18 Δεκ 2009

displaying modernity vii

Greek prehistory has thus been tamed by modernity to fit its notions. Its obscure signs give way to interpretations splendidly familiar: through the eyes of Modigliani, even an eyeless triangular head can be beautiful and – furthermore – look meaningful; and Cycladic art has been stretched to accommodate both the subscription – mostly western, detached and scientific – to the rigour of modernity and Greece’s belief – chiefly metaphysical, romanticized and emotive – in its cultural singularity.

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”.
displaying modernity: i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii.

11 Δεκ 2009

displaying modernity vi

So this is how Cycladic art has today has acquired a Hellenic identity and a modern façade. It has now become familiar to the public and scholars alike, and this seems to have influenced the way it is studied, as part of the Greek continuity discourse. Renfrew’s processualist approach in The Emergence of Civilization (1972) gave way to a freehand assessment of Cycladic art in his Cycladic Spirit (1991), commissioned by the Museum of Cycladic Art, where Cycladic figurines are compared in terms of technique, style, and aesthetic outlook to Archaic korai and Byzantine icons, in apparent agreement with the views of Hellenic continuity presented here (remember how various aspects of the “primitive” had so much pleased modernist aesthetes in the 1920s and 1930s). Renfrew may sincerely believe (as he actually claims) this comparison to be ‘a processual one’, nevertheless it should be pointed out that Cycladic Aegean on the one hand and the Byzantine Empire on the other have very few, if at all, structural or systemic features in common; they are simply both labelled ‘Greek’, and are strategically placed on the same linear sequence – one as the distant forefather of the other. Can ‘art’ exist in a vacuum?

And this even though the Mediterranean of the fourth, third and second millennia BC has produced many other forms of small-scale sculpture, figurines, predominantly female, which might provide a better processual comparandum for their Cycladic counterparts.

Discarding, moreover, the magnifying lens of modernist aesthetics, could we not argue that the persistence of certain types in Cycladic art (some stuck around for five or six hundred years if we are to believe standard typological chronology), far from suggesting a ‘careful adherence’ to some mystic canon or law of proportion surviving over the ages is in fact a symptom of stagnation and insularity?

Our readings of antiquity are open to a multitude of imperceptible notions, a fact that makes our business much more complicated. By accepting Cycladic artefacts as a priori ‘beautiful’, we implicitly recognise the authority of modern aesthetics on the subject; similarly, emphasizing the role of the Aegean as a timeless factor in the creation of Hellenic culture might betray our subconscious exposure to romantic notions of environmental determinism and its racist implications. A touch of aestheticism seems quite appropriate in most cases: as in the straightforward catalogue of the Cycladic antiquities of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, subtitled The Captive Spirit. Is this a comment to smuggling and illicit trading of Cycladic antiquities? If so, where is the ‘Free’ Spirit supposed to reside?

Colour, in the form of red and blue pigments added onto the surface of the statuettes and other marble Cycladic artefacts, naturally posed a serious threat to their reading as objects of pristine simplicity and virginal clarity, as their modernist enthusiasts would very much like to view them. Known to archaeology since the days of Tsountas, added pigments were always somewhat ignored in the studies of the figurines.

Recently, however, detailed chemical analysis of once painted and now washed-out surfaces has produced considerable results and the promise for a breakthrough in the near future. Even though the general consensus seems to remain that colour was meant to increase the naturalist aspect of the statuettes, by adding facial and other anatomical features or enhancing their lines and contours, while a discussion of pigment-enhancement is virtually absent from many other accounts, some convincingly maintain that the overall impression of a fully-fledged Cycladic figurine would be even more abstract, certainly less naturalistic than what they now look like, having lost their original pigments.

I feel that it is exactly by the negation of this stereotype – simplicity of form, clarity of line and so on – that we may gain a point of entrance into the Cycladic pictorial realm. As many cultural historians have suggested, the way to begin to understand an alien culture is to look for instances where its messages are most opaque, ignoring indications – often misleading – of superficial familiarity. I would think that this type of investigation, employing methodology of related, albeit hitherto ignored by archaeology, disciplines such as Cultural Anthropology and Sociology is bound to be more fruitful. During the most part of the twentieth century archaeologists proceeded to scrutinize Cycladic art in the light of modern science, producing scholarly accounts under different schools of thought: empiricist, functionalist, processualist. A positivist assessment was essential to the hellenocentric narrative (as it provided the necessary element of ‘proof’) as well as the ‘modern-archaeology-as-science’ one, as it legitimized the discourse and confirmed the authority of the scholar undertaking it; inevitably, such discourses tell us more about their authors rather than their supposed subjects. This approach, applying its standard taxonomic devices, excelled in a particular field which I propose to discuss next: the invention of the Cycladic ‘author’ the genius behind the spirit, an import from Classical archaeology, which – despite its lukewarm reception by many of the leading figures in archaeology – seems tempting for many students of Greek prehistory even beyond the Cyclades.

As a modern concept, Cycladic art is in dire need of the artist: the author, the creator-genius to whom we can attribute not only works, but concepts and ideologies as well. Modern art-criticism, starting off some time in the nineteenth century, proceeded to establish ‘the author’ as a central figure to our understanding of art and culture, contemporary or ancient. An anthropocentric reading of the past has thus being developing, based on the study of creations (artefacts, works of art, literature) and their creators. Ostensibly rooted in rationalism, this new approach was emphatically empiricist.

The persistence of connoisseurship in the second half of the century, aided by a general reluctance of historians of ancient art and classical archaeologists to engage in theoretical discussion, threatened to monopolize classical-archaeological studies; more to the point, it was exported to less ‘art-historical’ subjects, such as art or craft produced by provincial workshops in the Greek and the Roman world, or even Prehistoric archaeology which has been subjected to the same art-historical approach. Cycladic art was, of course, the main beneficiary of this trend, which helped shape its ‘modern’ profile – hence the need to discuss this problem here. An emphatic plea in favour of the individual in Greek prehistory was made by Christine Morris in 1993, strongly – though not quite convincingly – arguing that personal styles are discernible in prehistoric arts, based on art-historical observations. Earlier, [in 1977 and 1987], an American scholar (Pat Getz-Preziosi) had proposed a similar approach to the study of Early Cycladic sculpture (including the rather less diagnostic collared jars nicknamed Kandilas!), an arrangement accepted by many, including Renfrew, who also spoke of ‘Masters’ in prehistoric Aegean.

This, seemingly systematic study of what are perceived as ‘individual hands’ in Early Cycladic sculpture, based on measurements and stylistic peculiarities diagnosed on the statuettes themselves, to be attributed to their sculptors’ individual idiosyncrasies is continued to the present day (blatantly ignoring, at its demise, the risks imposed by the possibility of fakes among the largely unprovenanced pieces it “classifies”). Although connoisseurship in Cycladic art has been criticised by many, and in various degrees of severity, two main arguments seem so far to have been employed: one sees the whole approach as a ploy on behalf of the international art market in an effort to enhance ‘artistic’ significance of the surfacing pieces (all, by definition, products of illicit digging, and thus permanently lost to their archaeological context) and, as a result, to multiply their monetary value. Needless to say, international market practices afford a great support to this accusation, since such attributions to ‘masters’ and ‘workshops’, presented in auction catalogues as a matter of fact in most cases, are routinely treated as part of the piece’s ‘history’, and used to justify the ridiculously high estimates quoted. These critics thus insist that artistic merit (in any way we might define it) ought to be eliminated from this equation.

Another, rather more moderate, line of thought questions the ‘feasibility’ of attribution studies, and places a strong emphasis on the subjective character of stylistic analysis, preventing the scholar from exercising archaeology as an ‘objective episteme’. This rather instinctive reaction to a tremendously popular scholarly exercise betrays a somewhat narrow-minded, empiricist reluctance to accept somebody else’s equally empiricist findings. Some dismiss aesthetic appreciation of Cycladic sculpture as a trope of contemporary ‘sensibilities’, and are of course right to do so, they even miss, however, the essential modernity of this very project. Many archaeologists seem to believe that ‘the archaeology of the islands’ is cleanly detached from the discourses of experience – be that ancient, modern, or post-modern. Aesthetic appreciation was the raison d’être behind the invention of Cycladic Culture, and the stylistic approach is not a mere trope in Cycladic studies; through both its attractive potential and its grave shortcomings, it expresses the wish, inherent in modern scholarship, for the imposition of control and order over vast quantities of ‘silent’ material. The desire to establish an overall rational ethos, in its Weberian sense, is evident in archaeology’s claims to ‘scientific objectivity’: coherence, consistency, and effectiveness have long been identified as the ambitions of modern episteme, in an effort to establish long, linear, and assuring historical narratives that ‘make sense’.
displaying modernity: i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii.

4 Δεκ 2009

displaying modernity v

Organic continuity in Greek art – pre-classical, classical, byzantine – is thus taken for granted, and used to redeem Classical Greece in view of its prehistoric self. Only implicitly does Zervos, in his Art in Greece, give a reason behind the singular (if not uniform) grandeur of Greek art: it would have to be the natural spectre, the landscape. No other factor determined the Greek spirit more poignantly than the landscape, the plains, the mountains, the sea, and above all the light, the light of Greece. Continuity of landscape is all we need to establish the uninterrupted sequence of Greek art-history, even if we cannot really argue that it was the same “collective consciousness” of the Greek city-state that actually produced the spirituality of Cycladic sculpture.

This strongly emotive language evokes the enthusiasm of Greek intellectuals over the potency of the Greek landscape and its mystical powers. Through their politically unstable, and in parts quite shallow rhetoric, monotonously repeated for the benefit of anyone who would care to listen, Greek intellectuals and their fellow-Hellenists attempted to develop a bi-focal strategy: on the one hand, to prove – or merely state – that Greek art was still valid as a stimulus to modernity, that the “Greek miracle had not yet outlived its life-cycle”; and on the other to claim the Greekness of what had recently come to be highly valued by European modernists: Greek prehistory.

This is a conscious effort on behalf of Greek thinkers, at home and abroad, to claim the ethnic origin of prehistoric Hellas, in order to consolidate its (and theirs) European identity. As the international avant-garde was appropriating Cycladic art, in particular, it was fitting to remind them that what they treasured so much was actually Hellenic, therefore they had Greece to thank for it.

Modernity had espoused Greek Neolithic and Cycladic art because it was not Greek; Zervos was now arguing that the Europeans should learn to love it because of its Greekness – its hellenicity to be exact; and with it, restore Classical Greece to its former glory. Since archaeology was being claimed by modernity, as one of the modern sciences par excellence, Greek modernists had to come up with an archaeology of their own.

Greek modernist intellectuals, like their fellow-compatriot painters and poets, constructed their vital space allowing for the ample presence of Greece’s past. Rather than a symptom of the nation’s embarrassing parochialism, its devotion to antiquity could pass as the main trait of its singularly modern nature – idiosyncratic but admirable nonetheless.

Christian Zervos maintained close contacts with the avant-garde painters in Greece, enabling them to communicate with the ideas developed abroad. His ideas on the singular essence of Hellenic art – Cycladic to Byzantine – are well within the ideological framework emerging in Greece in the 1930s. Greek painters in particular were heavily influenced by the discussion on hellenicity in the 1930s and 1940s. Sensitive to tradition, they turned to the past, resurrecting techniques and motifs from ancient and medieval Greek art and trying to pick up the thread with folk culture in the post-Byzantine period. Eclectic and cosmopolitan, these painters (most of whom also designed for the stage, including performances of ancient drama) created their own version of hellenicity in their art, faithful to the concept of continuity in the Greek tradition from antiquity to the present. Tsarouchis, Moralis, Nikolaou, and the afore mentioned Ghika became the main exponents of this movement, combining their cosmopolitan outlook with their idiosyncratic approaches on the Hellenic (ancient, modern, timeless).

Yannis Tsarouchis, in particular, perfected an idiom based on Byzantine and traditional Greek painting, which he however applied to motifs borrowed from ancient Greek art.

His characteristic homoerotic images of naked or semi-naked sailors and soldiers converse with the erotes of Greek reliefs and vases. Major and minor artists, of progressive or conservative disposition, seemed now more and more often to be making the obligatory stop at Greek antiquity at least once in their career. Others perfected a more persistent and authentic rapport with (their own perceptions of) Greek antiquity, notably Moralis or Nikolaou.

Nikos Nikolaou actually dwelled on Cycladic art, especially the figurines. His many essays on the monochromatic, stony-faced versions of a contemporary Hellenic face betray a sincere intellectual as well as aesthetic interest.

He also produced an extensive series of stones painted with facial features, in an idiosyncratic rendering of one’s impression of a finished Cycladic head.

At the same time Greece was gradually regaining its prehistory, as the frank efforts of Greek and international archaeologists were finally bearing fruit, and Greek prehistory was becoming a fully-fledged scholarly subject – built as a proper scientific discourse. Cycladic artefacts were excavated, catalogued and published, and were now scientifically interpreted as remnants of a pre- (or proto-) Hellenic Aegean culture.

Thus, (as stipulated by Christos Doumas in 1991), ‘by the early 1960s Cycladic culture had firmly staked its claim to a place among the major civilizations and its study became increasingly thorough’. This study endeavoured to arm Cycladic archaeology with a system cemented in rationalist (hence heavily empirical) archaeological discourse, a self-evident narrative which would “make sense”. Sophisticated taxonomies were introduced to the study of the figurines, providing us with elaborate genealogical trees spanning across the millennia – though ignoring anything that was created beyond the Aegean, anything that did not ooze this vibrant hellenicity I just spoke about.

These genealogies are based primarily on stylistic criteria empirically employed onto a disparate mass of material largely produced through pillaging, thus leave little room for results based on archaeological data. The widespread faking of Cycladic figurines (the more we like them the more we collect them and the more we collect them the less we are likely to come across legitimate specimens in the market, not to mention unquestionably authentic ones) has caused a severe handicap in our attempts for scientific study. Still, these art-historical, quasi scientific and blatantly empirical classifications persist to the present day, forming the basis of our museum displays. The National Museum in Athens, for example, offers in its recently refurbished Cycladic gallery a mix of aestheticised displays and others based on taxonomical systems, including a complete “taxonomy case” illustrating a typological genealogy produced through macroscopic observation and stylistic analysis.

displaying modernity: i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii.