An interview with Rachel Kousser, author of The Afterlives of Greek Sculpture: Interaction, Transformation, and Destruction

An interview with Rachel Kousser, author of The Afterlives of Greek Sculpture: Interaction, Transformation, and Destruction

Rachel, thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your book, The Afterlives of Greek Sculpture: Interaction, Transformation, and Destruction. The ‘afterlives’ in the title of your book are mainly the things that were done to statues to harm or desecrate them, but you give us a wonderful picture of what statues in their unharmed state meant to people in ancient Greece. Were you inspired to write your book by this relationship between people and statues, or did you start at the other end with the archaeological evidence of statues that had been damaged?

This book didn’t begin with the Greeks.  I began thinking about violence toward monuments because of my own personal experience as a New Yorker on September 11, 2001.  That day, what I was scheduled to teach was the Parthenon.  My class was cancelled, but when I held it two days later, the students and I talked about the interconnections between the Persian destruction of the Acropolis in 480 BCE and what we’d just experienced — about how in both cases symbolic violence toward monuments could be as shocking and devastating as real physical violence toward people.  We also talked about the difficulty of what to do with the site, the tension between commemorating what had happened and rebuilding for the future.  This was the germ of the book.

 ‘Greeks washed, perfumed and polished statutes; they poured libations on them and placed in their hands the bloody viscera of animal sacrifices. They prayed before sculptures and sang hymns; they knelt, touched marble chins in supplication, and clasped their arms around unyielding bodies of bronze and wood.’ The idea of feeding statues real food, stroking and cuddling them strikes us as quite surprising behaviour – and fascinating. We don’t have such a tactile and interactive relationship with sculptures nowadays. Tell us more about your thoughts on what statues of the gods meant in everyday devotion.

Working on this book has given me the strong sense that the Protestant attitude toward divinity — where God is an all-encompassing but highly abstract and intangible essence — is the anomaly, and that in most places, for most of human history, statues and paintings were critical intermediaries in the relationship with the divine; they gave you a god you could touch.  This was certainly true in the ancient world, not only in Greece but also in the Near East, Egypt, and Rome, while in Byzantium, the iconoclastic controversy was precisely about the devotees’ excessive fixation on images.  And even today, Hindu statues are washed and fed, and I’ve watched Greek Orthodox icons being kissed.  My husband’s family, who are Puerto Rican Catholics, talk about how at Christmas, everyone’s summoned up to the front of the church to kiss a statue of “El Niño Jesus” (they don’t; they think it’s unhygienic, but it’s perfectly normal to them to experience that in a religious context).  So I think the Greeks are actually doing something very human, very appropriate, however strange it might appear to modern scholars.  I rather envy them.  It seems like it must have been so satisfying to have such tactile, intimate contact with the gods.    

 Athens dominates in your analysis, and you explain why. Do you think that further work on the archaeology of other sites may reveal more about other cities and their beliefs? Might there be different stories to come?

It’s certainly possible.  One of the joys (and terrors!) of studying classical antiquity is that you can believe something is absolutely true, and then along comes an archaeologist who digs up a site, and ruins your theory in a New York minute.  So I can imagine finding places where the gods didn’t receive such tactile veneration, and the statues of unpopular kings remained intact.  But I’ve tried hard to look for evidence from elsewhere, and there are certainly indications that Athens was the rule rather than the exception.  We have, for example, records of the expenses of temples at Delphi and Delos, and they show the gods’ statues getting perfume and new clothes in just the same way as at Athens.  So, too, when we finally get a historian in the Hellenistic period who is not Athenocentric (Polybius, who was a Peloponnesian from the city of Megalopolis), we see the same kind of attitudes and practices toward statues in the places he writes about, as for Classical Athens.  With the evidence currently available, I think Athens is typical — just better documented than the rest of Greece.

 Evidence for the afterlives of Greek sculptures comes from a wide variety of sources. How long did your book take to research? Were there any surprises for you, any new stories? Did you have any particular favourites among the sculptures?

This book had a really long gestation.  I started thinking about it back in 200, although as I had to finish writing my first book, I didn’t really begin researching it until about 2007.  And I had no idea what I was getting into.  It took MUCH longer than the optimistic forecasts I made to grants agencies when I started applying for fellowships! 

 My biggest surprise along the way was the resistance I encountered in discussing this topic among classicists.  There’s really a discomfort many scholars have with the idea that the Greeks would mutilate, bury, or destroy their own statues.  I would give lectures on this topic, and people would yell at me, which is not the norm at talks on classical archaeology.  We have a lot at stake in believing that the Greeks had very pious, rational interactions with sculptures, and that statue destruction is something done by others.  Clearly, the Greek rhetoric about the destruction of images — where it’s barbaric, deviant, and fundamentally un-Hellenic — has been very successful, so much so that we’re still beholden to it.  This bothers me, because I think it shortchanges the complexity and nuance of Greek interactions with statues.  I also feel that the kind of rhetoric used by the Greeks has had a problematic afterlife, in that it has influenced how we discuss, say, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, or the attacks by ISIS on Palmyra and Mosul.  One goal of mine for the book was to track the creation and evolution of this rhetoric, so that we could appreciate it as the construct of a particular historical moment, not a timeless truth.  I think that’s important not only for our understanding of the Greeks, but also for the present day.

 My favorite sculpture that I discovered researching this project was the statue in Copenhagen that’s been reconstructed with a dress.  I appreciate the museum’s willingness to try and imagine what the artwork looked like to its first viewers, even at the risk of anachronism.  Also, it’s intact.  For me, the further I got in this project, the more disturbing the damaged statues felt.  I think it’s because they are bodies, often lifesize ones very like our own, and so when you see them with their necks slit or eyes attacked, you feel it viscerally.  So it was hard to enjoy looking at them.

You describe the extent of the damage done by the Persians when they sacked the Acropolis in 480 BCE, and for how many years the Athenians left the acropolis in ruins. A whole generation of Athenians grew up with the sight of this war damage, like Londoners after the Blitz. A post-war literature grew up which shaped the Athenians’ attitude to the afterlife of statues for later generations. The Athenians, rather like the British, never stopped talking about the War. Is this one of the major messages to be drawn from your analysis: the particular nature of the Athenian post-war attitude?

I certainly think that the Athenian post-war attitude is significant.  From my research, it’s the Athenians’ experience of the destruction of the Acropolis that led them to characterize violence toward monuments as barbaric and “other” (even while they, like other ancient societies, nonetheless practiced it).  At the same time, I think this was likely a more widespread Greek attitude rather than an particularly Athenian one.  Many other Greek cities suffered from the Persian invasion just as the Athenians did, and from what remains of the literary and archaeological evidence from these other cities, they responded similarly.  So I would see the Greeks’ experience in the Persian Wars, like that of the British in World War II, as fundamental for their cultural identity thereafter.  It’s an experience of tremendous vulnerability, and of victory only at long odds and with huge suffering, that marked them later on.  The Athenian attitude wasn’t different from that of other Greeks.  They were all talking about the War; the Athenians just talked louder.  

 Another major event in Athens’ history that you discuss is the mutilation of the herms. It is surprising to learn that herms were absolutely everywhere in fifth century Athens: in every street and on every street corner. This helps to explain why the mutilation affair caused such shock and political heart-searching. Was that ubiquity of herms something peculiar to Athens? Did other cities have them, but in smaller numbers? Why were they so very significant for the Athenians?

 Athens was by far the largest city in Classical Greece; it was also the wealthiest (courtesy of the Athenian Empire) and the one that gave the most extensive financial support to the arts, including sculpture as well as, for example, drama and temple-building.  The herms were part of this rich visual landscape in Classical Athens.  The most prominent and prestigious ones were public dedications honoring war heroes, but private individuals followed suit, and Athens had more good sculptors, and more rich citizens, than the average Greek city.  I think the ubiquity of herms in Classical Athens is due to the confluence of these factors:  the wealth of the city, its many talented sculptors, and the prestige of the early public dedications.  That being said, we do have evidence for herms in other Greek cities as well; for instance, our earliest preserved marble herm comes from the Greek island of Siphnos.  The Athenians just outperform everyone in terms of sculpture, whether it’s herms, or korai, or funerary stelai.

 Sculptures in Ancient Greece were chiefly intended to honour the gods, commemorate the dead, and celebrate living individuals. It was interesting to see that your book also talks about Greek voodoo dolls! Can you tell us more about them? Where did they originate, how were they used, and by whom?

 The Greeks likely borrowed the idea of voodoo dolls, like much else, from their neighbors in the Near East and Egypt; at any rate, we see the same practices earlier in these cultures, and when the dolls get to Greece, there are certain “exotic” flourishes, such as funny made-up words you’re supposed to say when attacking them, and weird symbols.  We have evidence for the dolls from the sixth century BCE onwards, though they’re more prevalent in the Classical and especially the Hellenistic eras, and they come from all over the Greek world, from Athens to Arcadia and Sicily.  In all these places, the voodoo dolls were an “underground” phenomenon, something that private individuals did secretly when they were desperate, because these kinds of magical practices were distrusted if not banned.  The dolls were normally made of lead, which is a cheap material and easy to work.  I made one myself, with a conservator’s help, when I was at the Getty (my colleagues said they were going to be very nice to me after that!).  The dolls were used by unhappy lovers and — this is very Greek — people involved in court cases.  The idea was to constrain your enemy so he wouldn’t be able to speak well against you, and sometimes to freak him out, since according to literary sources the dolls could be left somewhere visible as a form of psychological intimidation. 

 How did class influence the Ancient Greeks’ contact with sculptures? Destruction of statues was generally considered a barbaric and impious act. Was this a universal attitude, or was it class-dependent?

This attitude was likely in some ways class-dependent, although it’s hard to say for sure, because the literary sources were all written from the point of view of the elite.  There are some indications, for instance with voodoo dolls, that elite attitudes weren’t universally shared; lower-class Greeks seem much less bothered by the dolls than rich people.  On the other hand, in the case of the mutilation of the herms, it seems that the likely perpetrators were wealthy and politically powerful people, and that they were caught off guard by the vehemence of ordinary Athenians’ reaction to what they did.  And if, as I suspect, the Greeks’ problematizing of damage to statues had its roots in their historical experience in the Persian Wars, then it’s reasonable to assume that it was widely shared by all classes.  The Wars hurt everyone. 

 Everything changed with the Roman conquest of Greece. The statues scooped up by the Romans ceased to be objects of daily attention and devotion, and became art. You touch briefly on this. Can you tell us more of your thoughts on this aspect of ‘afterlife’ – the beginnings of western connoisseurship (Verres!) and art theory?

 For our understanding of Greek sculpture, the Romans are critical; they’re the ones who turned Greek statues into art.  They did it by decontextualizing the sculptures, removing them from their temples and rituals, and bringing them to Italy as war booty.  Initially, the literary sources suggest that the Romans had little interest in the aesthetic qualities of what they looted.  They liked piles of stuff in their triumphs:  piles of gold coins, piles of gems, piles of human prisoners, piles of statues, they’re all treated the same.  But over time, in the exceptionally competitive political system of the Republic, the Romans started to compete with one another politically using works of art, so that if Pompey built a theater filled with Greek sculptures, then Julius Caessar needed to make an even bigger forum decorated the same way.  By the late Republic, we have clear evidence of the Romans’ connoisseurial knowledge of Greek art.  They collect works by famous artists, they make sophisticated allusions to the subject in their speeches and essays, there’s even a thriving market in forgeries.  I think it has to do with the Romans’ historical relation to Greece, the fact that they come to power in a world permeated by Greek visual culture.  They never look at their own art (or that of the other visually sophisticated cultures around them, like the Celts) in the same connoisseurial way.

 How can we explain the enduring appeal of Classical Greek sculpture (and architecture)? What is it about the symmetry, the proportions, the aesthetics, that is so timeless? Although it is widely known that sculptures and buildings were gaily painted, our mental image of them is often less vivid and more austere. We are still picturing white statues, and the marble columns of the Acropolis. Are we simply ignorant (perhaps because we don’t have enough evidence or reconstructions) or are we reluctant to give up this image of a certain kind of purity, and if so, why?

For me, the appeal of Greek sculpture is tied to its insistently figural nature.  Its primary subject is the body, particularly the human body, in an idealized yet naturalistic form.  Because of this, we can immediately relate to it, on a very basic level.  It gets to you.  My students are always falling in love with particular Greek statues, for instance Lysippos’s Apoxyomenos, or the Barberini Faun, for this reason. 

 In terms of seeing whiteness in ancient Greek sculpture and architecture, I think we’ve been conditioned by hundreds of years of history.  From the Renaissance on, we’ve recreated the classical world in this monochromatic way, and it’s really hard to re-imagine it differently.  I also think that some recreations of the painting on ancient sculptures are garish, almost programmatically ugly, so that makes it more tempting for people to reject them.  But the paintings we have from ancient Greece and Rome — Pompeian frescoes, say, or Egyptian mummy portraits — are beautifully vivid, and I like to think the sculptures were too.  I also think that our reluctance to see the ancient world’s white statues as colored can have political undertones.  The attacks by white supremacists on classicist Sarah Bond, who wrote an article arguing that we need to see Greek statues in color, were a striking indication to me of where that reluctance can come from.

 You have a deep knowledge of, and interest in, the history of art. Have you observed Greek pottery and sculpture from a distance, or have you ever been tempted to have a go at creating yourself?

 Sadly, no.  I love art history, but I’ve never been an artist.  In a way it’s freeing, like I don’t have to compete (as if one can!) with the Greeks.  My creative expression comes out in writing; I write poetry, novels, journal entries, all kinds of things, although I stick to nonfiction for my published work.

In the Greek world, memory was created above all through sculpture rather than text. In the modern world, we are flooded with words, whether printed or displayed on a screen, but much of the information is ephemeral. How do we create enduring memories? What part does sculpture play today?

In the modern world, literacy is far more widespread than in Greece, so texts play a greater role now in creating and transforming memories.  But I don’t think we should discount sculpture.  The recent controversy in the U.S. over the taking down of Confederate monuments is a good example of how powerful these images can still be for our understanding of the past.  Public sculptures like these offer a way for communities to codify their collective memory of past history.  And taking down or moving statues makes a public statement about how we’re re-evaluating the past, questioning and changing our memories of it.  The Greeks did the same thing.

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1 thought on “An interview with Rachel Kousser, author of The Afterlives of Greek Sculpture: Interaction, Transformation, and Destruction

  1. These successive interviews not only illuminate the individual works, as this one with Rachel Kousser does; they also add up to a powerful testimony to the power of Greek history and culture still to move us and teach us.


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