is there even a relationship between the literary and pictorial narratives? Is this version of the story common, or is it unusual in some way?” These are good questions, but the choice to consider them under a single heading is not inevitable, and a working definition of “meaning” could have made the logic of the decision clearer.

5. E.g., N. Goodman. 1976. Languages of Art, Indianapolis/ Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Co, Inc., pp. 3-43 (Part I: “Reality Remade”).

6. For example, the author writes of an Attic epinetron: “The epinetron itself is an object unlikely to have been purchased or used by a man, so we must consider that this is an object purchased by a woman that could represent her point of view” (189). While we cannot rule out the possibility of a female purchaser, there is no reason to assume that the purchaser and intended user were the same; moreover, the assumption that an object made for a woman should reflect her point of view is extremely problematic.