Why the Marbles must stay
Only by visiting the British Museum will you discover why the Parthenon Marbles belong there.
The study of Classical art is very unfashionable. For every thousand people who know the name of Damien Hirst, and who believe they are informed about art on account of it, there are probably 50 who could name a work by Michelangelo, five who would know where to find the Gates of Paradise, and (at a pinch and excepting the Venus de Milo) one who could name a single piece of antique sculpture.
The further back you go the less informed people appear to be and the fewer still are those who actually know anything about it. Eventually, as these remaining few die out, we’ll draw a line under the past, say around 1250, write off everything prior to that and start the clock again. Awareness and interest, it seems, are in every walk of life skewed heavily and uncritically in favour of the contemporary. Even the Secretary of State for Education considers Medieval history an indulgence – heaven knows what he’d think of a teenager keen to devote years to the temples of Agrigento or the relief sculpture of Babylon. Enjoyment of history and the past is interpreted in official circles nowadays as evidence only of a pathetic and effete avoidance of the present.
This is particularly true of art, where ‘Contemporary’ rules as a monopoly. To be progressive and forward-looking is all that counts. Any other loyalty is deeply suspect. It has always mystified me why a dull-witted charlatan like Tracey Emin should be considered more contemporary, more capable of arousing responses and worthy of study, than a 2500-year-old statue of an athlete. This obsession with the immediately contemporary is a sad deceit. The best art of whatever period is always contemporary because human thoughts, anxieties and feelings haven’t altered much in recent millennia.
Being about as far from contemporary art as you can get, Classical sculpture is overlooked because it is difficult to understand and, at least on a superficial level, irrelevant to modern life. I’m convinced that this general ignorance of Classical sculpture, its sheer distance from us and resistance to being easily understood, is at the root of the reason why the likes of former foreign secretary Robin Cook, former US president Bill Clinton, London Mayor Ken Livingstone and other clever media addicts lend support to the campaign for the restitution to Athens of the Parthenon Marbles. Their arguments lack any conviction or cogency, and one suspects that their first-hand experience of the sculptures is at best through the swiftest of perfunctory visits to Bloomsbury or, more likely, from an emotive television documentary in which half-truths are passed off as facts.
Over 30 years of visiting the British Museum I’ve come to understand the truth of the argument presented first by former director Robert Anderson and more recently by his successor, Neil McGregor, that the importance of the Parthenon Marbles in the context of other works in the British Museum is unique, profound and unrepeatable elsewhere. This argument could be dismissed on the basis that we art faggots would say that – but I know that Christopher Hitchens’ convenient claim that the Parthenon Marbles’ removal to London was ‘a loss to sculpture and scholarship’ could not be further from the truth. On the contrary, the scholarly argument, which will be understood only those willing to study the evolution of sculpture during unquestionably its greatest two centuries, is the most important one against restitution. Although this is the most compelling reason, it is the one least likely to convince. Few will empathise with it because few have learned to see Classical sculpture. Before attempting to describe the thrills of those west-wing rooms to which the Parthenon Marbles are central, I want to rehearse as fairly as possible the other pros and cons most frequently deployed in the debate.
The commonest argument for the return of the Parthenon Marbles is that they were illegally acquired in the first place. Though I have serious reservations about the honesty of Elgin’s stated, saintly motives in removing them, not to mention his own optimistic interpretation of the Ottoman Sultan’s ambiguous authorisation, there is not a court in Europe that would find against the British Museum’s legal ownership of these works. Even the Greek authorities have now realised that contesting title is a non-starter, arguing instead that: ‘The marbles are best seen and understood in the context of the Parthenon for which they were made.’ This is seductive as sentiment but far from persuasive as argument. It might be more convincing if two-fifths of the Parthenon frieze and a large proportion of one pediment were not already in Athens giving a flavour of what the Parthenon was like when it was completed in 432BC.
Precisely how helpful is it, really, to have all the sculptures in the same place? Extremely useful to scholars but an irrelevance to everyone else. None of the Parthenon’s sculptures now resembles in any way what first appeared on the building. To start with, the iconography is uncertain. The precise meaning, therefore, not to mention their exact ordering on the building, has proved elusive. Additionally, all the colour, gilding, weaponry and the white-deadening toning which we know was applied to the blinding raw marble have been removed. The truth is that we cannot begin to imagine today either the full significance of the sculptures in terms of their original meaning or, most critically, of their original appearance. And if we could we might be disappointed. Am I alone in not regretting the loss of Pheidias’s ghastly-sounding, gigantic chryselephantine Athena housed in the Parthenon’s cella, and what must have been the gaudy spectacle of the same building’s brightly polychromed frieze high up in the half-light of an inner passage? If we could see them precisely as designed and executed we might consider them more appropriate to Disneyland than to a fully paid-up Wonder of the World.
No, give me our present fragments any day. We use all the sculptures of ancient Greece, such as they have survived, for our own purposes, purposes almost always unrelated to the largely unknown reasons why many of them were made. We should not confuse what we see and love now with how ancient audiences saw and interpreted the finished and pristine pieces. Using this same argument, would not all the sculptures of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus be better reunited in one place – Bodrum say – so that Western European tourists and the local Carian peasantry could see and imagine the greatest sculpted monument in the history of Western art, upon which four of the greatest ever sculptors were said to have competed? I don’t believe either tourist or Turk would be remotely interested – they have other concerns and pastimes.
What good accrues from seeing all of the Acropolis sculptures together in a building that is a mile from the one for which they were made? At this point we should remember that the Parthenon Marbles comprise pieces from two Acropolis buildings other than the Parthenon, namely the Erechtheum, whose caryatid porch is familiar to those who pass the crude simulacrum of it adorning St Pancras Church on Euston Road, and Callicrates’ marvellous and architecturally influential little jewel, the Temple of Athena Nike. Does any worse understanding of the frieze sculptures accrue because in the British Museum the Parthenon and the Acropolis are present only as photographs and plans rather than as the pentelic marble reality? I can’t believe it helps for these works to be seen near to the sad shell of the building for which they were made, any more than I need to know the precise location of Masaccio’s Pisa Altarpiece whose central panel only is in London’s National Gallery and whose remaining main components and predella are also, like the Acropolis sculptures, dispersed throughout half a dozen museums worldwide.
There is another claim that the Parthenon Marbles are somehow coexistent with Greek identity – in short, that they mean more to the Greeks than to anyone else. This is certainly untrue of when they were made. The Acropolis was a specifically Athenian statement not a Greek one, although it was built perhaps fraudulently using allies’ money. In the incessant wars between those mainland city states beyond the tiny Attican promontory, the armies of Delphi, Sparta and Corinth might have been only too willing to follow in Persian footsteps and trash the gleaming new Acropolis. Furthermore, claims that the Athenians of Pericles and the Greeks of the European Union are somehow siblings is preposterous. The Greeks are at least as mongrel as the English are. For a modern Greek to assume racial kinship with Pericles is like my Mancunian mother claiming a close relationship to Cartimandua, the queen of the Brigantes, a Pennine Iron Age tribe. She is just as likely to be descended from a Syrian, a Spaniard, a north African, an Angle or Saxon, a Dane, Norman or Norwegian, not to mention the armies of Irish navvies who shovelled out the Ship Canal in the nineteenth century. The idea of a transhistorically permanent idea of Greece and Greekness fails to recognise a long European history of intermixing nomadic tribes, slavery and successive colonising invasions.
Another argument for the Parthenon Marbles’ return is that they are in bad, uncaring hands here. It is true that in 1937 three frieze and metope panels were badly scraped using metal tools in order to satisfy that self-serving charlatan and huckster, Joseph Duveen. He was donating money for a new gallery to house them and wanted the sculptures Colgate white for the purpose. The then museum director stopped this practice as soon as he realised what was happening. It was indeed a regrettable outrage and everyone, not just the Greeks, are right to be angered by it. However, the greatly superior condition of London’s sculptures when compared to those that have remained in Athens is perhaps testimony to the timeliness, if crudity, of Elgin’s intervention. Those sculptures that have been in the British Museum for 187 years have fared much better than those in Athens where they were left outside to be corroded by the atmosphere. Additionally, Greek attempts at restoration during the twentieth century have been equally criticised for their insensitivity and heavy-handedness. Nor have the Greeks kept on permanent public display the Parthenon sculptures remaining in their hands.
Yet none of the arguments for retaining the sculptures completely convinces either. In fact, though I support them myself, defenders of the British Museum’s case can easily appear mean-spirited and imbued with the final flickerings of Colonial arrogance. When pushed we point to the fact that the Marbles are seen in London by many more than would see them in Athens. Additionally, the Parthenon Marbles have always been on show here free of charge, a generosity unmatched in Athens. They are also secure in London from the earthquakes which did for the Acropolis in the first place and which only a few years ago badly rearranged the Archaeological Museum in Athens.
It is also said that to return the sculptures would establish a dangerous precedent, leading to a flood of demands for the return of artefacts which other countries might claim as indissolubly attached to their sense of national identity. This would be more convincing if many precedents hadn’t already been set. The British Museum has returned numerous artefacts already to their countries of origin, albeit nothing as significant in Western terms as the Parthenon sculptures. Such a significant repatriation as the Parthenon Marbles might indeed do no favours for the many museums of Western Europe that are fighting off claimants for significant parts of their collections, not to mention the other museums holding Acropolis sculptures (the Louvre, Copenhagen, Heidelberg, Vienna, Munich, Würzburg, Strasbourg, Palermo and the Vatican), which would also be placed under unfair pressure to return their fragments.
But to me, the only convincing argument for retention is the one I’ve absorbed over the years through my eyes. This supports the idea of the museum as a story-telling sanctuary of fascinating and beautiful things, loosely connected, existing safely beyond reach of nationalistic slogans and prejudices and protected from the mitts of politicians. In the space of a dozen galleries of the British Museum (many of which are, shamefully, not open all at the same time), figure sculpture moves from a severe, stylised and silhouette-conscious form to the ideal of a fully three-dimensional, athletic verisimilitude. Once mastered this ideal is treated to a variety of virtuoso interpretations and twists. The sculpture industry between 500 and 300 BC – and it must have been a huge multi-national enterprise employing thousands – improved its own credibility, and the status of those who made sculpture became confident and at ease.
In most museums this story of the first great flowering of recognisably Western sculpture can at best only be recounted in Roman copies, or copies of copies, made many centuries after originals whose existence is documented in texts. In the British Museum, this story is told mainly at first hand with the autograph touch. But even here the story has missing chapters. Primitive free-standing Greek sculpture is hardly represented – perhaps the Greeks would loan us a full-size kouros to help complete the picture? Also, and equally regrettably, the museum has no large bronzes from the period because few survived Dark Age crucibles. But the museum does own an unparalleled collection of marble sculpture covering 150 years, which was planned and designed if not actually executed by the legendary names of Pheidias, Polykleitos, Myron, Scopas, Praxiteles, Timotheus, Lysippos.
The story is not a traditional one of known steps forward and of specific stylistic innovators. This is not art for a period obsessed with celebrities and art-historical conveniences. In this period knowledge can’t effectively be organised around names and a specific sequence of dated works. It is instead the most lucid of mix-ups in which truth to perfect and idealised appearance edges forward, and in which the sculptors grow visibly in ability and audacity. In the great sculptural schemes we can watch as conservative sculptors work alongside progressives. We see the best artisans of vivid, deliciously easy forms working shoulder to shoulder with hacks producing stiff, mechanical ‘types’.
There isn’t a single, convenient thread. As you process through the galleries, hopping across the Peloponnese from Bassae to Athens and sail through the Cyclades from Athens to Xanthos (the most wonderful sculptures of women and vividly observed animals I’ve ever seen), then up the coast to Halicarnassus and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (surely the most refined carving of a column drum anywhere), it is tempting to imagine that this figure was carved by Praxiteles or Scopas. But it makes no sense trying to identify hands. The confidence and monumentality which starts in the intricacy of the Bassae Frieze and the Parthenon pediment grows quickly into the bravura, belief and lightly worn swagger as new styles spread and the most skilful craftsmen migrate widely as individuals and teams.
Here in these rooms is the fundamental vocabulary of Western sculpture, the beginnings of Giovanni Pisano, Donatello and Michelangelo, the visual and practical storehouse of the Italian Renaissance. To destroy such a treasury of beautiful solutions by removing its heart would to my mind represent as much an act of vandalism as any ever perpetrated upon art.
David Lee is editor of Jackdaw art magazine. This article is an edited version of a piece published in the July issue of Jackdaw.
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