queerfragments

Particulate arising from study

Month: April, 2014

All that Glitters: Kristi Malakoff, Damien Hirst, and the Production of Value

An old conference paper I thought I’d throw up on the web. This would represent my growing awareness that Marxism is pretty neat:


 

One of the key features of late capitalism is the potential for anything – any object, service or affect – to be made reducible to capital, and yet, in this highly monetized schema, the very ideas of money, wealth and value have become increasingly dematerialized. By abandoning the gold standard, currency has detached itself from a physical basis for value, proliferating in the interconnected webs of global currency exchange. As money comes to exist more and more through solely electronic and semiotic means, a crisis seems to emerge concerning the value of currency exchange and the materiality of wealth.[1] While this debate continues in economic and political spheres without signs of clear resolution, contemporary art provides another avenue for thinking through these problems. Kristi Malakoff’s Polyhedra Series (2008) and Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God (2008) can both be seen to engage with the question of wealth and its fragile, historical construction. Malakoff’s work explores the current systems of interdependence and globalization while Hirst’s sculpture can be said to suggest a return to the inherent value of capital and its ritual function as a sacrificial object. In my brief time with you today, I will be exploring these different models of wealth through George Bataille’s concept of expenditure. Equal parts decadence and decay, Malakoff and Hirst’s work provide a telling critique of the contemporary valuation of wealth and trouble its reproduction through a return to the historical ontology of money and its roots in the sacrificial.

Image

Kristi Malakoff is an emerging multidisciplinary artist whose practice is typified by the meticulous dissecting and rearranging of collage material into three dimensional forms. Her Polyhedra Series extends this practice to the use of currency as her artistic materials. Legal tender is cut and folded into kirigami polyhedrons, whose detailed geometries are then displayed in galleries on a mirrored surface.

The variations in Malakoff`s paper sculptures reveal different conceptions of the exchange of currency within a system of economic globalization. With the exception of Canadian Star Ball and Iraqi Bloom, all the polyhedrons are formed from a variety of currencies from different issuing countries. Visually, the more geometric polyhedra shapes reference the use of origami by mathematicians to make abstract Euclidean concepts understandable by hypostatizing formulas into tangible objects.[2] Intersecting Star, for example, is a form used by early mathematicians to measure angles, suggesting the desire of economists to view the movement of capital in mathematically rational terms; to measure the economy and predict it through logical formulas. The names of other pieces, such as Desert Cactus or Honeysuckle, conversely, suggest growth and fecundity, yet the sculptures ultimately achieve the uncanny effect of plastic flowers. Both referents, that of rationality and of harvest, read as fundamentally absurd when read against the fact that Malakoff has utterly arrested the value of the paper bills through their instantiation as art. Malakoff’s deployment of these techniques suggests an attempt to make visible and critique the movements of globalization and economic exchange. The fragility of wealth as representation is made tangible through Malakoff’s destruction of the exchange value of the bills. Malakoff states that her initial intent with the series was to expose the arbitrary way paper currency is understood to have value.[3] By sacrificing the capacity for currency to function as legal tender, Malakoff invites a new modal engagement with money as material object, hinting back to prior epistemic understandings of wealth.

Image

Indeed, the history of currency reveals that this critique of arbitraryness is not without precedent. Michel Foucault most famously describes the shift from metal to paper currency as something of an ontological struggle, a history fraught with questions about the nature of wealth and its value that struck at the epistemological paradigms of an age. First taken as a pledge for gold and silver held in reserve, paper money was originally a mere stand-in for a physical object that had inherent spiritual weight and value. In the Classic age, precious metal was seen to collapse micro and macrocosmic distinctions into sacred unity.  Of such metals, Foucault notes,  “it reproduces in the depths of the earth that other glitter that sings at the far end of the night: it resides there like an inverted promise of happiness, and, because metal resembles the stars, the knowledge of all these perilous treasures is at the same time knowledge of the world.” Jean-Luc Nancy, another thinker of capital and networks, describes this moment as one of monumental and reverential glitter. The shine to precious metals, he notes, was a “wealth that does not produce more wealth, but which produces its own splendour and its own opulence as the glow of a meaning in which the world is wrapped.”

The cosmological mystery of wealth, however, was lost in the shift towards mercantile economies as the use of currency changed and scepticism towards metal’s otherworldliness mounted. No longer did the possession of money entail the control of objects of immaterial power, instead money became a form of capital, valued in so far as it could lubricate economic exchange.[4] Due to the fluid nature of barter and transactions in this period, Foucault maintains that the domain of currency became analogous to a mere representation of it. Gold held in reserve became secondary to the infinite semiotic possibilities of kinetic capital, stored in paper currency. From one representation to another, money could no longer be said to signify autonomously, but rather but express and necessitate the simple and endless possibility of exchange.[5]

Modern fiat money clearly functions in this paradigm, as exchange rates influence the relative buying power of currency, explicitly through their comparative standing in the global market. The sign of the currency (a dollar or pound sign, for example) is sufficient to signify exchange value. The exact referent behind the sign is unclear, and moreover, unnecessary for the system of exchange within which the money operates. In recent years the semiotic hollowness of this system has increasingly come into question though protests at the American Federal Reserve and in the American legal system.[6] Several recent court cases, for example, have responded to individual American citizen’s appeals that federal reserve notes are not real dollars, and as such do not constitute taxable income. The recent Republic presidential candidate race, moreover, featured several candidates who variously articulated a need to return to the gold standard. Malakoff’s practice can thus be seen as responding to a larger anxiety about the immateriality of currency and capital.

Malakoff was initially inspired to explore currency as an artistic medium after reading Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” a famous critique of mass media prints for the loss of the special aura that was unique to the original art object.[7] Malakoff approaches paper money as an important analog to Benjamin’s art reproductions, seeing currency as a shallow copy of eroded monetary and national values.[8] Whereas Benjamin’s raises political concerns about the potential for fascist appropriation of art in its fragmented state of reproduction, Malakoff’s critique is equally political, describing currency as a form of propaganda.[9] Her practice is thus framed as one of appropriation and also, critically, of salvage; by subverting the political ideals represented on the currency she thus attempts to restore the aura of the art object.[10] This aura, described by Benjamin a quality of presence, authenticity, and authority of the object, suggests the critical role that material ontology plays in wresting art or money from its degradation into ideological exchange.

Removing money from this system of exchange, however, is a highly prohibited act. Not only is there a very blatant monetary cost to sourcing the Polyherdra’s materials, there is something quite transgressive in Malakoff’s destruction of the monetary value of the bills. Such acts are, quite literally, illegal as tender cannot be lawfully destroyed save by sanctioned banks and government institutions.  The supposed immorality at sacrificing money, however, must be assumed to be more than legal. Political economists such as Carl Wennerlind suggest that in addition to mediating economic exchange, money plays a vital part in constructing and enforcing social order, in spite of its semiotic fragility. A shared currency or monetary system, like a shared language, entails a trust in the mutual understanding of the sign value of a bill and a common investment in maintaining money as a social unit.[11] In capitalism, Wennerlind thus suggests, currency thus takes on the signifying potential of social power and command, becoming a “fetishized symbol of force” eerily detached from connotations of violence.[12] Malakoff’s destruction of contemporary money thus becomes a politically charged act, opposing herself to the capitalist system that reifies exchange value and disciplines the public body through the social command of currency.[13]

This interdiction also aligns Malakoff with the philosophy of George Bataille, a french writer whose conception of dépense, or expenditure, radically refigures capitalist systems of value. Classifying economic systems on the basis of how their seemingly perpetual energy inputs are spent, Bataille reclassifies expenditure as the most important human activity.[14] He proposes two different energy systems: the restrictive economy (which seeks to continually reinvest wealth in the production of further capital and exchange) and the general economy (which seeks to ritually expend its surplus in sacrificial acts that ritually and irrevocably destroy energy and wealth).[15] In his analysis- which one should note closely followed the second World War- the general economy was infinitely preferred to the restrictive economy as the reinvestment and accumulation of energy in the latter was seen to build up, as if under pressure, until it inevitably burst forth in a violent outpouring of war. Bataille particularly celebrated the models of the potlach[16] and the excessive decadence of the aristocracy as examples of the general economy while the industrial machines of capitalism were conversely affiliated with the restrictive economy’s pursuit of perpetual growth. Contemporary late capitalism, moreover, presents an intensification of this tendency, such that virtually all expenditure is recycled and optimized, save for perpetual outbursts of violent industrial disasters.

Reading Bataille and his theories into the Polyhedra Series, Malakoff and her strategies of destruction can be seen as clearly allied with the general economy. By refusing to enact the exchange and reinvestment of currency, Malakoff’s expenditure of money beyond its recoverability as capital is thus a political and epistemological challenge to the self-interested virtues of late capitalism.

Image

Now, discussions of wealth are certainly a well-trodden path when comes to the work of Damien Hirst, the face of the Young British Artists and likely the richest artist alive.[17] He also has the distinction of creating the world’s most expensive piece of art by a living artist, For the Love of God, which sold for fifty million pounds to a consortium of anonymous investors that included the artist himself. The piece is a platinum cast of an eighteenth century skull (of which only the teeth remain) that has been covered in precisely eight thousand six hundred and one diamonds, themselves valued at over ten million pounds.[18] The title is supposedly the reaction of Hirst’s mother after hearing what her son proposed to do. The monetary expenditure that went into the production of the piece seems, frankly, vulgar, yet it is this aspect of the work that may be key to positioning its conceptual gesture towards capital and value.

As in Malakoff, Hirst displays wealth in an ostentatious fashion while stressing the material qualities of wealth as a key component of its value. Diamonds and platinum, contrary to fiat money, seem to inherently retain the epistemological value of glitter enumerated by Foucault and Nancy. Their sparkle and luminosity in addition to their physical objecthood, imbues them with value in excess of exchange economies. Hirst’s mobilization of the work, however, is explicitly engaged with the capitalist art market, and as such, these qualities are brought into sharp tension with the mobile, immaterial economy of commodities. Flirting between the general and restrictive economies, For the Love of God is thus a risky proposition by Hirst that verges on the sacrificial.

Contemporary viewers, however, may have a hard time moving past the exorbitant price of the work. The incomprehensible expense buying the artwork for fifty-million pounds, or Hirst’s own equally unintelligible disbursement of over ten-million pounds for the construction of the piece, has the tendency to forbid intellectual thought through its sheer display of wealth. Hirst seems to foresee this effect in his preparatory drawings, writing, “it’s not gonna be cheap laddy!!/The best quality fucking diamonds money can buy/I AM NUTS.”[19] Hirst makes light of his efforts, perhaps as a strategy to negotiate the obscenity of the expenditure of the work, or to excuse its incongruity with the capitalist figuration of art. Nevertheless, Hirst conceives of a key aspect of his work, one which upon reflection moves the viewer into a greater field of interpretation.

Image

This stumbling block, sometimes referred to as the “the capitalist sublime,”[20] is an aesthetic confrontation with the capitalist ideal of infinite wealth.[21] This mismatch between the imagination and the understanding, a clashing of the faculties in the material presentation of the immaterial, may be part of the reason why the critical discourse on this piece so rarely supersedes a discussion of its vulgarity.[22]

While both Hirst and Malakoff effect a destruction of contemporary moral and economic standards, the two works still enact a strong point of tension between one another through the means by which value is shifted and exchanged. The monetary cost of Malakoff’s polyhedra is infinitesimally smaller than Hirst’s, yet the large amount of skilled labour she expends in their making gives the kirigami a sense of worth well beyond the fiscal costs of skilled production. Hirst, conversely, did not make the skull himself. Operating from a more conceptual praxis of art, Hirst coordinated the work’s production but contributed little by way of personal physical labour.

Another significant point of contrast lies in how the record-breaking price of Hirst’s work is of tantamount concern to how it is framed as valuable.  While both Malakoff and Hirst’s works expend capital sacrificially to realize an artwork with greater material and philosophical value, critically, Hirst’s needs to be priced and sold in order to gain the full nuance of its meaning. Quite tellingly, attacks on the work have taken the shape of contesting its monetary worth, arguing that the piece is more accurately priced at a less impressive seven to ten million pounds.[23]

Art history does not typically consider a work’s capital value as a legitimate field of analysis, yet in circumstances such as these, there is a critical need to regard the commercial aspects of art as belong to the same order of values as the aesthetic.[24] This is, however, not to say that Hirst’s work has more merit than Malakoff’s due to its selling price, but it does, however, open up the mechanics of the sale of art as an interesting avenue of interpretation. The Polyhedra Series, circulating primarily in the artist-run gallery circuit, seems to intellectually oppose its own sale, in accord with the anti-capitalist themes of the work. While some works have definitely been priced and sold, the commercial life of the artwork remains hidden from view and in effect, disavowed. For the Love of God, conversely, was aggressively marketed by Hirst’s dealers, who fully anticipated its sale at its present exorbitant price or even higher. Interestingly, speculation has emerged as to the veracity of this sale. The anonymity of the consortium of buyers and lack of taxes paid on the purchase has suggested to a few bitter voices in the art world that Hirst failed to move the skull and in turn perpetuated a hoax sale to save face.[25]

I would like to argue that For the Love of God is an infinitely more valuable object if we presume that it has failed as a commodity. The sale of the work, rather than being a sole test of the buying power of Hirst’s artistic brand, also staged a challenge to the models of value figured in the material wealth with which the skull was made and the immaterial wealth which was supposed to have secured the skull’s stature as a commodity, recouping Hirst’s expenditure into the restrictive economy. Supposing, however, that the sale failed, we are confronted with an artwork whose obdurate materiality can only be an object of expenditure without reserve. In an attempt to defeat death through glitter, Hirst appears to have lost millions of pounds and created an object that cannot be sold.

Reflecting on the themes of this conference, one might see both the decadent display of material wealth and the decay of its exchange value as viable aesthetic strategies with which to confront the economic conditions of late capitalism. As noted by Jean-Luc Nancy, the struggle to form a world is more often the struggle of capital against itself;[26] a struggle that is well represented in the work of Malakoff and Hirst. This endeavor, when reduced to its most basic components, is fundamentally a conflict over the understanding of value, be it the epistemological glitter of material wealth or the semiotic hollowness of an infinitely exchangeable sign. For the Love of God and the Polyhedra Series paradoxically re-materialize wealth by arresting its exchange value. Hirst takes wealth back to its classical materiality, while creating a paradigm of expenditure in contemporary art. Malakoff succeeds in taking contemporary paper currency further in this direction, while illustrating the crisis of value in the global economy. Meaning is created through expenditure and arresting wealth to make visible its contradictions and fragilities.


[1] United States Department of Justice,“Criminal Tax Manual: 40.0: Illegal Tax Protestors,” United States Department of Justice Reading Room, accessed  December 7th 2010,  http://www.justice.gov/tax/readingroom/2001ctm/40ctax.htm.

–[2]Leah Turner, “What it Really Is,” C Magazine 27 (Summer 2009): 51.

–[3]Kristi Malakoff, Blazzamo, Artist lecture presented at Latitude 53 Gallery, Edmonton, AB, November 13 2010.

–[4]Ibid., 178.

[5]Ibid., 179-180.

[6]Internal Revenue Service, “The Truth About Frivolous Tax Arguments: Contention: Federal Reserve Notes are not Income,”  Internal Revenue Service, United States Department of the Treasury, accessed December 7th 2010, http://www.irs.gov/taxpros/article/0,,id=159932,00.html#_Toc224375587.

[7]Malakoff, Blazzamo.

[8]Ibid.

[9] Malakoff, Blazzamo.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 560.

[12] Ibid., 567.

[13] Ibid.

–[14] George Bataille, “The Meaning of the General Economy,” trans. Robert Hurley,  in The Bataille Reader, eds. Fred Bottling and Scott Wilson (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), 185.

–[15]Ibid, 186.

–[16] Bataille, “The Notion of Expenditure,” trans. Allan Stoekl with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr., in The Creation of the World, or Globalization,trans. Françoi Raffoul and David Pettigrew (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 171-174.

–[17]Pernilla Holmes, “The Branding of Damien Hirst,” ARTnews, October 2007, http://www.artnews.com/issues/article.asp?art_id=2367

–[18]Ibid.

[19] Hirst, Fuchs, and Beard, For the Love of God, 75.

–[20]Luke White, “Damien Hirst and the Legacy of the Sublime in Contemporary Art and Culture”,  (PhD dissertation, Middlesex University, 2009), 406.

–[21]Jean-Francois Lyotard, “The Sublime and the Avant Guard,” in Postmodernism: A Reader, ed. Thomas Docherty, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 255.

–[22]White, “Damien Hirst and the Legacy of the Sublime,” 406-408.

[23] Owen and Dunbar, “Did Damien Hirst Really..?”

[24] Carter Ratcliff, “The Marriage of Art and Money,” Art in America 76 (July 1988): 85.

[25]  Glen Owen and Polly Dunbar, “Did Damien Hirst Really Sell His Diamond Skull for £50m?” Mail Online, 09 September 2007, accessed 07 December 2010, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-480729/Did-Damien-Hirst-really-sell-diamond-skull-50m.html.

–[26]Nancy, “Urbi et Orbi,” 51.

Annotated Bibliography on Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Greece

It’s been a blast this semester researching and lecturing on queer historiography in the ancient world. It’s really pushed the limits of my historical knowledge, and led to some rather productive tensions between my contemporary politics and strange, alien social life of pre-modern history. It’s a curious experience. The stakes are different, your interlocutors are highly trained in otherwise conservative disciplines, and there’s an abundance of extremely tawdry material that will make even the seasoned dungeon master blush.

While my time with the Greeks has come to an end, I’m still fascinated by this field and hope to keep reading. Please do let me know if there are any good sources out there I’ve missed.

GENDER AND SEXUALITY IN THE ANCIENT WESTERN WORLD

Beard, Mary. 1980. “The Sexual Status of Vestal Virgins”. The Journal of Roman Studies. 70: 12-27.

Davis, Whitney. “Founding the Closet: Sexuality and the Creation of Art History.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 11, no. 4 (Winter 1992): 171-175.

This is a short, pragmatic essay, written in both scholarly and argumentative form. Davis’ experiences as a gay art historian take on positional significance as the art historian makes an account of both the difficulty of teaching the history of alternative sexualities within the discipline and its own systemic displacement of these questions (such that Davis invokes the metaphor of the closet) (173). His address of the material and systemic supports that condition the study of art- the libraries, reference systems, and time allotted for lecture preparation- is an important contribution to appraisals of canonicity that all too often restrict themselves to pure ideological critique. Nevertheless, this work is obviously coloured by the recent debates on global art history or censorship and the Mapplethorpe controversy and as such it is decisively political.

Moving from contemporary issues of access to the historical shaping forces of history, however, Davis attacks several implicit foundations to art historical practice, raising the issue of disembodied objectivity and weasel-word euphemisms in the standard course of the discipline. Taking Johann Joachim Winckelmann as the key instigator of this ‘closeted’ art history. The methodological questions Davis raises are an important continuation of the project of New Art History, and still merit a response. The nuances of Winckelmann’s sexuality and influence, however, are rather underdeveloped- perhaps necessarily so given the length of the article and its (ostensive) librarian audience. This issue will addressed elsewhere in Davis’ corpus (1994, 1998, 2010) and go on to inspire further debate in and of itself (Catriona, 1998; Potts, 1994; Richter & McGrath, 1994).

———-. Gay and Lesbian Studies in Art History. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1994.

This book, essentially a reproduction of Whitney Davis’ 1994 special issues of The Journal of Homosexuality, represents a pivotal moment in the development of art historical scholarship on sexuality, as well as an insightful account of the stakes and challenges of producing this research at the time. Davis’ introduction to the volume, by consequence, is highly assertive and imbricated in the language of identity politics, arguing for the recognition of “lesbian and gay scholarship in art history as one of the necessary logical fulfillments of art history itself rather than a mere excrescence upon or within it,” (6). Like the feminist canonicity debates of the 1980s, Davis and his authors attempt to occupy disciplinary space and by consequence argue for the necessity of revisiting standard art historical narratives in light of these new perspectives. Though in hindsight the efficacy of such strategies can perhaps be questioned, such language is nevertheless a clear indication of the political traditions – and limitations- of disciplinarity.

Davis’ own article in the volume, Winckelmann Divided: Mourning the Death of Art History,” picks up where his earlier work on the divisive historical figure left off. The author enriches his previous scholarship through a close reading of Winckelmann’s discussion of Greek formal “freedom”- a concept that proves to be riddled with contradictions. As Davis proves, it correlate neither to political nor artistic liberties within the social history of Greek art, but rather “a species of social-sexual organization possible in both democratic and authoritarian society,” (144). This, combined with Davis’ outline of Winckelmann’s own membership to homoerotic subcultures throughout his travels, is compelling evidence to further Davis’ ongoing point about the discipline’s fraught separation of form from content and the historian’s own sexual subjectivity. This argument, however, soon takes a detour through a bout of psychoanalysis in Davis’ discussion of Winckelmann’s writing on the loss of Greek art and Greek freedom. That the decline or historical destruction of Greek material culture (the ‘right kind’ of Greek material culture, moreover) should necessarily be tied to Winckelmann’s fraught pursuit of a gay identity seems to go too far in the direction of a project like Thomas K. Hubbard in ascribing the politics and vocabulary of Davis’ era to the historically ambiguities of Winckelmann or the Greeks.

———-.  2010. Queer Beauty: Sexuality and Aesthetics from Winckelmann to Freud and Beyond. New York: Columbia University Press.

Dover, K. J. Greek Homosexuality. London: Duckworth, 1978. 

Long regarded as one of the foundational studies on Classical Greek erotic life, Dover’s Greek Homosexuality is both a valuable text in its own right and fascinating study of the historicity of the field. Although much of the literature on Greek homosexuality has taken a critical stance towards this canonical piece of research, painting him as either homophobic (Percy III, 2005, 48) or overly sex-obsessive (Davidson, 2001), I found Dover’s study to be measured in its approach, remarkable for its time, and rigorously argued.

The author’s careful relativism in his approach to the topic is often painfully strained, suggesting the larger stakes at play in researching homosexuality in the 1970s. Though very much a specialist of Ancient Greek cultures and language, the author has taken pains to write in an accessible manner to a general audience, perhaps cognizant of the significant role the text would take within gay culture subsequent to its publication.

Although Dover is not an art historian and does not draw from this discipline at all for the most part of his work, this text remains one of the richest resources on erotic Greek pottery and its interpretation. Several photographs are reproduced in the book, though a great deal are discussed only verbally in reference to a lengthy catalog of museum collections across Europe, North America, and – interestingly – the USSR. Dover by his own confession did not personally travel to these locations to conduct his research, but instead relied extensively on photographs. This is a definite weakness to the text- images are often discussed as abstract representations rather than a materially-grounded objects serving quotidian or ritual uses- yet it is difficult to fault Dover too much, particularly given the on-going paucity of images of these objects in scholarly or popular print. The reader should be careful, nevertheless, to remember that these objects had a circulation, production- even a verso side- that is absent from this text.

Dover refers to the pottery images in a citational sense, giving them the authority of historical evidence for the Greek’s decorous standards and cultural jests of this period. This itself is a move that the contemporary reader may wish to trouble; issues of class, race and slavery barely register on the periphery, if at all. The paucity of female material, homosexual or otherwise, does raise Dover’s interest, however, and the nuances of Greek female life within the home and public sphere does receive a concerted, if brief, address. The use of pottery as evidence of practice is also ameliorated to a degree by the author’s lengthy analysis of legal and poetic texts whose rather deftly studied language helps situate the meaning and likelihood of the acts depicted.

Rather than this being an express call towards cross-historical identification within the context of the gay rights movement and rising ascendency of identity politics in the 1970s, Dover is particularly careful to qualify the differences Greek erotic practices present. Out of a lack for better words (and perhaps a distaste of neologisms) Dover uses the term homosexuality through the book, but prefaces his meaning as a “subdivision of the ‘quasi-sexual’ (or ‘pseudo-sexual’; not ‘parasexual’)” (vii-viii)- a distinction which, if under-explained, does inject some important grounds for historical specificity within the broader category of sexual identity and cultural practices.

The picture Dover ultimately paints of Greek homosexuality is wonderfully complex. One gains a multi-faceted understanding of the value (white, upper class) Greek culture placed upon the young male body and the role its beauty played in cultural practices of manhood and valour. The book’s conclusion, however, strikes of determinism. Greek homosexuality, to Dover, must have arisen in response to a cultural need, particularly that of intimacy and community within a social and gendered order constrained by the militaristic demands of the Greek geopolitical position. This point is an interesting one, particularly because it reasserts gender into the foundations of the discussion of sexuality, but may be a touch speculative at this point. I look forward to following this thread through other discussions within the literature, both to test its value and, pragmatically, to bring the issue of gender more forcefully forward in my presentation.

DuBois, Page. “Dildos.” In The Object Reader, edited by Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins, 92-110. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.

DuBois’ essay, a component within a larger volume of visual/material culture studies, takes the olisbos (dildo) as its object of study and with it, in turn, a host of unanswered questions left over from Foucault and Halperin’s studies of the queer sexual practices of ancient Greece. DuBois argues that this scholarship’s emphasis on dominance and submission through the act of penetration has served to render issues of female sexuality and slavery invisible to the modern eye. The author’s careful textual analysis of linguistic choices made in translation, in addition to her emphatic insistence that slavery undergirds the discussion at hand, culminates in a powerful exposition on the human labour and captivity that lies beneath both ancient Greek discussions of servile objects and queer feminist hopes for the dildo as an object of sexual liberation. This was a very sobering reminder of the class and racial divisions that are often occluded in the study of a culture through its most textually or visually prolific social groups. It has certainly impressed upon me the need to qualify the recuperative or genealogical traditions in queer historiography in a deeply intersectional light.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality- Volume 1: An Introduction, translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Halperin, David M. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Hubbard, Thomas K. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. Berkeley [Calif.]: University of California Press, 2003.

In the essentialist vs. social construction debates concerning sexuality, Hubbard firmly adheres to the somewhat out-modded former category. At times, this argument strains the logic of the volume’s introduction. For example, in direct contradistinction to Dover, Hubbard contends that erastes/eromenos relationships could continue after the eromenos aged out of his youth, citing Aristotle’s exposition on the timelessness of the love of character. Doing so, however, ignores the specificity and proliferation of cultural practice sanctioned or otherwise. The text, as a result, seems to be buttressed on select examples that serve to forward the ideal of gay identity as an all-encompassing, trans-historical category, even though, according to Dover and even the author’s own admission, many of the figures the author relies on as evidence of a uniquely gay culture were regarded as anomalous or deviant in the contexts of their times. Hubbard’s introduction, consequently, seems to argue its point at the cost of a holistic analysis of what sexuality meant to different strata and social spaces within ancient Greek society at large. If a gay sub-culture did exist in the ancient world, Hubbard has failed to clearly trace its contours.

Nevertheless, the volume of primary texts Hubbard has assembled is not without value. Keeping the author’s biases in mind, a wide range of literary, political, and legal texts can be referenced with moderate ease. I particularly enjoyed the graffiti texts reproduced from Thera and Athens, though the lack of visual analysis of these texts within their original architectural context is a decisive limitation. Similarly, a range of sculptural and ceramic works are reproduced in the middle of the volume without any interpretation or context. The scholar, by consequence, must read carefully and wider than Hubbard’s volume in order to discern which images serve as negative models for behaviour (satyr burlesques), positive symbols of ritualistic courtship (gift giving and gaze exchanges), or still hopelessly ambiguous.

Jenkins, Ian. “Is there Life After Marriage? A Study of the Abduction Motif in Vase Paintings of the Athenian Wedding Ceremony.” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 30, no. 1 (1983): 137-145.

Love, Heather. 2007. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Lucian. “In Defence of Images.” In Chattering Courtesans and Other Sardonic Sketches, trans Keith C. Sidwell.London: Penguin Books, 2004.

MacLeod, Catriona. Embodying Ambiguity: Androgyny and Aesthetics from Winckelmann to Keller. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998. 

Potts, Alex. 1994. Flesh and The Ideal: Winckelmann and The Origins Of Art History. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Richter, Simon and Patrick McGrath. “Representing Homosexuality: Winckelmann and the Aesthetics of Friendship.” Monatshefte, Vol. 86, No. 1 (Spring, 1994): 45-58.

Side-stepping the typical essentialist vs. constructivist debates that are so often articulated through Winckelmann’s corpus, Richter and McGrath take up the infamous figure through the lens of homosociality rather than an express homosexuality, allowing for simultaneously greater nuance and ambiguity in the practices and identifications of the early art historian. They are also keen to foreground their analysis of such considerations within the confines of what was behaviour realistically feasible in the public life of Winckelmann’s time. The result of this shift in perspective is a new depiction of the man, no longer the closet case of Davis’ appraisal, but a sophisticated cultivar of international homosocial subcultures to those who could read between the lines. As the authors’ note, “Winckelmann was engaged in nothing less than an effort to give a name, a profile, and a dignity to his desire; today we would say he was coming out,” (46). Thus, while both the authors’ and Davis’ vocabulary strikes as a touch anachronistic at points, Richter and McGrath political investment in Winckelmann’s identifications seem more sensitive to the limits of his specific historical moment. This is, of course, not to say that the authors are blind the stakes of such scholarship (indeed, the latter died of AIDs related complications before the article’s publication), but rather that these scholars’ proximity to the material lends itself to a more sympathetic evaluation of Winckelmann than Davis’ wider-reaching appraisal of disciplinary legacies and their limitations.

The emphasis of the article lies in its analysis of the content and context of Winckelmann’s Abhandlung con der Fähigkeit der Empfindung des Shönen in der Kunst (1763): an unsuccessful plea to a traveling friend to rejoin him in Rome for a refined education at Winckelmann’s direction. The text and its surrounding correspondence are quoted at length in the article. However, given that there is no English translation for the original German, the utility of these sources has a set limit. Nevertheless, though the authors’ analysis of Winckelmann’s writings a provocative thesis emerges, linking homosocial friendship to aesthetic education through the paired figures of older teacher and younger student. While Richter and McGrath describe this model in terms of “homosocial reproduction” (53), it strikes me that the erastes/ermenos dyad is a more thematically appropriate choice for the scholar, and an intriguing insight to carry forward into the study of his work.

Stansbury-O’Donnell, Mark. Vase Painting, Gender, and Social Identity in Archaic Athens. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Equal parts Lacanian and quantitative analysis, Stansbury-O’Donnell’s book is an important effort to chart the systematized nature of vision and spectatorship within ancient Athenian pottery and its historical context. The author’s ambitious goals are made possible through his construction of a database based on a census of the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum and the Beazley digital archive. This sources are not without their limitations- as international collections they have been shaped by particular connoisseurial tastes and market pressures- but they do allow Stansbury-O’Donnell to extrapolate in degrees about the frequency and configuration of figure types.

This proclivity for quantitative analysis is also expressed in the frequent use of reductive diagrams to concisely express what Stansbury-O’Donnell calls “the viewing matrix.” As an account of the directionality of the gazes between a ceramic’s illustrated central figures, illustrated spectators, the historical viewer, and the spectators of the historical viewer, this multivalent analytic stands to unite both form, content and social contexts (even though the schematized diagram itself lacks some nuance in its pursuit of the aesthetics of objectivity). Undergirding this network of vision is the Lacanian assertion that the historical and illustrated onlookers were intended to emulate and identify with the illustrated central figure through the process of transposition. In the context of the symposium, this lends itself well to the negotiations of age, prestige, gender and civic identity in Athens. This framework firmly situates the analysis of visual sources outside the naïve assumption that the imagery on pottery was representative of actual behaviour. To the converse, Stansbury-O’Donnell presents a much more enriching analysis of such images as idealized behaviours, indicative of social expectations highly specific to classed and gendered audiences of each pottery form. Such a construct, however, fails to adhere to imagery of parody or pornography that were also common to the symposium, and this omission weakens the overall strength of Stansbury-O’Donnell’s text considerably.

Of particular interest and utility was the author’s discussion of the cultural connotations of the gaze. Like Irene Winter’s article for this class, Stansbury-O’Donnell argues for a sense of cultural contructedness to the way in which vision was negotiated across class, age, and gender. Drawing from philosophers such as Plato as well as different social contentions in Greek public life, the author argues for an understanding of vision as an active meeting of essential qualities of the viewer and viewed. In the context of the erastes/eromenos relationship, one’s look of desire was consequently understood to invoke desire in the object of one’s gaze, leading to a careful decorum of downcast youthful gazes and the segregation of women from much of public life. This point adds considerable richness to nuptial and courtship imagery.

Sutton, Robert F. “Nuptial Eros: The Visual Discourse of Marriage in Classical Athens”. The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, Vol. 55/56 (1997): 27-48.

 Sutton’s text is a meticulous study of the emergence and visual vocabulary of the figure of Eros in the context of wedding scenes in Greek pottery. In surprising contradiction to well-known historical texts and literary ideals, such artefacts express forms of heterosexual love and intimacy between newlywed spouses. This peculiarity is explained only in passing by the author as an effect of audience and context; such vases were primarily bridal in use and ownership, suggesting that visions of nuptial desire served as propaganda of sorts for the understandably skittish brides-to-be. The public (and male) perspective on marriage, in contrast, seems to have remained primarily unemotional and practical.

While Sutton perhaps fails to press this point further to more enriching comparisons across the sexes, he does leave the reader with a rich archive of images and their analyses. Pederastic sexual practices are thus illuminated indirectly; some cups juxtapose contrasting pairings in different registers, while the grasping of wrists and visual intercessions of Eros along gaze lines borrows from ongoing and prior precedents from homoerotic courting. Thus, while the conclusions Sutton draws seem a touch overly concerned with issues of form, the formal programs he unpacks should prove highly useful for this project, facilitating several slide analyses for the class.

——–. “Pornography and Persuasion on Attic Pottery.” In Pornography and Representation, ed. Amy Richlin, 3-35. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Sutton’s earlier examination of the evolution of romantic visual idioms from pederastic to nuptial scenes finds itself in this chapter productively embroiled in the so-called feminist “sex wars” and critiques of pornography emerging in the early 1990s. In this polarized context, Sutton can’t help but bring contemporary debates into antiquity, using theorists such as Andrea Dworkin and Carol Thurston to examine the social use and influence of pornographic materials in ancient Athens. Ultimately, despite the chorus of highly opinionated voices of this literature, Sutton attempts to steer a non-prescriptive (but not exactly neutral) course, historicizing feminist objections to pornography in distinctly Greek terms by describing the persuasive modeling of social behaviour and gender roles as the “Peitho model” (6) of visual culture in antiquity.

This thesis- that erotic representations served as an active but not coercive shaping force in culture- is tested to its limits in Sutton’s diverse array of examples dating from the 6th to 4th centuries BCE. Covering a range of political and social turmoil, including the move towards and away from democracy, Sutton claims that pornographic pottery helped define civic ideals and countercultural refusals alike. His engagement with these heterogeneous sources is an admirable challenge to the uniform narratives one might be tempted to construct with a tighter selection of examples. As a result, however, the broad and somewhat unfocused trajectory of the middle of the text forms something of a descriptive survey of subjects and markets rather than a rigorous argument. Nevertheless, these materials are martialled in the final segment of the text which explores the domestication of pornographic motifs in marital and domestic images for women. Through the careful exploration of iconographic and formal evolutions in the fifth century, Sutton makes a convincing argument for the pedagogical and persuasive nature of such imagery. The outlandishness and explicit nature of earlier examples, however, resist such neat teleological conclusions, and would benefit from more individualized study.

A final curiosity of the chapter, in spite of its otherwise uniform historical language, is its description of erotic pottery as pornography, with both “hardcore” and “softcore” manifestations. Pornography’s literal meaning, as images of prostitutes, does not adhere to all of Sutton’s examples, suggesting something of a willful anachronism. This artifact likely arises from editor Amy Richlin’s direction of the book project in which Sutton’s essay is housed, which identifies itself as a work of feminist culture studies (xii). The shock the word, no doubt an intended iconoclastic assault on privileged depictions of Greco-Roman cultures as forbearers of a humanist intellectual tradition, strikes me as effective to this end. Left unaddressed, however, is a concerted comparison between these two historical moments in pornographic visual culture, particularly in terms of its use, circulation, and social stigma.

Sweet, D.M. “The Personal, The Political, And The Aesthetic: Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s German Enlightenment Life.” Journal of Homosexuality. 16 (1988): 147-162.

Topper, Kathryn. The Imagery of the Athenian Symposium. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Looking strictly at symposia scenes from 530-450 BCE, Topper’s study is a concentrated analysis of the conventions and contradictions in scenes of what was largely “envisioned as a microcosm of the larger polis,” (53). Over the course of her extensive literature reviews and formal analyses, the author comes to argue for a new perspective on symposium pottery as preoccupied with idealized history, representing archaic origins and ideals that may or may not have actually existed in order to negotiate the tumultuous present of a slave-owning, increasingly cosmopolitan society. Thus, like Stansbury-O’Donnell and Sutton argue, Topper approaches her visual sources as forms of social propaganda, often of a reactionary sort. Inclusions as well as exclusions are therefore of paramount importance, as are the visual rhetoric of those depicted.

The most relevant chapter of this book for my project concern the nature of oinochoos, nude youthful wine pourers of the symposium. In contrast to previous accounts, Topper contends that these figures should not be interpreted as either slaves and prostitutes (following from the exclusive social membership of the idealized body) or contemporary Greek sons in their passage to adulthood (due to the lack of textual evidence to support such a supposition, and the predatory nature of symposium guests). Instead, Topper builds a convincing argument that the oinochoos figure was a later invention of Athenian society, meant to invoke ideals of self-sufficiency and civic pride that were complicated by the introduction of slaves (the more likely candidate for the actual bearer of wine). This exploration of socially occluded figures of history brings DuBois’ work to mind, and serves as a sobering corrective to the pottery’s outward display of festivities. The oinchoos’ frequent dual valence as an eromenos figure, moreover, creates an intriguing juxtaposition, suggesting that the eromenos may have also been laden with civic ideals and constructed histories rather than simply sufficing as visual evidence as so many classical scholars treat them (Dover, Hubbard).

 Winckelmann, Johann Joachim. History of the Art of Antiquity, trans. Alex Potts. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2006.