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Looking at Greek Art

July 2012 (116.3)

Book Review

Looking at Greek Art

By Mark D. Stansbury-O’Donnell. Pp. xiv + 253, figs. 82. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2010. $27.99. ISBN 978-0-521-12557-4 (paper).

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In the midst of a steady stream of general texts on ancient Greek art, this book stands apart in both its goals and its contributions. As the title suggests, it certainly is about looking at Greek art, but to a much greater degree, it is about interpreting Greek art, providing an analytical overview of the strategies brought to bear on the process. It in no way replaces a textbook, but it would serve as a very useful complement. It is not, as the author indicates (7–8), a history of Greek art but rather an exploration of the various questions one asks about Greek art and the ways in which researchers try to answer them. The theme that runs throughout is the relativism and constructedness of the histories we create; as a result, this book helps students to become more careful, critical readers of the often authoritarian accounts of the subject that they will inevitably encounter.

The core of the book is divided into four chapters—four legs of the interpretive tabletop, as the author puts it: style, meaning, context, and identity. The first chapter begins with the observation that description and stylistic analysis are less easily separable than has often been assumed, and thus one must be systematic in what is termed formal (which is applied to individual objects) and stylistic (comparative) analysis. The “form qualities” (as Meyer Schapiro termed them [22]) of two contemporaneous but quite different red-figure vases are identified and compared, and Beazley’s methods of using both formal and comparative analysis for the process of attribution are demonstrated. There follows a consideration of the questions we seek to answer through stylistic analysis by indentifying similarities and differences across several variable factors. These include how and why style changes over time or varies from region to region, how and why contemporaneous styles might vary according to subject, the consistency of style across different media and materials, and the process and problems of identifying the artist’s individual contribution.

The chapter on meaning begins with Panofsky’s classic treatment of iconographic and iconological analyses; the process then is applied to a series of works, culminating in the thorny problem of the Parthenon frieze. As in style, there is here, too, the issue of separating description (“preiconographical” analysis) from interpretation. Approaches that focus on the communicative aspect of the conveyance of meaning by the artwork are then explored, including structuralist semiotics and information and repetition theory, as is the shift from object to viewer as a central concern in poststructuralism and related methods.

The third of the four “legs” moves from the relationship between object and viewer to the consideration of context, including a range of economic and political considerations loosely associated as Marxism and a survey of the settings and functions of objects. Here, too, object agency and object biography are explained.

The fourth and final chapter brings the viewer back into the context and deals with psychoanalytic aspects of looking (gazes and Gazes) and its role in constructing those identities that are then explored in turn, including gender and sexuality; civic, class, and ethnic identity; and Greek interaction with non-Greeks, including postcolonialism. The organization used here, rooted in the identification of strategic similarities among multiple methodologies, does an excellent job of elucidating what often seems a confusing web of “-isms.”

There are only a few points with which I would not quite agree or would seek further clarification. Although I share his overall view of Greek stylistic development as a “punctuated equilibrium,” and I would even see that model as more broadly applicable than is suggested here, the author’s observations on the transition from archaic to classical, and specifically the Aigina sculptures (39–42), seem to conflate the somewhat separate issues of artistic agency and patterns of stylistic change. Contemporaneous contrasting styles can be explained by phenomena other than the conscious acceptance or rejection by individual artists of ostensibly dramatic innovations. As on other monuments such as the Siphnian Treasury or the Parthenon, it might simply be a matter of generational overlap, with different teams of sculptors trained at different times in different styles. Indeed, one wonders if these distinctions matter far more to us than they ever did to the Greek viewer. Related is the later discussion of artist biography, illustrated here specifically by a survey of the evidence concerning the sculptor Polykleitos. Here we encounter the now venerable controversy about the role of the sculptor in the development of style prompted most conspicuously by Carpenter’s argument that sculpture was the anonymous product of anonymous craftsmen and taken up in a series of recent attempts to resuscitate the status of the artist as a creative genius. That the very distinction between art and craft is anachronistic is not mentioned here, although it does appear in the concluding epilogue (216). Nowhere is this truer than in the casting of bronze statuary, which, as we now know, was a highly collaborative enterprise. In fact, artist/craftsman is just one of several distinctions, together with history/myth and politics/religion, which have unquestioned validity in our own culture but too often have been imposed in our study of the ancient world. A major value of this book is its effectiveness in foregrounding and thus countering this process.

The book is well produced and well illustrated. I found only two typographical errors (“indentifying” [52] and “Eurtyos” [63]). Aristogeiton is said to have been, like Harmodios, of the Athenian elite (194), where Thucydides states clearly that he was of the middle class. The implication is that this heightened the lovers’ vulnerability to Hipparchos’ aggression. But these are of course minor matters. The author himself states that his intended audience is the student in a Greek art history class and the inquisitive museum-goer. This is, I think, too modest. Given the broad range of approaches considered here, their convincing synthesis into a few major shared issues and themes, and the clarity with which the aims and strategies of each method are outlined, any scholar of the ancient world would read it with benefit. Even specialists in the art of ancient Greece are apt to learn something, or, at the very least, come away thinking differently about some long-familiar matter.

Mark D. Fullerton
Departments of History of Art and Classics
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio 43210

Book Review of Looking at Greek Art, by Mark D. Stansbury-O’Donnell

Reviewed by Mark D. Fullerton

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 3 (July 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1163.Fullerton

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