Guest Viewpoints

How Important Is Ancient Greek Classical Art for Modern Societies?

August 11, 2020
By Dr. Polyvia Parara

Can art that was created 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece give meaning to our lives today? And the question does not apply to the self-evident, that is, its undeniable beauty and the aesthetic pleasure that it generates spontaneously to the viewer. Appealing to the language of the senses, the power of harmonious, idealized human beauty rises and needs no interpretation. But what does it stand for? What is behind the beauty of this insurmountable art? What are the cultural forces that gave the Greek classical art its intellectual formation?

The answers to these questions will show that the political meanings captured by this art refer to the future and promote a political project of more autonomy for modern societies. The profound meaning of this art enhances the role of the citizenry and therefore the democratic society itself. In brief, Greek classical art speaks a language that, if understood in-depth, provides valuable truths to the present and opens paths for the future. But does Greek classical art have such power?

Having referred to the language of classical art, I will borrow two linguistic terms to employ them as interpretational tools for Classical art. According to linguistics, each word is construed by "the signifier,” the image of the word with its phonemes a-g-a-l-m-a (the Greek word for statue) and "the signified,” the concept of the term; for “agalma” the signified is an object that delights us, which causes intellectual pleasure. These two levels of meanings, the image, and the concept apply to the interpretation of artistic creation. Admiring a work of art is seeing the object itself on a first level, but on a second level, it shows the decoding of the meanings that the piece of art conveys to us. Therefore, the revelation of the meanings of Greek Classical art possesses the potential to inspire us to the pursuit of a better society with more autonomy.

I will analyze two examples of Greek classical art: the art of sculpture and the art of the tragic poetic discourse both in the golden age of Athens in the 5th century BCE, namely the time of the birth and the rise of Athenian democracy. By looking at the temple of the Parthenon and its sculptures, have we ever wondered what is the dominant theme of the temple besides the worship of the goddess of wisdom Athena, to whom it was dedicated? On the metopes of the temple, we observe the endless battle of opposing forces with an undeclared outcome. Who prevails does not matter; what matters is the “agon,” the debate/ the struggle itself. The agonistic spirit is found at the core of daily life in democratic Athens, a self-governed polis (city-state) by its citizenry. To what extent do the citizens of modern societies exercise this political freedom/responsibility in the public sphere? By asking ourselves this question we will be able to assess the qualitative characteristics of the Athenian democracy with respect to the modern states, which almost all claim the name of democracy. A simple comparison of modern societies with the historical paradigm of the Athenian democracy proves that the qualitative and ontological substance of our societies is completely different from the foundational grounds of the archetype of democracy. In the era of modernity, almost none of the fundamental principles of the self-governing state applies to modern societies.

The whole city-state of Athens is represented on the frieze of the temple of Parthenon: the women, the children, the elders, the military, the magistrates, and their gods. By observing the facial and posture expression of the Athenian citizens, one can notice a deep contemplation combined with pride of freedom in every aspect of their representation. Similarly, the “Thinking Athena” sculpture has the same expression. This unique manifestation of thoughtful responsibility captures the meaning of holistic freedom – individual, social, and political combined – enjoyed and practiced by the Athenian citizenry (demos). We can meditate by looking at the western civilization's ancestral statues whether or not we have this expression on our faces today. How do we understand our citizenship as compared to the Athenian citizenry? But the most important question is whether or not the modern citizen wishes for a comprehensive political identity that combines full engagement in the public affairs equally with his/her private affairs, as it is required by the original meaning of democracy. In other words, do we want in our competence as a citizenry to assume the responsibility of holistic freedom with all the commitments and efforts that this kind of identity entails?

The high discourse of ancient tragedy reveals the challenge of self-limitation within the self-instituted polis. The political philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis considers ancient tragedy as a political institution. To understand the function of dramatic performances in Ancient Athens, we must keep in mind  that the dramatic festivals used to be one of the major cultural events in the city-state of Athens and almost the entire polis attended them. At the core of each tragedy exists the examination of a tragic dilemma, whose either choice has dire consequences. For instance, in Sophocles’ Antigone, the heroine must make a decision between two tough choices: either to bury her brother, Polyneices, at the expense of her life after disobeying Creon's decree or to leave her brother unburied betraying ancient institutions and living in shame. Aeschylus’ Agamemnon refers to the dilemma that king Agamemnon faces, namely either to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, in order for the Achaean fleet to sail to Troy or to become a “deserter of his army” and to abandon the Achaeans’ navy as well as his honor. Orestes in The Libation Bearers is torn between two tragic choices: avenging the murder of his father Agamemnon by killing his mother and by freeing Argos from her and Aegisthus’ tyranny or to pity his mother and refrain from matricide remaining disgraced and deprived of his power by leaving his city-state under the darkness of the tyranny. Every decision costs a serious price. It is exactly in this position of the tragic heroes that the Athenians are found in the Assembly of the People trying to make tough decisions for their self-governed polis – for themselves – facing difficult dilemmas: to undertake a military expedition to Sicily or leave their allies unassisted? To execute the citizens of Mytilene who revolted against them or allow their empire to appear weak? To respect the Melians’ neutrality during the war or to destroy them? By exercising their political power, the citizenry in the Athenian democracy has the responsible freedom to make their own tough decisions. The democratic culture of “on one hand” and “on the other hand” was part of the challenging public life of the Athenian citizenry. And yet there is no complete certainty about any answer and/or any kind of didacticism since there is no authority of truth.

How are political issues handled in modern societies? Who makes the decisions for the citizens and who is responsible for them? To what extent do the politicians serve the interests of society? The self-governed Athenian citizenry would never ask any of these questions. For the Athenians, the big question was how the assembly of citizens would know to make the optimal decision for their city-state. The initial phrasing of every resolution, decree, and the law of Athenian Democracy is the following: “This is the opinion of the Council and of the Assembly of the People.” This initial statement expresses the sovereignty of the citizenry but also its latent concern about the rightfulness of the decision that was the result of an extended deliberation without any invocation to any authority of truth and without any certainty. This reality takes us back to the question of how to master political art for making the best decision. The performances of the tragedy contributed to this end by teaching the Athenian citizens to avoid hubris, excessive and/or arrogant behavior which leads to an inescapable downfall. The democratic city, then, had to be educated on how to refrain from excessive decisions and of how to produce moderate and wise policies by the means of deliberation in the public sphere. Seeing the tragic heroes being destroyed by trampling on the area of hubris, the citizenry was taught experientially in theatrical performances how to avoid the path of downfall. Similar to tragedy in political life, the limits of hubris are not clear so that they cannot be avoided in advance. Awareness of boundaries follows the consequences of hubristic actions. The art of ancient tragedy, then, immersed citizens in examining conflicting questions and harsh dilemmas as well as prepared the citizenry to refrain from offensive decisions, being always aware of the reality of indeterminacy in the practice of the politics of freedom.

To conclude, the intellectual magnitude of Greek classical art derives from the key concepts of democracy: holistic freedom, thoughtful responsibility, and moderate self-limitation. Being a citizen in a democratic city-state, a self-governed polis, means living with the constant challenge to make the optimal decision, refraining from hubris in order to ensure the “well-being” of the polis. Therefore, the Greek classical art is relevant to us today, because it raises the question of our role as citizens in modern societies. What kind of political questions consume us every day, if they do so? What is the quality of the freedom we are enjoying in modern societies? It is worthy to explore these questions since it is precisely this project for autonomy in a democratic society that drives mankind to evolve, cultivate and express his/her moral and intellectual powers in the private and public sphere.

Dr. Polyvia Parara is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Hellenic Studies at the University of Maryland College Park, USA.


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