“Do I love you because you’re beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you?” muses the Prince to Cinderella in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. It’s a question that many great thinkers have struggled with in some form or another. Is beauty a “thing” which exists independently of the beholder? How far can physical attractiveness be disentangled from concepts like character and emotion? And how does our intimate knowledge of an object affect how we rate its beauty or ugliness?
Similar conundrums are raised by the British Museum’s new exhibition Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art, which brings together a breathtaking array of more than 150 objects from some of the world’s major collections.
This is a true Greatest Hits of Greek art – the first room alone juxtaposes the Parthenon Ilissos with Myron’s “Discus-Thrower” and the “Crouching Aphrodite” (the last two being, like many objects in the show, later Roman versions of now-lost Greek “originals”).
It’s clear from the minute you walk in is that this is a defiantly traditional take on Greek art and beauty. Besides the selection of canonical objects, the narrative presented in the exhibition diverges very little from the familiar 1950s accounts penned by the likes of Kenneth Clark and Ernst Gombrich. The history of Greek art is conceived, once again, as a series of inspired innovations by individual male geniuses, enacted against the background of democracy, war and athletics. No paradigm shifts here, no alternative models – just the comfortable, authoritative story of Greek art that we’ve heard since the 18th century, albeit now enhanced with gorgeous lighting and multimedia.
Which isn’t meant as a criticism. While the exhibition has already come under fire for perpetuating modern myths about ancient beauty, the decision to focus on canonical pieces is not per se a bad thing. For many visitors, the “wow” factor of these statues comes primarily from their iconic status – that is, the fact that these are images we have already seen thousands of times in textbooks, magazines and webpages.
And at the other end of the spectrum, the British Museum also has to think about how to present Greek art to people who are completely unfamiliar with it and who want to get to grips with the building blocks of art history before having them knocked down and provocatively reassembled. So while many visitors would have preferred a more unexpected and challenging selection of bodies to be included, on balance it makes perfect sense to stick with the old favourites.
At the same time, one can’t help wondering if it might have been possible to do both – that is, to retain the canonical artefacts, while simultaneously nuancing the definitions of beauty they embody. Some of the statements made in the exhibition are deceptively simple, and fail to indicate the multiplicity of viewpoints that we find reflected in ancient texts and material culture. To give one example: the centaurs are presented as “monstrous” and beastly, but ancient evidence indicates a more varied set of responses.
The third-century AD Greek writer Philostratus, for instance, dwells on the beauty of female centaurs, and the way “the delicacy of their female form gains in strength when the horse part is seen in union with it”. It is true that Philostratus was writing in a much later period of antiquity and that he may have been deliberately subverting established views of centaurs as ugly. But this just goes to remind us that even the simplest statements about beauty cannot always be taken at face value.
Another effective tactic might have been to pay more attention to how these iconic blueprints have been appropriated and transformed in more recent periods. Defining Beauty does makes a limited gesture in this direction, by including a study by Michelangelo and an audio-guide interview with the editor of Men’s Health magazine. But how fantastic would it have been to see the ancient works alongside more recent pieces like Jeff Koons’s Gazing Ball series or Yves Klein’s Blue Venus?
The exhibition’s curator, Ian Jenkins, suggested in a recent Radio 3 broadcast that including reception in the show would have set up an overtly Western narrative which might then have alienated the British Museum’s many overseas visitors. But surely the benefits would have outweighed the risks? These later artworks have themselves become part of the art-historical canon – and they inject the ancient pieces with extra dynamism and contemporary relevance.
Most importantly of all, they remind us the definition of beauty isn’t set in (Greek) stone, but is an ongoing process in which every one of us can participate.