The Ancient Greeks Did It Too

Statue-toppling has been making headlines around the world, from Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, to museum artifacts in Mosul, Iraq. According to Professor Rachel Kousser (GC/Brooklyn College, Art History), the distant past offers insight into this controversial phenomenon.
Her latest book, The Afterlives of Greek Sculpture, examines the histories of sculptures in the classical and Hellenistic eras of Greek history, locating their destruction in a larger cultural context. “Sculptures weren’t just pristine, beautiful objects to be put in a museum,” Kousser says. “There was a real sense of power there.”

As Kousser notes in the book, the usage of Greek sculptures took two general forms. “The Greeks washed, perfumed, and polished statues; they poured libations upon them...; they prayed before sculptures and sang hymns; they knelt, touched marble chins in supplication, and clasped their arms around unyielding bodies of bronze or wood.” Greeks, however, also engaged in highly destructive practices: They “damaged statues, looting them in war, stealing or vandalizing them in peacetime. They overturned marble sculptures and melted down bronzes; heads were cut off, eyes slit, projecting limbs broken away.” The Afterlives of Greek Sculpture turns the spotlight on behaviors “deemed inappropriate, aberrant, or dangerous,” challenging traditional perceptions of Greek cultural identity.

Professor Rachel Kousser

“There’s a belief, which seems very intrinsic to the Greeks, that the statue is a privileged site for contact with something it represents, be it a god, the dead, or rulers,” Kousser says. “When you do something to the statues, it’s a way of communicating with that representative power. You can do good things and give the god gifts, or you can get really mad at the ruler and dash his statue down.”
The same kind of practice is still enacted more than two millennia later — in 2003, for example, when protestors felled a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. “As a postdoc in New York City after 9/11, I started thinking about the ways in which symbolic violence to monuments is interconnected with real violence to people,” Kousser recalls. “There’s also a recent, strong discourse which says that ‘symbolic violence to monuments is not something we do; it’s something practiced by the other.’”
While cultures like the Romans were open about their destructive practices, Greeks kept it close to the chest. “They would do these things and say they didn’t,” Kousser explains. And because Greeks regularly dealt with incursions from foreign invaders — particularly the Persians — who would demolish Greek monuments, they developed a rhetoric that “otherized” monument destruction, echoed by many Greek history scholars. “The Greeks told themselves they only interacted with images in rational and pious ways, whereas other cultures had a very different treatment,” Kousser says. “This rhetoric has powerful resonances today, particularly when the maltreatment of images becomes a cultural stereotype applied to the Middle East.”

Submitted on: AUG 9, 2018

Category: Art History | Faculty | General GC News