Posts Tagged ‘Art’

In case this wasn’t obvious, I love Classics in general, but I’m especially interested in something called Classical Reception. Reception is the study of how Classical images, literature, ideas etc. etc. have been understood by people through the ages, and how they have changed Classics through their understanding.  This might include things like Mussolini and Hitler being very excited about ancient archaeology and using the distinctive Roman salute, or an artist reproducing the dying dog from Pompeii.

I find reception very interesting, but it does mean that I read articles with titles such as: “Mythoplasia and feminist intent: painting as sub/culture”, “The romanitas of the railway station”, or “The Uses of Reception: Derrida and the historical imperative”.  I’m sure these are all excellent articles in their field, but I’m so put off by the titles or the opening paragraph that I just stop trying to understand and go look at funny cats for a while or make myself a cup of tea.

However, I read a really interesting article last night called “The Use and Abuse of Antiquity: The Politics and Morality of Appropriation” in this book, and thought it was amazing.  It was all about understanding how and why fascist regimes used Classical archaeology and imagery as a statement about art as well as about themselves, and why it is not helpful just to put them into the evil bin and have done with it. It restored my faith in Reception as well as in my own comprehension ability.

I really encourage you, next time you’re out and about, to notice little Classical things about your surroundings and ask why they are there. Why do so many museums look like ancient temples? Why are there so many columns on government buildings? Why do we still use Latin mottos (E Pluribus Unum, Nemo Me Impune Lascessit etc.)? Classics is everywhere, it only remains to ask what purpose it serves.

In the meantime, I’ll be inside, trying to forget about the gorgeous weather outside the winddow by bashing my head against my keyboard and hoping a thesis emerges. Wish me luck!

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Wow, it’s June.

I’ve been very bad about updating my blog for a multitude of reasons:

1. I’ve been very busy with my work for my Master’s Degree, which will be completed 2 weeks today (gah!)

2. I haven’t really been reading anything Classical and interesting at the moment, which most people seem to like to read.

3. Honestly, I just haven’t been having many thoughts worth sharing with the Interwebs on almost any subject. I know the Internet is useful because you can speak to people you’ve never met who might be interested in the same things, but whenever I’m on here I feel conflicted about what I want this blog to be.

But enough of that! I’ve been surfing lots of comics sites in my spare time (though calling them ‘comics’ kind of undermines them, I think… comics are Archie and Veronica, not the beautiful images Emily Carroll creates, or the wonderful world of Rice Boy), and I recognised how much I’d love to draw more. I’d especially love to make a full-length graphic novel-style story, with proper drawings, but now is definitely the time for baby steps. And what better time than June? I’ve decided to take part in the Thirty Days Project, which is designed to challenge people to do one creative thing every day this month. I will be doing at least one drawing a day. I would promise to post everything here or on the Thirty Days website, but that’s almost certainly going to be impossible for a variety of reasons. If the drawings aren’t cripplingly incompetent, I’ll post them here in a batch when I can.

That’s me sorted out then. What creative thing are you going to do this month?

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I have been reading a terrifying book lately, called ‘The Shallows’, about how the Internet is changing the format of our brains and how we process information. The book reasons that the Internet sprays us with little bits of information which we browse lightly, rather than committing to the sort of “deep reading’ that allows us to follow an argument, that is, the kind of brain we have had since reading and writing were invented.

This book follows swift on the heels of an article I read in The Guardian recently about how e-readers allow a huge number of multimedia features to be incorporated into a book. For example, the e-reader version of ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel includes a discussion between the author and Dr. David Starkey, as well as useful illustrative links and so on. However, ‘The Shallows’ argues that these little gems detract from our focus as we read. I know I’d be on edge if I was looking for Easter eggs and hyperlinks as well as following a complex story line.

I was skeptical about e-readers, I’ll admit it. I thought they’d die the death of the 8-Track and Betamax, truth be told. I can see their advantage if you go travelling and don’t want to bring an entire library with you, but their appeal ended there, for me. I love the heft of a book in my hand, the ability to fold down page corners, the fact that I can (and do) drop it in the bath without worrying about the loss of my entire library. Reading this book, however, has persuaded me never to use an e-reader. The human brain, with its ability to focus deeply on a task (especially when that task is a book), is a triumph of evolution/design/both. Anything that distances my brain from the brain of the ancients is, in my opinion, a bad thing. 

Originally, literary works were written on scrolls, which were a bit cumbersome and hard to use. Wax tablets were used for day-to-day writing, since parchment was expensive. To accommodate longer notes, groups of wax tablets were tied together, making a rather thick book-like object. Early in the Christian Era, some bright spark decided to do the same thing to parchment, and in doing so invented what we call the codex, the book’s most recognizable precursor. From there we move on to monasteries, Gutenberg and other aspects of printing and publishing history, but that’s another story for another blog. It may be that the e-reader is just the next step in books and book-making. However, I feel like I don’t have the same deep engagement with the very substance of the page when I’m holding an e-reader. This might just be the novelty of the device, but reading a book in electronic format leaves me feeling disconnected from the page and ink substance of a real book, the page and ink substance with which the book was originally written. This may not be true of many modern authors, who mostly type their works, but I feel very far from ancient authors, who wrote on parchment, wax, or the versatile substance of their own minds. I feel as though I’m cheating by reading Homer in English, let alone in English on an e-reader.

An e-reader also changes my own reception of a work. When I read electronic type, it’s usually because I am looking for some sort of information- where we’re meeting tomorrow night, a bibliographical reference, the news, the opening times of a shop. Reading an e-book makes me feel like I’m strip-mining the book for information, rather than enjoying a story or speech or history. E-readers are efficient, I suppose, but efficiency isn’t the point. I don’t read just to gain information- I read to read! This ties in with the whole “art for art’s sake” feeling I have about Classics and life in general.

So, Cicero, Homer, and the others- I promise you that I will stay close to you and your bookish, codex-y, waxy roots, and far away from e-readers.

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I was thinking as I was on the train this morning: Life is so wonderful. Life in general as well as my life in particular. We live in such an amazing, complex world, and I adore the complexity of it all. Not just the biological complexity, though of course that is also astounding- how do trees get water to go up so high?- but the complexity of human society and how we learn and enjoy things.

I loved (and sometimes hated) university  for that reason: we spent all of our time wallowing in the complexities of things. Why was this written this way, how did this idea evolve, and so forth. We take so many things in this life for granted, and it’s wonderful to see underneath the shell of that simplicity to the machinery underneath- the fears, the misconceptions and the sheer art of how we compose and present ideas, like taking the back off of a computer or popping the hood of a car. 

I recently saw the new Quentin Tarantino film ‘Inglourious Basterds’ [sic], and before seeing it I read an interesting essay about the strange rise in “revenge dramas’ which had happy endings. The author of the piece pointed out that traditional vengeance stories ended in a strong message to avoid seeking revenge at the risk of losing yourself: the Oresteia of Aeschylus all the way through to The Godfather. Perhaps, the essay postulated, revenge was okay as long as it was against such clearly evil forces like Nazism, hence the production of this new film. However, when I went to see it, it was so much more than just a simple ‘Kill the baddies’  film. It could also be a delicate discussion of what made someone human, why we think violence against Nazis (or perhaps against Germans in the 1940s in general) is acceptable, though when they massacre us it’s somehow barbaric for them to glory in it.

See? Life can be so beautiful when it’s complicated! Embrace complexity! I am coming up with a new motivational phase: “Pop the hood of life!” Let me know if it catches on.

It probably won’t- it sounds a bit like there’s been a breakdown…

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So, like I said before, I had a great time in Naples at the beginning of the month. The best part of Naples, in my opinion, is how easy it is to leave it and see something else. Namely Pompeii and Herculaneum. I was going with a non-Classicist friend and we had a smashing time looking at all the old houses.

Herculaneum and Pompeii are very similar, but also quite different. Herculaneum’s excavations are much smaller, so it’s harder to lose yourself in the idea that you’re back in time. Still, Pompeii’s colours have faded more than Herculaneum’s, so it’s a more vibrant place. Still, it’s all down to personal choice.

The Pompeiian Baths

The Pompeiian Baths

House of the Marine Venus

House of the Marine Venus


Mary Beard makes the very good point that Venus looks a bit silly here, but believe it or not, this isn’t the only painting of Venus in this style in the Bay of Naples…





Garden of the Fugitives

Garden of the Fugitives


From this point, the only things you can see are ancient. Even the vineyard has been planted as it had been in ancient times. The only main difference is that, apart from the ruination, Vesuvius doesn’t have one single peak as it did in antiquity- an explosion blew the top right off.







Graffiti in Herculaneum

Graffiti in Herculaneum



This really shocked me in Herculaneum- modern graffiti seemed to be everywhere.  Message to all modern defacers of antiquity:  I don’t care when you were here, who you’re in love with or where you’re from. If you must write it, write it on the incredibly plentiful amounts of modern paint in the town. *Then* maybe an archaeologist will find it and it will be interesting, rather than just illegal.

Edit: There is, of course, lots of ancient graffiti there as well, but that’s allowed.





Venus Kallipygos

Venus Kallipygos


Another great feature of Naples is its incredble archaeological museum, with the amazing Farnese collection. It was wonderful to see all these artefacts I’ve written about for years but have never seen in the flesh. This gorgeous lady is Venus Kallipygos, which is Greek for ‘nice bottom’. I love this statue- it’s playful, original and, most importantly, it’s laughing at the viewer.






I had a great time abroad, with great pizza, wine and company. I might put up more photos later if anyone’s interested!

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My final exams begin two weeks from today. Yes. I’m terrified.

While revising for my course on “Collecting (in) Ancient Greece and Rome”, I thought I’d peruse one of the biggest and most controversial sales of very recent times, the Yves Saint Laurent collection, which was done by Christies auction house in late February this year. The information on the Christies website is very comprehensive, including a Flickr slideshow of the auction, which took place over several days.  You may have heard of it because the Chinese government was calling for the return of several bronzes which were taken as plunder in the Opium Wars with the British in the 1860.

This is what concerns me: I was examining many of the incredibly beautiful ancient pieces which were sold (all for much more than their estimation value) when I decided that this procrastination might be put to good use if I examined the records of the provenance of each antiquity. For those who aren’t so immersed in the art world, provenance is all to do with where the item came from and who has owned it over the years. It’s like the chain of custody in police practice, and it helps to ensure that the piece isn’t a forgery. There’s lots of literature about this on the Internet if you’re interested in finding out more.
Anyway, as I was looking through all of this, I began to notice a pattern. The vast majority of the antiquities on the auctioneer’s list lack any provenance before 1980, when they popped up in some gallery.  If an artifact lacks provenance like this, it’s usually a great big problem- it can mean that the artifact was removed illegally from its findspot.

Now, I’m not the biggest fan of the “Culture Without Context” dogma of institutions like the MacDonald Institute, but the simple fact of the matter is that such removal is illegal, and galleries and museums who knowingly allow and support such activities are at fault. Nevertheless, the people who find these items, either through intentional looting or through an accidental find, often have little to no incentive to hand them over to the governments which claim automatic possession of them. Unlike England, Italy and Greece have no Treasure Trove laws to reward those who discover antiquities on their land, so the market offers a tempting alternative. Without some kind of pecuniary incentive, the result of handing a beautiful artifact over to the government or smashing it to pieces with a shovel is the same.

What is to be done, then? From a purely scholastic viewpoint, artifacts can often tell us very little if the situation of their findspot (its original location, what was found nearby etc.) is unknown. From a purely aesthetic standpoint however, these objects are often of great beauty (like this head of Dionysos from the YSL collection that I am now in love with) and worth saving for that reason alone. So, should auction houses, musuems and galleries refuse to buy or sell items which have no provenance, or should they buy them to preserve them from destruction, even if to do so involves breaking the law and furthering a business which deprives scholars of information? I should add that information about a find can bestow much more value on a piece.  Which do you think would be valued more highly: a random, if beautiful, sculpted torso, or the same sculpted torso discovered in the Golden House of Nero?

Tricky stuff.

Edit: If you’d like to find out more about issues with antiquities, this blog is particularly good.

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Ordinarily, I am a remarkably apolitical person. However, this particular case concerns a cause very dear to me, and it simply cannot stand.

Malcom Hay is an antiquities dealer in London. One day in 1999, he sold some small antiquities to an Athenian dealer, which he says were worth £1800. The dealer then shipped them back to herself in two packages in Athens, where the law requires all antiquities mailed into the country to be examined by an archaeologist upon their arrival. The day the goods arrived, however, the airport archaeologist told this dealer that the goods would be inspected at a later date. At the promised later date, completely different archaeologists arrived to inspect the goods and found that the antiquities were not two packages’ worth, but more like two rooms’ worth. In addition to this, many of the artefacts were judged to be stolen. Confronted with this, and charged formally with possessing stolen objects, the dealer in question said that she was sold the objects by Mr. Hay.

The objects with which this dealer was caught did not match Mr. Hay’s invoice, but it didn’t seem to matter. Mr. Hay was contacted by Interpol in 2000, gave a statement and thought that this brought an end to the matter. However, in 2007, when he was returning from a trip to Switzerland, he was arrested by British authorities at City Airport because the Greek state had put out an EAW, or European Arrest Warrant, for him. EAWs were brought in to combat terrorism (of course) and facilitate the transfer of terror suspects between nation states in the European Union. This free transfer of prisoners from one state to another essentially means that the country seeking to prosecute does not have to prove that its case against the accused is valid before the home nation extradites. States bound by such EAWs must extradite, no questions asked. In such a case, there is no benefit to Mr. Hay that he has a British passport, and Britain is more bound to agreements made with foreign countries than to the obligations it owes its own citizen.

Mercifully, Mr. Hay defeated the EAW issued against him, but this did not stop the Greek authorities. The Greek state believes that it owns all antiquities found within its borders absolutely, and they have charged Mr. Hay with conversion. The example of conversion I was given goes like this: if you ask to borrow my salt-shaker, and I say you may, then you are lawfully in posession of my salt-shaker (notice that it remains my property). However, if you sell my salt-shaker to someone else, you have treated my property as if it were your own and converted it. The Greek prosecution alleges that Mr. Hay was in Greece and stole these objects in 1999, despite the fact that Mr. Hay simply was not there and the fact that the dealer in question testifed that the sale was indeed made in London. Not that it matters- the Greek state has decided that it has jurisdiction over such transactions, despite the fact that everything took place in London.

Mr. Hay was tried in his absence in Greece, having successfully fought (in London) the extradition charges in the EAW. The dealer, who was found not guilty of handling stolen property, testified that these objects were sold to her in London by Mr. Hay. Greek archaeologists testified in turn that the objects discovered in the dealer’s possession could very well have been found in Greece. The first archaeologist at the airport, who would have seen the original pair of packages containing the actual purchases, was not found to give evidence. The Greek archaeologist Mr. Hay’s lawyers brought in as an expert witness was ignored by the judge because they already knew what she would say.

Mr. Hay has been sentenced to three years in a Greek jail, and fined €200,000, the estimated value of the illegal pieces found with the Athenian dealer. He is currently pursuing an appeal, but if he is defeated, Britain is required to extradite him for imprisonment in Greece.

Another account of this can be found in the Antiques Trade Gazette, or on their website here. Greece’s tyrrany in matters antique simply cannot be tolerated, nor can their frankly underdeveloped justice system. I will refrain from discussing my current issues with the European Union’s new status as a legal, rather than strictly trade-based, entity, and from aspects of the debate on who owns antiquity.  I realise that I have quite a meagre number of readers, but I am asking you all to do anything and everything in your power to help Mr. Hay- write to people, tell friends in the media, boycott Greece in some capacity- anything to further his case. This case is a dangerous, precedent-setting affair which requires international attention, not just that of the world of antiquities.

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