Undoing the Athens model: documenta 14 artists’ advice to the Brexit classicist

Tomorrow is the last day of documenta 14, the exhibition that split itself between Athens and Kassel. To mark the closure of this unique experiment, e-flux has published a joint statement by many of the artists who participated.

What struck me about this statement was the way in which the living artists emphasized the significance of the dialogue between their work and that of historical material included in and emphasized by the exhibition, not just the ancient legacies of Greece or periods of German Classicism, but a truly global emphasis on the impact of violence, colonialism, poverty and oppression. Here is the pertinent section of their statement:

There are many interventions, by the artistic director and curatorial team, which brought together new configurations and dialogue between generations of artists, much of which is invisible to the critics. Also crucial has been the displaying of rare historic material, some of it centuries old and from all parts of the world, some of which has never been displayed in a museum. By commissioning new work in dialogue with centuries-old heritage, new alliances were created across territories and times. The juxtaposition of stories from all over the globe can be disorienting, but that is precisely the point of the structure of this exhibition. Large gestures have to be measured alongside hundreds of small ones to make a complex whole, all going towards globalizing the art historical canon.

The artists proceed to turn this dialogue between the contemporary and the historical as manifest in the ‘complex whole’ of both large and small gestures to the question of what we can learn from this particular documenta, especially in terms of its radical experiment to split itself between Athens and Kassel.

The challenge for all of us– artists, critics, and audiences– has been to experience that complexity, while subjected to practical economic constraints. We need to think of more economically egalitarian ways of viewing a large exhibition, while resisting the dominant narrative that is singularity (“the Athens model”) over complexity (what actually happened in Athens and Kassel).

The artists’ emphasis on balancing singularity and complexity could be the basis for a lesson for Classicists who mobilize their knowledge of the ancient world to intervene in polarizing political debates. Take for example the pro-Brexit article ‘Become Like Ancient Athens – Leave the EU’ by the eminent British Classicist Peter Jones in his Ancient and Modern series for The Spectator, written prior to last year’s referendum vote. Here is the example from ancient Athenian history that Jones offers as leverage for the Brexit vote:

The ancients generally felt it to be better to stick with the devil you knew. Nevertheless, Athenian history provides many telling examples of radical decision-making that transformed Athenian life. By stabilising the Greek economy and spreading political power more widely among citizens, Solon (594 BC) began levering control away from aristocratic families and laying the groundwork for the invention of the world’s first (and last) democracy, created by Cleisthenes in 508 BC. As a result, Athenian citizens came not only to take all political decisions but also to fill (in turn) all executive positions too. Power, indeed, to the people. In 482 BC, a rich vein of silver was struck in the mines at Laurium. Usually, this would have been distributed among the people. Themistocles, who ten years earlier had urged the development of Piraeus into a fortified dockyard and port, persuaded the assembly to put the money into building 200 ships to rule the Aegean seas with its c. 200 inhabited islands and extensive c. 1,800-mile coastline. The wealth and confidence thus generated arguably laid the foundations for Athens’ astonishing intellectual and artistic achievements in the 5th and 4th century BC.

Jones proceeds to use the examples of bold actions of Solon and Themistocles within the context of Athenian democracy to make a plea for a Britain outside the EU:

But now Britons have a unique opportunity to do an Athens, laying the foundations of an independent future, free of EU management committees for bananas and cucumbers, and working globally with whom, and wherever, we choose — and they cannot stop us.

While I don’t want to get into a debate about the validity of Jones’ arguments to make his rhetorical point. Instead I merely want to point to problem of his blunt call to ‘Britons’ to ‘do an Athens’ in terms of how it underestimates the complexity of the functioning and shifts within Athenian democracy and imperialism. Jones conflates the actions of Solon and Themistocles as a basic principle of ‘radical decision-making’ to align with what he calls Britain’s ‘laying the foundations of an independent future’ if they leave the EU. But the analogy simply doesn’t work – the strengthening of Athenian democracy as a means of building and establishing its imperial power has no counterpart in the present day situation between Britain and the EU. In fact, it recalls a certain nostalgia – vital to pro-Brexit rhetoric – for the glory days of the British Empire.

Jones and any other Classicists who want to hark back to ancient Athens to ground their nationalistic pro-Brexit arguments could well learn from the artists of documenta 14 in their call to resist the dominant narrative that is singularity (“the Athens model”) over complexity (what actually happened in ancient Athens). In addition, if Classicists are willing to both learn and unlearn from Athens, and not just valorize a version of its past as a caricature generated from the bold actions of great men, but also see the tensions and hypocrisies of an imperialist partial-democracy based on slave labor and exclusion, then, like the artists of documenta 14, they too would be in a better position to teach Classics in dialogue with the contemporary world, in all its complexity, and not with a nostalgia for Britain’s colonial glory days.

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