Scholia Reviews ns 7 (1998) 13.

N. Spivey, Understanding Greek Sculpture: Ancient Meanings, Modern Readings. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Pp. 240, incl. 142 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 0-500-23710-7. UK£28.00.

Tom Stevenson,
Department of Classics, University of Auckland.

Nigel Spivey wants us to do something a little different while reading his book. Instead of the traditional concentration upon style and artists, which tend to be modern rather than ancient preoccupations, he wants us to think about the original contexts of Greek sculpture and the ways in which Greek sculpture was produced and developed. Generally speaking, it wasn't 'art for art's sake' (though an exception is almost made for the Parthenon, p. 140); it was art for religious, social and political purposes. Accordingly, in his search for ancient meanings, Spivey asks questions about factors like setting, function, patronage, audience, production techniques, and so on. This isn't an entirely new approach, but it is reasonably so, and the treatment is stimulating.[[1]]

In the first two chapters, 'Introduction' (pp. 7-15), 'The Greek Revolution' (pp. 16-53), Spivey invites the reader to ponder the shortcomings of traditional approaches to the study of Greek sculpture and suggests a variety of social and historical factors for consideration. This is the most important theoretical part of his hook. In chapter 3, 'Daedalus and the Wings of Techne' (pp. 54-77), he focuses on the shadowy figure of Daedalus and the technical origins of sculpture in a variety of media: wood, limestone, marble, bronze, and terracotta. Chapter 4, 'Sacred Decoration' (pp. 78-104), deals with the sacred settings of Greek sculpture and the rituals it supported. Statues and reliefs commemorated numerous types of events (pp. 84-95), or served purposes of state propaganda and 'peer polity interaction' (pp. 95-103). Many different types of ceremonies were conducted around them. Chapter 5, 'Heroes Apparent' (pp. 105-22), stresses the heroisation of figures and sees Greek nudity as a costume that might be donned by anyone with heroic pretensions. The impetus given to the production of Athenian art in general, and sculpture in particular, by the victory at Marathon is dealt with in chapter 6, 'From Marathon to the Parthenon' (pp. 123-51). Chapter 7 (pp. 152-71) is entitled 'In Search of Pheidias'; in fact, Spivey embarks upon a systematic undermining of Pheidias' reputation, in reaction especially to scholarship which exaggerates his role as the creative genius behind the Acropolis rebuilding programme and the artistic achievements of Classical Athens in general. In chapter 8, 'Revealing Aphrodite' (pp. 172-86), Spivey deals with the genesis of the naked Aphrodite figure of the fourth century B.C. and its subsequent influence. The Hellenistic age is dealt with in chapter 9, 'The Patronage of Kings' (pp. 187-217), and here it is easier to write about (e.g. royal) commissions of sculpture, such as the Great Altar of Pergamon. This leads on to a discussion of Roman and modern attitudes to Greek sculpture in chapter 10, 'Graecia Capta' (pp. 218-27), with special reference to the plunder, copying and collecting of Greek works. An 'Epilogue' (pp. 228-31) follows, during which Spivey argues once more that it is not enough simply to trace the chronological development of style, following the broad rule that Greek art is progressively more naturalistic over a timespan of about 800 to 100 B.C. He affirms the greatness of Greek art for its technical excellence and generally ennobling quality, but calls for a suppression of the biographical and 'philological' approaches, and for a new emphasis upon theory and archaeology (p. 230):

'... the message of this book is that a better understanding of both the themes and stylistic accomplishments of Greek sculpture can be reached if we abandon our craving for names, and transfer our attention away from those who made Greek sculpture, in the direction instead of those who asked for it and paid for it.'
Certainly, the merits of Spivey's book and of its preferred approach are considerable. It is hard not to see both being influential for a long time to come. On the other hand, it is a consequence of theoretical and thoughtful work that readers are stimulated towards refinements. This occurred especially as I read the first two chapters. Spivey shows himself to be a social historian who employs archaeological material rather than an art historian who compares styles. He quotes Gombrich's view that iconology is a matter of institutions not symbols (p. 7),[[2]] decries the flawed and subjective technique of searching for sculptors and originals when only copies survive (p. 15), and finally justifies himself with the assertion that art belongs to a game of power (p. 15): 'And in that game, institutions and customs are more powerful than individuals.' In general terms it may be so, but this bald assertion doesn't really do justice to the mix of (often unpredictable) influences from individuals, families, communities, and customs, and it also denies the strength of methodological debate on the efficacy of sociological perspectives in this and in related historical fields. The point is that Spivey's approach does not completely supersede older approaches, although it is loaded with potential for future applications.

Surely no one will henceforth be able to explain 'the Greek Revolution', characterised above all by developing naturalism, as a product of the dawn of 'civilization', a growth in personal liberty, or a predilection for narrative (pp. 17-35). Instead, scholars will contemplate factors such as 'the technical empowerment of Greek artists' (p. 26), their skill and competitiveness (a reflection of underlying competitiveness in Greek society, p. 27), and the desire to create a culturally distinctive output in comparison with art of the Near East (pp. 27-9). Three-dimensional (Greek) art was created in opposition to two- dimensional (eastern) art. The Greeks were more interested in the 'how' than the 'what', i.e 'how' elements related to one another rather than 'what' particular elements were involved (p. 29). They were also participants in a 'culture of enactment' which gave some impetus to naturalism (pp. 34-5). Drama and art both required audience participation, even suffering, which is one explanation for depictions of pain and emotion in Greek art (factors missing from eastern art). Then there was the attitude to beauty and goodness which sanctioned male beauty contests and pederasty, and judged that 'ugly people were bad people' (p. 38). Above all, Spivey would stress that the Greeks went beyond naturalism in their depictions, producing statues that were combinations of formal measurements (pp. 38- 40). His fundamental explanation is a religious one (p. 44): 'The best human bodies . . . are vehicles of the divine. Such is the basis of ancient Greek anthropomorphism.' The divine, therefore, was manifest in the best of the Greeks' physical selves. Artists, in producing lifelike or idealising statues, gave glimpses of the divine in the context of a society which did not conceive that the divine and mystical were beyond human imagination (pp. 52-53). In addition, statues were considered animated and, given the reciprocal nature of Greek religion, whereby the gods were called upon to respond in kind, the more naturalistic were statues, the more likely they were to be animated and responsive (pp. 49-50).

Naturalism was not an end in itself, an obvious artistic aim for a civilised artist. Spivey's factors definitely help in the task of recreating plausible contexts for meanings. Yet there are limits. One problem stems from the difficulties of recreating the original circumstances of commission and display. Evidence is sparse, and many important pieces have been ripped from their contexts, physically, chronologically, and in other ways. Spivey himself sees a further problem in the fact '. . . that some pieces of Greek sculpture, familiar to us for many years, continue, despite their apparent familiarity, to provoke much varied speculation as to their meaning' (p. 230). In effect, the 'problem' for Spivey resides in choosing between two or more plausible explanations. He even seems to illustrate the point by appearing in chapter 6 to support both Joan Connelly's interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze (preparation for the sacrifice of a daughter of Erechtheus, pp. 146- 47) and also that of John Boardman (a commemoration of the heroes who died at Marathon, pp.147-48).[[3]] Yet in his 'Epilogue', he says in relation to the Parthenon frieze that: ' . . . one of several possible interpretations has been argued for, but it cannot be definitive' (p. 230). The 'problem' might actually be that we are not assessing the fundamental polysemy or polyvalency of Greek art properly, and I would have liked Spivey to discuss this point. Modern scholars conjure 'difficulty' or 'ambivalence' from a mindset which requires something definitive or exact or precise. When more than one explanation purports to be definitive, contradiction tends to be assumed, or there is 'ambivalence' if the scholar resists the temptation to rationalise or to dismiss one explanation as being 'more likely' than the other. What if the Greeks didn't think this way? What if they implicitly thought in terms of 'ambivalence', or were prepared for and appreciative of evocations, not seeing the need to rationalise or reconcile or dismiss or define to quite the degree that we do? This doesn't always fit, as for instance with some philosophical debate, but it does, in my view, help our appreciation of art and religion. It might even be expected of a contemplative people who preferred allegorical scenes to direct depiction. They produced relatively few scenes of Greeks fighting Persians, but many evocations of the Persians in scenes of Greeks fighting Amazons, Centaurs or Trojans. Furthermore, it is human nature to contradict yourself, to be irrational at times, and so on. The point in relation to meaning is that we should contemplate more than one meaning or evocation, no 'right' one, and no necessary assumption that such a thing would be sought. If the Parthenon Frieze comes from a non- definitive mindset, it could accommodate, even promote, multiple and expanding evocations of a generally positive nature. Likewise, this might permit a better appreciation of Pausanias, whom Spivey finds somewhat exasperating for a certain 'ambivalence of response . . . both attributionist . . . and functionalist' (pp. 13-14).

The discussion has greatest impact if the reader already has some familiarity with the featured pieces. It is likely that the questions which have occupied Spivey will be developed further in the future, but he is at the forefront of the field at the present moment and has produced a book which ought to benefit all students of Greek sculpture.


[[1]] Proofreading is exceptional, though note '. . . is (= it) would be misleading' (p. 181), and '. . . one of (the) girls' (p. 184).

[[2]] E.H. Gombrich, Symbolic Images (London 1972) 21.

[[3]] J. Connelly, 'Parthenon and Parthenoi: a Mythological Interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze', American Journal of Archaeology 100 (1996) 53-80; J. Boardman, 'The Parthenon Frieze - Another View,' in U. Hockmann and A. Krug (edd.), Festschrift für Frank Brommer (Mainz 1977) 39-49.