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Performance, Power and the Art of the Aegean Bronze Age
April 2008 (112.2)
Performance, Power and the Art of the Aegean Bronze Age
By Senta C. German. Pp. 118, figs. 112. Archaeopress, Oxford 2005. £27. ISBN 1-84171-693-6 (paper).
The study of performance, understood as the context and means by which people critique and derive cultural materials, has taken hold in archaeology over the last few decades. Performance theory, originating in anthropology, illuminates the volatility and contestability of meaning and belief and the dynamic interplay of material and human agents in social discourse. The author’s decision (5) to ground her study on this body of theory is highly commendable. This work, a revised doctoral dissertation, is the first extensive study of performance in Aegean archaeology and among the few works that employ anthropological theory in iconographic analysis.
The introduction promises refreshingly new perspectives on the Late Bronze Age Aegean and spells out the theoretical background. Performance is sensibly disassociated from the concept of scripted acting and theatricality, and three modes of performance are articulated (9–14): performativity, performed acts, and social dramas. The author distances her approach from earlier studies, which treat images as passive reflections of, for example, status, and regards iconography as an active element in the constitution and maintenance of social realities (15–16).
Chapter 1 considers gender, age, and status to have been primary foci of performativity in glyptic imagery. These categories guide the discussion of how “bodies performed social information” (19) but are inherited from earlier scholarship and treated as transparent (e.g., “feminine” and “masculine” body features defining gender; hair styles determining age; costume indicating status). Strikingly, this approach—iconography as a reflection of social realities—is chastised in the introduction. Further, based on about 350 seals, finger rings, or impressions thereof (appx. 1), German identifies dancing and processions (treated as visually indistinguishable, 57–58) and bull-leaping scenes as the most frequently depicted acts, suggesting their real-life popularity (32). Putting aside the question of whether iconography reflects real-life trends, such prevalence does not follow from the data (33 [9.4%] examples relate to bull leaping and 52 [14.8%] show processions/dancing; the remaining 75% depict other scenes, both active and static). Certain Knossian frescoes are also considered against this background.
Chapters 2–3 present the relevant iconography (appx. 2). The discussion opens up here to include stone and ivory reliefs, ivory and terracotta figurines, larnakes and ceramic vessels, and additional frescoes (Theran examples included). Despite the author’s intent to tackle meaning (46), the cross-cultural parallels explored—from Çatal Hüyük to American rodeo, and from the Homeric epics to Kabuki dancing—cannot elucidate meaning in a particular context. At the end of chapter 2, German argues that movement, danger, and vigor are key concepts in bull-leaping iconography, employed in the gendering of young men, but these notions are not contextualized or further explored; their importance is derived from an a priori understanding of masculinity as the demonstration of body strength in dangerous situations. Chapter 3 concludes that movement, vigor, and balance/torsion underscore dancing and procession scenes, in which both young men and women perform their gender or status (71).
Chapter 4 classifies the relevant artifacts (26) and paintings (68) according to their archaeological provenance (“palatial,” “burial,” “storage/administration,” and “settlement”—the latter category includes finds from Minoan villas, 81). In the “Second Palace period” (a term also applied to the Shaft Grave period), relevant images are found in Crete, mostly in settlement and storage/administration contexts (84). However, during the “Third Palace period” (a term also used for the Mycenaean mainland), such images prevail on the mainland, especially in burial and palatial contexts (84). The conclusion that such imagery was exclusively elite is hard to reckon with, given the rigidity of the classificatory categories (e.g., administration and palatial contexts are treated as always mutually exclusive). Also problematic is the treatment of images as badges, whose meaning is independent from the artifacts that bear them, and the discussion of Neopalatial, Third Palace, Cretan, and mainland “images” with little consideration of differences in material cultures, societies, and beliefs. The small sample used to detect Aegean-wide patterns and its selection from a host of Late Bronze Age potentially “performative” themes are secondary issues compared to the above methodological drawbacks.
Chapter 5 offers a cultural history of Crete and the mainland (more useful in the introduction perhaps) and ties together the general thesis. In short, glyptic images (inexplicably reduced here to seals) of bull leaping and dancing/processions were indexically associated with palatial wall paintings (18, 32), themselves symbolic proxies of actual events (16, 31, 85). Social dramas and images thereof promoted social cohesion by forging gender and elite identities: bull leaping alluded to youthful male vigor, whereas dancing/processions were associated exclusively (and again inexplicably, given the conclusion of ch. 3) with youthful female identity (86). Such images also served as instruments of social control: at first to establish a Neopalatial elite that contradicted Prepalatial and Protopalatial social order; and to maintain control, both in the aftermath of the Thera eruption and during the Mycenaean takeover of Knossos. The Myceneans then employed this system of social control on the mainland. In this chapter, one catches a glimpse of how the volume might have read had it not been for the exclusive focus on bull leaping and dancing/processions, and the instrumentalist understanding of “visual ideology” as propaganda that is always successful, unchanging, and unquestioned.
What could have been an excellent synthesis is fraught with problems that render the central thesis indefensible. The indexical connections drawn between actual performances, fresco representations, and their glyptic “stripped-off” versions enable the transition from “real-world” performances to iconographic analysis, and justify discussion of palatial frescoes and glyptic imagery (which cannot be treated as exclusively palatial or even elite, esp. in consumption, contra 87) under the same rubric. That glyptic imagery entirely and exclusively relied on frescoes disregards the complex pedigree of this artistic medium, as well as the intricate relationship between glyptic art, vase painting, and wall painting in the Aegean. This notion also implies intimate knowledge and accurate understanding of Neopalatial frescoes beyond the palatial social realm, while it denies the possibility of renegotiating meaning away from official discourses. A special connection between real-life performances and their representations (or the archaeological evidence for events, laid out in chs. 2–3 despite the author’s remark that proof of their existence is neither possible nor helpful, 32) is unnecessary for proclaiming the performative efficacy of iconography in its own right. If, to paraphrase Alfred Gell, palatial iconography is a form of instrumental action intended to act upon other persons, it is not merely a system of representation but an inherently performative attempt (on behalf of the patron, through the artist) to shape the minds and beliefs of viewers, asserting and potentially molding social realities within the heterotopia of palatial space.
In terms of presentation, the text is accessible but could have used further polishing. There are various anacolutha (e.g., Prepalatial bull-leaper rhyta  are not accounted for when bull-leaping imagery is exclusively associated with Neopalatial ideology), besides the misconceptions of chronological terms noted above. Overall, this volume strikes the present reader as a work in progress with serious shortcomings but also unrealized potential. The book advances an interesting hypothesis from a well-articulated theoretical standpoint but fails to convince mostly due to methodological flaws.
McIntire Department of Art
P.O. Box 400130
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, Virginia 22903
Book Review of Performance, Power and the Art of the Aegean Bronze Age, by Senta C. German
Reviewed by Joseph Schuldenrein
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 112, No. 2 (April 2008)
Published online at www.ajaonline.org/book-review/552