Review: Defining Beauty

Colin Wilson reviews Defining Beauty: the Body in Ancient Greek Art, on until 5 July at the British Museum, and questions what beauty is. This review was originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of the rs21 magazine.


You want Greeks? The British Museum has Greeks – not Syriza-style Greeks, of course, ancient Greeks. But which ancient Greeks? That’s the first question posed by Defining Beauty, the British Museum’s new show on the theme of the ancient Greek nude, because the ancient Greeks have been interpreted any number of ways in the last five hundred years. Do you want classical humanism, the origins of European civilisation? Do you want gay Greeks, perfect pecs but with a touch of class – culture, not just porn? Or if you’ve brought the kids, how about a fluffy Athenian owl? You pay your money…

Defining Beauty includes earthenware pottery, statues in dark metals and a gloriously shiny bronze statue of Athena. But many of the artworks are what we associate most with the ancient Greek nude – white marble statues. Originally, they were painted in lifelike colours. Now, the white marble makes them abstract, presents to us the Greeks as idealised people – in the words of the historian David Halperin, without body hair or dirt under their fingernails.

These are, the exhibition tells us, “perfect bodies”. What can that mean? Why did the Greeks reject the view of their neighbouring cultures that the body was shameful? How can a body be a “sign of physical and moral excellence”? Part of the answer can be seen in the sculptures themselves – unlike those of the neighbouring Assyrians, on show here, the Greek sculptures are dynamic. These bodies wrestle with monsters, are about to throw a discus, cover themselves as they are surprised bathing.

But this notion of the morally superior body can’t be separated from the structure of ancient Athenian society. Power was held by citizens, by definition adult males, who made up between an eighth and a tenth of the population. Two-thirds of the population were resident foreigners and slaves. Women had limited rights, and women in households headed by citizens were expected to devote themselves to the home and play no role in public life. Finally, Athens was frequently at war, and those wars were fought by citizens: rich citizens captained ships and fought on land as cavalry; middle-ranking citizens made up the infantry and naval officers; poor citizens were rowers on ships and attendants for the infantry.

To be an ancient Athenian citizen was, then, to be a warrior – men who shirked their military duties or ran from the battlefield in terror lost their citizen status. Class is thus linked to an idea of the autonomous male body. A man who had given up that autonomy by selling his body for sex, for example, could not act as a citizen. For a slave or foreigner to manhandle a citizen – or even touch him without his consent – was a crime against not just the citizen, but the social order. So most of the male bodies portrayed here in white marble are those of citizens who keep themselves in shape because they are ready for war – the claimed physical and moral perfection of their bodies, and the prestige attached to athletics, are inextricably linked to the power of the Athenian city-state. The only exception is the statue of the god Dionysos – one of those stolen from Athens by Lord Elgin – as he lies back, his thighs parted, but then, the rules that apply to the god of wine and religious ecstasy are different from those relevant to mortal citizens.

In any case, this art is not in any way interested in individuals, but in perfect, stereotypical figures. Even what seemed like individual portraits have the appropriate characteristics – the philosopher Chrysippos has the dome-like forehead and creased brow that denote an intellectual.

Athenian political values are reflected, also, in the portrayals of women. Women do not fight in war; women of the citizen class remain all their lives under the guardianship of a man, typically first their father and then their husband. Only a woman’s husband could see her naked, so women are not shown naked as statues. Sometimes they wear thin fabrics which cling to their body. Several statues here are of women surprised bathing – Aphrodite throws up one hand to cover her genitals, the other her breasts, presumably from the gaze of a man who is watching her.

Ancient Athenian attitudes to sex, hinted at here, differed markedly from our own. We mostly think of sex as something that two people do together, the very act making plain their common humanity. In the Greek view, sex was something that someone did to someone else. They did not distinguish between “gay” and “straight” people, based on the sex of the person one desired. Rather, they distinguished between the sexuality of male citizens, with their autonomy over their bodies, and that of slaves, youths and women, who were there to be pursued and penetrated. Sexual acts did not, then, consist of two people of the same sexuality doing the same thing. Every sexual act – the physical detail of who puts what where – illustrates a differentiation along the lines of sex, age and most of all, class. In the British Museum show we see a painting in a wine cup of an older, bearded man penetrating a woman, who we know to be a slave because of her short hair. Or we see two older, bearded men courting youths by giving them presents, while a third man thrusts his penis between a youth’s thighs. The youth submits to this, but shows no enthusiasm – active desire is only permissible for citizens.

There is no denying that many of these artworks are very beautiful. But that beauty is intimately linked to realities of class power, war and a concept of sexuality in which there is no place for either intimacy or consent. All of this makes the Greeks far more disturbing than the cheerful story told in the conservative press about the founders of European civilisation – but it also makes them more complex, more interesting and their society one we can recognise as somewhat similar to our own.


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