Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Parthenon 1

The Parthenon, Athens, 447-432

Beauty, I suppose, would be the answer, if the Parthenon were a question or riddle. Here as everywhere, but even more so, we regret having to talk about something that is not here, or, rather, about something where we are not there. Though I suppose our best reactions to a work like this are not, as we walk about and breathe it in, to start talking. Still, the experience is the all, and while talking is part of the experience, the pictures don't bring us there.

We have been taught to think of the Dipylon Vase as a kind of sculpture. Architecture is not sculpture, but will submit - sometimes quite readily, I think - to being considered as such. Especially a ruin, or fragment, such as this one, when all measure of utility and practicality are useless, might seem sculptural, if the Greeks, that is, ever really went in for abstract sculpture; abstract qualities in sculpture they certainly excelled in, but abstract sculpture itself, except as almost metaphorically here, or in pedestals and such - which are not sculpture either - not.

In Archaic Greek art the genre of particular things had outweighed their specific, individual qualities in artistic representation. Hence abstraction, expressed through the geometricization of natural forms, dominated Archaic art. In the fourth century, as we shall see, it is possible to detect the first indications of a taste, which would mature in the Hellenistic period, for the representation of specifics without any emphatic suggestion of the genre or form (in the Platonic sense) from which they were derived. Realism, in short, began to undermine the long-standing role of abstraction in Greek art. In the art of the High Classical period, and particularly in the art of the Parthenon, these two poles of artistic thinking—the absolute and the relative—seem to have been magically balanced. (Pollitt, 96)

The Parthenon is one of the great masterpieces of human consciousness. It can be seen as a point of departure by which Western civilization and culture marks a significant achievement that transcends the local and expresses for all who experience it as such something about how our minds interact with the world around us. For this reason, it has become for many a kind of personal way point, a touchstone of experience which, like any great work of art, seems constantly and energetically at work with us. In part and in whole—and both the parts and the whole have been extensively and significantly damaged over time so that all that remains is fragmentary by nature, and most of the best sculpture is in London at the British Museum—the Parthenon invites us to look and to consider, both at the same time, so that we consider or think about how we are seeing it, how we become aware of it through our senses, and also we can begin to acquire a sort of sense perception of how we consider, or think. The stone does not (of course) come alive, but rather something in us seems to come alive as we look both at the architecture and the architectural sculptures, which are found principally in the metopes, the frieze, and the pediments. The work becomes an event, or, more likely, a series of events, which we experience singly and together. The physicality of the work draws us in not only to the world of material things but also to a sense of how we experience the material world through our senses, so that the experiencing the Parthenon becomes like experiencing thought itself. This is, as I say, a quality it shares with other great works of art, but in the Parthenon we have one of the earliest and grandest of such effects.

The Parthenon is the work of many hands—and minds. The architect is known to be Iktinos; the designer of the sculptures Pheidias, though the extent of his contributions is impossible to gauge Perhaps Pheidias provided sketches and ideas for others to work out, though he may have been more intimately involved. Pheidias is, in any case, regarded as one of the master sculptors of Ancient Greece, although the two pieces he was best known for, both colossal chryselephantine (of gold and ivory) cult images, one of Athena in the Parthenon and the other of Zeus at Olympia, have disappeared.

Perhaps the most important single person responsible for the Parthenon is Pericles, whose influence over the general culture his time is perhaps unparalleled. he is a favored statesmen in the humanities because of his support for arts and culture. Pericles is perhaps best known for his funeral oration:

In the same persons there is at once a concern for private and for civic affairs; and even among those whose attention is usually turned to their private occupation, there is no lack of understanding of civic matters. For we alone regard the man who takes no part in civic affairs not as unconcerned, but as useless….

Here is something of what Plutarch had to say about him in his Lives:

Pericles learned most from Anaxagoras, who imparted to young Pericles the majesty and gravity he had in all his sayings and doings, superior to all arts of popularity. Anaxagoras was the first philospher to attribute the order of the world to intelligence, rather than to chance or necessity, and to explain power as the affinity of similar things. With his mind occupied by such thoughts, Pericles was dignified in his language and serene and calm in his movements. Nothing could shake his majestic composure.

One day, Pericles was in the marketplace of Athens doing business, and all day long some noisy pest kept following him around, yelling vituperation. He even followed Pericles home. Throughout the ordeal, Pericles maintained his composure. It was dark by the time Pericles arrived home, so he gave orders for one of his servants to take a torch and guide this critic safely back to wherever he lived. Some people said that Pericles was only trying to fool the public with a false front of virtue. But Zeno replied that if Pericles were faking virtue, his detractors should do the same, because even pretending to be good, if this is continued for long enough, will give a man the desire and practice that is needed for good habits.

... The Parthenon and all of the famous statues and buildings of Athens were paid for using the money that had been collected from the Greek allies to finance the war against the Persians. 4 The aristocrats in Athens vehemently objected to such use of the money, saying that the allies would be right to consider this an open act of tyranny when they saw that the money raised for the war was being embezzled to adorn Athens like a whore. But Pericles responded that the Athenians could do as they pleased with the money because they really deserved it. Moreover, said Pericles, there were enough military supplies, so it was proper to spend the surplus on buildings that would give Athens eternal honor and create jobs. Thus most of the artisans and craftsmen of Athens owed their pay to Pericles, along with the soldiers and sailors.

The plans for the construction were on a very grand scale. With all of these buildings going up at the same time, there was such a rivalry among the craftsmen that they not only built them exquisitely well, but also quickly, so that their masterpieces could be admired. In only a few years, most of the construction was finished. As the work was in progress, Thucydides and the aristocrats managed to get a vote that the expense was excessive.

Pericles then said to the Athenians: "Then let the cost go to my account, not yours, but also let the inscription on the buildings be my name." After hearing this, the Athenians changed their minds and ordered Pericles to go ahead and to spare no expense. (from Plutarch's Lives, Pericles the Olympian)