For the Greek nationalist imagination, the silent, featureless, poignantly blind faces of the Cycladic figurines functioned (they still do) as double-faced mirrors reflecting the country’s “antiquity” and its “modernity” at the same time.
As far Christian Zervos and his fellow Greek modernists were concerned, Cycladic art would be the perfect exponent of Classical Greek values at a time when the art of that period was falling from grace, overburdened by the damning accusations of academism and stagnation. Though this kind of archaeology may be criticized (and indeed it has been) as severely handicapped by internal incoherence, this is mainly due to the way (western) historians have been taught to treat cultural expressions of nationalism. What Greek archaeologists and intellectuals were aiming at, was to compromise the “objective” modernity of their culture, as it was produced by the scientific rigour of archaeology, with the “subjective” antiquity of their homeland, as it was brought into existence by their collective national imagination. As the historian Benedict Anderson has acutely pointed out, it is such kinds of paradoxical situations, inherent in the structure of nationalist thought yet unable to be remedied by it, that help us identify the nation as a “political community” imagined by its members. In Greece, this process of imagining the nation was subject to an instinctive urge to embrace modernity (which for many may have simply meant “modernization”), while at the same time placing an emphasis on the nation’s Hellenic identity (in the hope that Greece’s glorious past was to guarantee it a splendid future). For Greek intellectuals, the West had to be counter-attacked and conquered; therefore they strove to construct a national artistic idiom which would be modern and un-Western at the same time. In this, predictably, they emulated ideological developments elsewhere, namely in new states in Asia and Africa emerging after a long anti-colonialist strife. As a nation-state of the “second generation”, Greece was bound to structure its national identity on an antithesis to occidental orthodoxy, even though Greek intellectuals themselves thought of their nation (and the state accommodating it) as genuinely “European”. As it has been observed by a Greek historian, “in case [post-colonial nations] did not wish to view themselves through the eyes of the West, they had no other choice but to view themselves as a reaction against the gaze of the West.”
Cycladic archaeology served as a powerful tool in Greek nationalist discourse of an eternally Hellenic past, and afforded ample imagery for the nation’s appealing representation by applying its modern aspect to Hellenic antiquity.
Most, if not all, national projects in the field of archaeological research or cultural management subscribe to this goal, often including in their official rhetoric statements to that effect; the Benaki Museum is one such good example, as well as the Museum of Cycladic Art, attracting fierce critique by many by whom it is seen to promote ‘modern national self-esteem and identity’.
Lamenting lost archaeological context, since the Museum houses artefacts from the market, hence of dubious provenance, many take a rather firm stance, suggesting that despite efforts on behalf of the Greek state to keep Cycladic art in Greece – or achieve the return of stolen artefacts – ‘one may doubt if Athens, Greece, really is a more natural resting place for a Cycladic figure than Athens, Georgia’, as was claimed in a paper 15 years ago or so.
This assessment is, of course, accurate: The Museum of Cycladic Art, inaugurated in 1986 by none other than Melina Merkouri herself – the fabulous actress-turned-politician who counted Manos Hadjidakis and Yannis Tsarouchis among her personal friends –, pays fitting homage to one of modernity’s most central fixations: collecting. At the same time, it eagerly subscribes to the ideas of continuity and singularity of Greek art from antiquity to the present.
The Greek authorities, ‘on behalf of the Greek nation’, encouraged Dolly Goulandris to start her Collection in the 1960s, hoping to ‘repatriate’ illicitly exported antiquities. The Museum’s charter from 1986 outlines, the way the Benaki Museum’s one did in 1930, as its main goal ‘the promotion of prehistoric, classical, and modern Greek art’, with a particular reference to the Aegean Sea. In this, the Museum of Cycladic Art, and the official Greek approach to Cycladic art in general, is found by its critics in violation of the code of practice acceptable by scientific archaeology: it is nationalist rather than scientific, its approach is metaphysical rather than rationalist, in other words such projects are thought to violate the very modernity they appear promoting.
I fear that in our attempts to rescue archaeology from the perils of its cultural and ideological appropriation (or misappropriation, as some would argue), we tend to forget archaeology’s debt to one of modernity’s main – albeit often underestimated – components, namely Romanticism, to whom nationalism, empiricism, and individualism, all can be shown to be related. All these components have shaped Cycladic archaeology as we know it: a discipline inspired by the conviction that, as with the rest of Greek archaeology, rigorous methodology and positivist discourse is bound to lead to valid, objective results; that comprehensive analysis of the material remains reveals the national character of the people that produced them; that, finally, this character is masterfully and authoritatively expressed by a single man, their creator. Cycladic archaeology as a twentieth-century phenomenon shared the fortunes, blessings, and tribulations of modernity itself; and the rift created between the ‘metaphysical’ and the ‘positivist’ discourses in its study, is yet another battle in the post-colonial wars.
Championing scientific reason and rational, detached, approach to Cycladic (or any other “national” art for that matter) is in fact a good way to claim modernity from the hands of its non-western appropriators. Rationality has long been identified (by Edward Said and others) as a key intellectual issue raised by Orientalist discourse in an attempt to define, isolate, study, and therefore control the Orient on behalf of Western episteme. It is also a useful discriminatory tool between ‘them’ and ‘us’, the subjects of study and its agents, especially when the former refuse to keep quiet. Said has of course been rightly criticised of upholding a simplistic duality between an oppressor-West and an oppressed-East, the latter still keeping remarkably silent. Like Anderson, Said seems to believe that non-western imagination was colonized by the West, a thesis deconstructed by many, mostly scholars from non-metropolitan academic centres. They, rightly, resent the notion that the post-colonial world is bound to a ‘perpetual consumption of modernity’, arguing that, in fact, nationalism in communities outside the geographical area of the West (but still within its colonialist influence) fashions a “modern” national culture that is nevertheless not Western. This is a remarkably multi-dimensional and highly unpredictable discourse (I doubt, though, whether Said would be surprised to hear that): if Greece as a nation is an imagined community, it is brought into being precisely at the moment when the Cycladic figurines shed their colourful aspect, lose their original aesthetics and are isolated from their anthropological contexts in order to become “abstract” and “modern”. And, it should be noted, the nation is already sovereign, even when the state is under the political or economic control of the West (be they the European Union or the International Monetary Fund), even under the cultural supremacy of such metropolitan centres as London, Paris, or New York.
I feel that those critics wishing to rescue Cycladic art from the hands of Greek nationalism behave like a bunch of grumpy-old materialists: too busy trying to contextualize all things ancient, they miss textuality in the very epoch when it is at its strongest: our own. We have by now learnt to accept that the archaeologies we produce are generated in the mill of controversy, rebellion, and shared fantasy and that, far from dealing with ‘reality’, they are meant to help their audience deal with their own experiences of culture, time, and mortality.Projects such as archaeology are meant to confirm identities and re-enforce national ties, inscribing the nation’s locality onto the bodies of its subjects (a process we could refer to as ‘the production of natives’).
In other words, if culture is ideological, then ideology is cultural: it becomes an integral part of our object of study, rather than acting like a contagious virus jeopardising its scientific integrity. As Jean Baudrillard once observed, “things discover us at the same time that we discover them. At the moment when the subject discovers the object, the object makes a reversible, but never innocent, discovery of the subject. More – it is actually a sort of invention of the subject by the invented object”.