April 24, 2006

John Boardman & the Elgin Marbles

Posted at 12:49 pm in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

John Boardman has written a very negative piece for the Wall Street Journal about the Parthenon Marbles. He starts off by giving a historical account which is relatively accurate.
However, once he starts discussing the sculptures this all changes. Boardman claims that “The oriental bargaining that went on and the interpretation of licenses to remove sculpture from the Acropolis are the stuff of modern arguments about ‘legality’ that are quite foreign to the manners of the early 1800s.” which makes one wonder, if this is the case, why so many questions were raised in parliament about Lord Elgin’s conduct at the time of the acquisition of the sculptures by the British government.
Like many accounts he dwells on how Elgin suffered great financial loss in acquiring the marbles – I have never understood how the fact that the seventh Earl of Elgin was financially incompetent should alter the moral or legal aspects of the case.
Then he drops back to the old argument much loved by the British Museum of how so many more people see the sculptures in the museum – as if there has been some sort of mutual agreement between countries that all cultural heritage should be relocated to wherever the most people are, ignoring any sort of a connection they might have had with their original context.

Perhaps the main issue though, is that most of his arguments are post-rationalisations of what happened. Someone decided to do something & then many years later people realised that what the person had done had unknowingly to them created all sorts of other benefits – At the time events occur no one can anticipate what other things might happen in the future, so any post-rationalised ideas should at best be classified as fortunate co-incidences, rather than being implied as part of the original intention.

It is worth bearing in mind that when the British Museum held a symposium in 2000 about the cleaning of the Parthenon Sculptures under Lord Duveen, John Boardman was the only one amongst the various delegates there who specifically stated that he thought this contentious cleaning had been a good thing & that the sculptures had been improved by it.

Wall Street Journal

What Were the Elgin Marbles?
And should they really go back to Greece?

Sunday, April 23, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

At a time when issues of “national heritage” seem to arouse passion, the Elgin Marbles (pronounced with a hard “g”) are regularly invoked. For many the matter seems simple: They were stolen from Greece by an English lord and, since they are the symbol of all that ancient Greece–as progenitor of modern civilization and democracy–stands for, they must go back. It might not hurt to consider just what they are.

In the middle of the fifth century B.C., Athens, which we regard as the home of democracy, was more effectively an imperial state, which had taken advantage of success against the Persian invasion to generate an “empire” in Greece. This had come to exclude only those too powerful to be conquered, and Athens was probably the most hated state in Greece. It was also rich, from Persian spoils and “tribute” from its empire. Athens’ leaders, notably Pericles, wished to demonstrate their success and claim a role for Athens as champion of the Greeks, through the construction of a great temple–the Parthenon.

There was no Greek “nation” as such, and Greeks spent much of their energy fighting one another. The gold and ivory cult statue of Athena within the temple was to be a demonstration of wealth rather than piety, and attracted no cult. The sculptural decoration was to extol Athens’ role in Greece and as favorite of all its gods.

So we find all 12 Olympian gods celebrating Athens: the birth of the city-state’s goddess, Athena, in the front pediment; below it, on a string of square reliefs (metopes), the gods’ fight with the Giants to secure their mastery of Greece; within the outer colonnade, in the wall-top frieze facing out, is their reception of victorious Athenians as heroes; on the cult statue’s base, their blessing of Pandora, who seems a mortal equivalent of Athena, endowed with more human virtues; on the statue’s shield, again, the battle with the gods. The program was unique in Greece, where temple decoration more strictly observed the needs of the local cult. This was a statement of power more in keeping with what a Persia, Assyria or Egypt might have devised. It was not one to which many other Greeks would have responded favorably, and the defeat of Athens and dismantling of its walls at the end of the fifth century must have seemed a proper retribution for such hubris. So there is not much, indeed nothing here, of Greek democracy.

But the sculptural decoration was sublime. Greek artists had, only 50 years before, begun to move away from the mannerism of the Archaic Style, and were beginning to create an idealized realism in the arts that was totally new for antiquity anywhere, and remains influential today. The best work was in bronze, but the best surviving in marble is that from the Parthenon.

The Parthenon’s cult statue went to Constantinople, where it was destroyed; the building was converted into a Christian church, defacing and displacing some of the sculpture; then into a mosque; then its interior was blown up in an explosion. By the late 18th century, in Ottoman Turkish hands, it had become an attraction for western Europeans on the Grand Tour, and a quarry not only for local builders, but for collectors of ancient art. “Spare nothing,” said a French collector, “neither the dead nor the live.”

Lord Elgin first came not to collect but to copy, in plaster casts, as much of the sculpture as was available. These he would take to England to inform the arts of his day, heavily Neoclassical but quite lacking in the true Classical finesse. We can see from early casts that even within the period of his visits original relief figures on the frieze were being chiseled away, presumably for visitors; all were threatened. The only way to save them was to remove the originals. The oriental bargaining that went on and the interpretation of licenses to remove sculpture from the Acropolis are the stuff of modern arguments about “legality” that are quite foreign to the manners of the early 1800s.

Sculptures from the Parthenon–but by no means all of them, since many remained in situ until a few years ago, when they had to be rescued from the atmosphere of an industrial Athens–were taken by Elgin to England. Eventually, at great financial loss to him, they were acquired by the British Museum. Their appearance created a revolution, influencing artistic thought during the 19th century and subsequently. And in London they have remained to instruct and delight millions annually. If returned to Athens they could only go into another museum and be seen by far fewer people, since Greece is visited less for art than for sunshine. The Elgin Marbles’ aesthetic effect in antiquity was slight–they were a symptom of a broader movement. But in Britain they transformed scholarly attitudes to Greek art world-wide, and have had more effect in the past 200 years than they did in over 2,000 in Athens.

In a way the story of the Elgin Marbles reflects various modern dogmas. What is “cultural heritage”? Does it belong to producers–or to the admirers who appreciate and are influenced by it? To take a local example: The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently agreed to return a fine Greek vase to Italy, whence it was probably illegally exported. But it was made in Greece; traded in antiquity to Italy, where it went straight into a tomb; and, in the past century, traded to New York, where it has gladdened and instructed millions who are as much heirs to the classical tradition in the arts as any in Europe. Perhaps the “heritage of man” deserves the widest audience possible.

Mr. Boardman is a retired professor of classical art and archaeology in Oxford, England. His next book is “The World of Ancient Art.”

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