Post Modern Classicisms Dialogue, Part One: Returns to Order

Dear Jessica,

Many thanks for agreeing to have this dialogue on Minus Plato about your participation at today’s workshop Modern Classicisms: Classical Art and Contemporary Artists in Dialogue at King’s College, London. I’m writing this to you on my way out of town, up north to Cleveland, for a well-earned weekend break (it’s Veteran’s Day here in the US – so there are no classes). I hope that the workshop is going well so far – I wish I could be there. Looking at the programme, it will be a stimulating and wide-ranging conversation – and, according to the website, it is at the 250 capacity (and people on the waiting list!), so you’ll have a great crowd to join in the fun. Do tell everyone that Minus Plato says hi!

As I haven’t got much time before we hit the road and you will be checking this during a coffee break or over lunch, let’s get straight to it. There is no pressure on us to flesh out this dialogue right now, anyway, these are mere notes written down for us to return to later, the opening moves for some future project.

So you are part of the panel The Classical Lens. Let me to share with our readers the description on the conference programme:

II: The Classical Lens

Speaker: Simon Martin
Panel: James Cahill, Charlotte Higgins, Jessica Hughes and Ursula Mayer

This session will address the classical as a lens through which modern artists have either magnified or refracted contemporary concerns (including, for example, shifting attitudes to gender and sexuality). It will begin with a short video on The Mythic Method: Classicism in British Art, 1920-1950 at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, followed by a talk by Simon Martin (curator of the exhibition and Director of Pallant House). Charlotte Higgins will then chair an informal conversation exploring the idea of the classical lens in modern and contemporary art. Why was there a ‘retour à l’ordre’ in post-World War 1 Europe? To what extent has the classical served as conduit for transgressive or taboo subjects? Is the antithesis of ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ necessarily useful or meaningful?

You wrote to me that you were delighted when the Modern Classicisms team asked you to take part in this workshop and that this invitation came at the perfect time for you, because you are currently working on some new Open University teaching material about Classical sculpture and its reception – a first-level interdisciplinary module that ranges across all of the Arts and Humanities subjects.

The alignment between the conference and your work on this module makes me wonder where you stand on the way that both Modern Classicisms (and its big sister, Liquid Antiquity) both make Classical sculpture the lens through which to view the interactions and connections between the Classical and Contemporary Art? I know the workshop is squarely focused on Classical Art, but what happens when we encounter contemporary artists who take alternative paths back to antiquity (e.g. via myth, philosophy, literature, history, languages etc). How many altered sculptures do we need to add up to an altered Republic?

Sorry, I got a little carried away here. Let me get back on topic. So, you tell me that over the past few months you’ve been grappling with the problem of how best to teach that topic, and the Modern Classicisms project has given you the chance to focus your ideas and also engage with some of the most cutting-edge theory and artistic practice. Great, I really hope that this is exactly what is happening in London, as we speak!

As for your panel, you tell me that the focus will be on the exhibition The Mythic Method, which took place at the Pallant Gallery last year.

You refer me to a short film made for the exhibition (I link to it above to remind me to watch it later) narrated by curator (and speaker in your panel) Simon Martin. As you describe it, Martin explains the ‘return to order’ in art after the First World War, which meant that classical art and myth became newly attractive at this time. You explain this ‘return to order’ (paraphrasing Martin, right?) as:

the desire for simple and elegant forms, the attempt to capture the perceived virtues of antiquity, nostalgia, the use of familiar forms to (conversely) underline and highlight innovation, and the emotive appeal of the fragment and the ruin – a theme that you tell me will be addressed head-on in the first panel of the day. (Was it?)

When I read your description of the film and exhibition there were several questions that immediately came to my mind. How do we Classicists revitalize and legitimize our discipline by recycling the need for antiquity at moments of historical and contemporary crisis? Are we complicit with a kind of cultural version of crisis capitalism in which we generate new markets for our work by showing how it is needed to ground us in times of upheaval? I just read Donna Zuckerberg’s recent review of the reissues of Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way and The Roman Way (originally published in 1930 and 1932 respectively) and here is she articulates the need for us to read the works today, in spite of there being much more nuanced introductions to ancient cultures on the market:

Inevitably Hamilton’s books suffer by comparison with more recent introductions to ancient Greece and Rome. She is too flowery and imprecise. But her works still have the power to enlighten, particularly as artefacts of a time when what “Europe” meant was in crisis. Hamilton’s project is, self-consciously, an attempt to understand Western culture. Viewed in that light, her books are surprisingly relevant in a world where President Trump is giving speeches about the values of Western Civilization in Warsaw and fascistic fringe movements are an increasing presence in European politics. Hamilton could have been writing for the present day in these lines: “When the world is storm-driven and the bad that happens and the worse that threatens are so urgent as to shut out everything else from view, then we need to know all the strong fortresses of the spirit which men have built through the ages”. Whatever her personal politics, Hamilton’s romantic vision of the West is one that has proven attractive to far-right political groups today; for that reason alone her books are well worth reconsidering.

Perhaps due to Zuckerberg’s review, but also due to your description of Simon Martin’s exhibition and film, I was reminded of an installation called The Greek Way at this summer’s documenta 14 exhibition, split between Athens and Kassel, Germany. The work, a collaboration between Polish-American artist Piotr Uklański and the American artistic duo McDermott & McGough, comprised of thirty-two photographs by Leni Riefenstahl (from her film Olympia) and seven paintings of Hitler with text that describes the murder of homosexuals during the Holocaust.

The juxtaposition of these works brought the homoerotic images of Riefenstahl and the homophobic murders of the Nazis into dialogue, both under the aegis of the appropriation of Hamilton’s ambiguous title The Greek Way. For these artists The Greek Way articulated both liberation and oppression at the heart of a fascistic fetish of the body and, in its way, a comparable ‘return to order’ in terms of the figurative form.

There I go again! Complaining about how the Classical is always already delineated by the Classical body in contemporary art. I’ll try to control myself from now on.

Ok, I’d better go. Cleveland beckons. My friend, the artist William E. Jones was there giving a talk just yesterday (as part of the FRONT Triennial) and he sent me this photo of an incredible headless bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius (how can anyone know?) at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

I’ll muse over what I’ve just written later today or tomorrow as I stand before it.

Enjoy the rest of the workshop. I’ll write again tomorrow.

Best wishes,


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