The Right Amount of Fear: Emotion in Ancient Greek Art
A World of Emotions: Ancient Greece, 700 BC – 200 AD at the Onassis Cultural Center
March 9 to June 24, 2017
Olympic Tower, 645 Fifth Avenue at 51st Street
New York City, onassisusa.org
Here is another superbly realized exhibition at the Onassis Center. The gallery space of the Center is not large, but (as we’ve seen with other events there) it has been filled with pieces so well chosen as to make the show feel comprehensive.
In one way it is easy to put together an exhibition on emotions. Everything human expresses some emotion, or displays an emotion, or registers the touch of an emotion. And that theme would have been enough to carry this show, especially for the visitors who come in still picturing “Greek art” as cool, distant, and too elegant for feelings: the white-marble world that scholars fantasized about in the eighteenth century.
There is white marble in this exhibition, but not much of it that aspires to the cool remove and rationality of those old stereotypes. Instead this collection testifies to the Greeks’ smiling presentation and their erotic longings; to their gratitude when a god saved them from disease and grief when the gods took away someone they loved. Emotions from home and battlefield; unruly emotions, and emotions that conflict with one another; the wild emotions of that extreme exemplary figure Medea: everything is here for compiling a profile of ancient psychology. Pottery and marble statuary dominate, but the scrupulously inclusive curators also give us lead curse tablets, public announcements of gratitude for local benefactors, gold funeral masks, ostraka for ostracizing, notes to the oracle of Zeus at Dodona, coins for all purposes.
In all this evidence about how people thought and felt it is interesting to see where antiquity speaks to the present and where it fails to. The inscription on one stone pays tribute to an eighteen-year-old daughter who died giving birth to a stillborn child. Now her parents have no one to succeed them, and their public words on the funeral stele announce that fact. Translating the words gets the point across without the need for further explanation.
We find more amateurish inscriptions on the lead curse tablets. For a thousand years, across the Mediterranean world, people wrote curses on slips of lead and threw them down a well, or buried them near the headstone of someone who had recently died, preferably a violent death (because the unquiet ghost would still be wandering around the grave, and could pick up the message and deliver it to the divinities below). “I bind his tongue,” such tablets said, or “May the jury find his charges unjust.” The inscription doesn’t cut deep into the lead, but after thousands of years we still feel the frustration in the slanting saw-toothed handwriting that specifies what should happen to this enemy.
Facial expressions sometimes communicate with great directness across the centuries, sometimes less clearly so. The dreamy archaic smile of the kouros and kore does not register in the joyous way that later sculptured facial expressions do. Then there is the grimace of the Gorgon that shows both the delight those monsters felt and the fear they inspired in their victims. It was evidently important to have the Gorgons grimacing straight at their viewer, because they were always shown full-face. Maybe it’s not enough for you to know they’re smiling: they want to aim that smile in your direction.
On vases the faces often look impassive, so that we have to read a figure’s body language. Achilles seems to be beating Ajax – proverbially the second-best of the Achaean heroes – in a board game they have sat down to play. There were moments of leisure even during the Trojan War; but this isn’t just a fun game. Ajax’s hands and posture betray his resentment at losing to Achilles. Will he always be the number-two man at Troy no matter how hard he fights? His face is harder to read. For that matter it’s hard to read the face of Ajax on another vase that shows him about to kill himself. By comparison the arms and torso are eloquent. Maybe we expect a warrior like that to show how he feels with his whole body instead of with a wailing face.
If you follow the counterclockwise circuit through the exhibition, the final stage belongs to Medea. There too it’s not so much the facial expressions that show what’s going on inside. Medea on one vase is about to stab her son to death while Jason watches aghast and passive. We read the events and the characters’ bodies. Of course it is remarkable that we can read Medea at all: a tribute to the powers of this vase’s painter, who humanizes the non-male, non-Greek sorceress whom classical Greece would have made the ultimate Other.
The vase paintings are not emotionally ambiguous. Their original audiences would have identified the states of mind at work without a moment’s hesitancy. We figure the situations out pretty quickly ourselves. Only we don’t do it from facial expressions but from the mythic contexts depicted. We remember that this is Jason with his new bride dead and both sons dying and Medea flying away; or that this is Ganymede being flown up to heaven to gratify a besotted Zeus. Iphigenia just realized she is going to be sacrificed, and her father covers his face in shame at ordering her death.
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As memorable as these items are, and as broad a sample as they define of ancient Greek emotional life, the exhibition does not exist only to display that emotional life. If these vases and sculptures had supplied all we know about Greek emotions, they could have had an effect like butterflies mounted under glass, providing their evidence unknowingly and despite themselves. What adds a dimension to these signs of emotion is our awareness of the discourse in Greek culture that analyzed and theorized emotion. Epic poetry and tragedy immersed their heroes in frightful situations and captured the strong feelings that those situations aroused in them. More surprisingly, the abstract prose writing of classical and later eras sought to understand the causes and the trajectories of the passions.
The dominant prose author may be Plato, whom this exhibition cites more than once. Plato’s Republic accounts for human emotions with a depth psychology that divides up what we might experience as a unitary self. Sexual desire and grief come out of a part of the soul (as the Republic puts it) that is distinct from one’s reasoning faculty. The reasoning faculty is even alienated from this part and seeks to be free of its influence. Meanwhile the emotional states appropriate to politics and warfare – indignation, daring, revenge – are motivated by a third faculty in the soul that can control desire but that nevertheless differs from reason. From the Republic’s perspective these drives distinct from reason are not the real you, although some of them are capable of being trained while the others have to be tamped down.
Aristotle’s ethical works, but also Book 2 of his Rhetoric, come at human passions from a perspective often opposed to Plato’s, but it is still an ethically informed one. Aristotle analyzes emotional motives to discover their healthy and their excessive manifestations. Cowards feel too much fear, the reckless not enough; courageous people feel the right amount.
Thucydides the historian weighs in alongside the philosophers. One scene in his history of the Peloponnesian War exposes the desperation in a weak city that begs Athens not to invade – and the self-satisfaction with which Athens shrugs off the arguments for merciful treatment. Things look different for Athens later in the history, when its expedition to conquer Sicily has failed; at that point Thucydides labors to make his reader understand what drove the Athenians to take on such a doomed enterprise in the first place.
The works in verse and prose both come to mind as you look around the exhibition. That touching epitaph from the parents to their eighteen-year-old daughter recalls the Republic’s cautions against excessive mourning. Medea evokes the great tragedy by Euripides that shows its sympathy for her, but also the later philosophical tradition that criticized Medea for her overheated sexuality and uncontrolled vengeful fury. Especially with the rise of Stoicism, Medea became a synonym for impermissible anger. You do not find such anger in a Stoic and especially not in a Stoic man.
Here is where the great depth of this exhibition reveals itself. As long as the vase paintings and the accouterments of ancient magic illustrate what we know about Greek religion and myth, and the literary works that draw on those sources, the effect is an interesting multi-media presentation of a coherent civilization. But thinking about the analytical discourses that were emerging in prose from (roughly) 420 to 320, and then flowered into scholarly and philosophical traditions, we contemplate the edgy relationship between a moralizing and intellectualizing discourse about emotions, and those same emotions as they had been imagined and depicted.
It is erotic longing that makes Zeus kidnap Ganymede and fly the boy up to heaven for the king god’s sexual pleasure. But Plato, who alludes to that story, refrains from endorsing it. What a shameful display that would be from the god who most ought to be setting a good example! Erotic longing ought to lift human beings to heaven in another way (Plato’s Phaedrus says), by being sublimated rather than through direct sexual expression; by moving the soul to heaven not the body; by inspiring philosophical conversation not rape.
The philosophers’ voices mix with the images in this show to evoke a civilization at odds with itself, the display and frank acknowledgment of emotions playing against a vigorous counterpoint that judges and often condemns the aberrations of thought we like to call emotion. Greek culture then looks incapable of making up its mind, or of settling on a single coherent discourse of the soul. In the world of emotions we get at the Onassis Center, philosophers stand opposed to drinkers at a symposium; men opposed to women; warriors to moralists.
To my mind, this is where the real communication happens between antiquity and modernity. It kept me repeating circuits of the exhibition after I thought I’d finished seeing it. We feel more at home looking back on a civilization that couldn’t decide what emotions ought to be, and that contained (despite the exhibition’s title) more than a single world of emotions.
Nickolas Pappas, whose most recent book is The philosopher’s new clothes. The Theaetetus, the Academy, and philosophy’s turn against fashion (Routledge, 2016), teaches philosophy at the City University of New York.