Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Classics 2B03: Greek Art and Archaeology Sneak Preview

Viewing the Greek Art and Archaeology (Classics/Art History 2B03) class list on Avenue to Learn recently, I was pleased to see a number of familiar names and an equal number of names that will soon be attached to familiar faces. Classics 2B03 provides an overview of Greek Art and Archaeology from the Bronze Age through to the Roman Period; it is designed to provide familiarity with the material culture and specific cultural contexts of Ancient Greece. The class focuses primarily on the Archaic and Classical periods (ca. 700-323 BC), a time that corresponds with the rise and floruit of the Greek polis, and the age that witnessed the most rapid and notable developments in architecture, sculpture, coinage, and pottery.

Along the way, one of the themes of the course will be the expansion of the Greek world and the establishment of overseas settlements. We will examine the context of the foundation, the early development and the separate internal development of western Greek art and architecture. We will also explore the forces that brought the Greeks into contact with other cultures around the Mediterranean, including the Phoenicians, Persians, and Etruscans.

We will dedicate class time to that fateful year 480 BC and the bridge from the Archaic to the Classical period and the attendant political, social, religious, and artistic shifts that mark this very significant division. The High Classical period is dominated by the Periklean Acropolis, and I think I will be able to put together a Powerpoint or twelve on the topic. For the Hellenistic period, I am particularly interested in investigating new foundations and look at the pre-planned, monumental, designs as a new direction in Greek urbanism.

The goals of the course are 1) to introduce students to the major monuments of Greek antiquity and consider the context in which they were created, 2) to introduce main scholarly issues and current methodology in Greek Art and Archaeology, and 3) encourage the application of new approaches to this material.

There is one more particularly noteworthy change to the class and that is the adoption of a new textbook: Richard Neer, Greek Art and Archaeology, c. 2500-c. 150 BC, New York, Thames and Hudson, 2011 (available from the McMaster Campus Store soon). Prof. Neer’s book is a thoroughly modern textbook on Greek Archaeology that provides a broad cultural context in addition to insightful analyses of the artifacts themselves. I am looking forward to getting your feedback on the text and exploring all of Greek Art and Archaeology with you.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Great Gatsby and the Pantheon

All who have suffered through my Greek Art and Archaeology lectures long enough to arrive at the Archaic period know that I have a fondness for F. Scott Fitzgerald. I often recite one of the opening lines of Tender is the Night as a crutch to convey a cultural sense of the Greek Kouros, "[m]ost of us have a favourite, a heroic period, in our lives;" I employ art to explain art. 

So you can imagine that I'm pleased to see The Great Gatsby (Der Grosse Gatsby?) back in the theatre this summer. I have yet to see it, so I will spare the movie review. Beyond being pleased to see Fitzgerald -- and the Jazz Age along with him -- returning to contemporary culture, I was happy to see a broad commercial film push something of greater substance than robots that change into cars. 

Cinema, in lockstep with a good portion of contemporary culture, is cynical about our desired level of intellectual fitness. Robots that fight monsters, various flavours of the apocalypse, superheroes from other planets, superheroes that fight robots, robotized heroes that fight other robotized villains, Nitrous Oxide burning race cars, and other escapist fantasy dominate the summer movie schedule. I'll admit that the sheer spectacle of these movies is occasionally welcome, along with the popcorn and soda they are served up with; but just like the actual junk food, the mental junk food shouldn't be a central component of our diet.

(I'll spare you my condescending movie recommendations; I will not tell you that your time is better spent seeing Upstream Color, Like Someone in Love, or Beyond the Hills, because no one likes that kind of discussion. I will not even consider recommending a re-read of Fitzgerald before seeing the film.)

Instead the film got me thinking about audiences and engagement. Fast and Furious prevents us from using most of our brains -- if we did, the movie would crash just like the cars in it. Iron Man, Superman, The Avengers, and others takes us for a ride mostly as a passive passenger, and while they do dip into myth, archetypes, and lots of Joseph Campbell territory, we are wowed by spectacle more than anything else. That is, our attempt to intellectualize them will eventually lead us to a cul-de-sac named "Entertainment". On the other hand, a film such as Upstream Color pays off very little for those who don't want to do the intellectual wrestling to come to terms with it (the Sampler was Circe, right?). 

I pondered this question while walking through Rome early one morning and found a solution our problematic cultural diet. The Pantheon. One can (and thousands of visitors do) marvel at it because it is famous, because it is old, or simply because it is big. It leaves an impression. You don't need a Classics B.A. to appreciate it as a monument, and the thousands that pass by every day undoubtedly find new reasons to admire and engage with the building. It makes us feel small and temporary compared to its eternality; it makes us appreciate the best of human achievement, especially considering its age; it takes us out of the everyday and forces us to engage with masterpieces of human expression. It exemplifies humankind making its boldest statements. 

But if you do have a degree in Classics, the building never stops giving. Its significance is also indicated by the double pediment emulating the roofline of the Propylaia on the Athenian Acropolis, the octostyle porch not dissimilar from the Parthenon, and the spherical interior recalling earlier domes, both concrete and corbeled. It is subtly imbued with meaning through its metrology that links the building to the Imperial fora and the earlier building whose pedimental inscription it borrows: M AGRIPPA LF COS TERTIUM FECIT. Or perhaps the resonance is in the reception: here is the model for numerous villas of Palladio, of the Library of the University of Virgina and countless other civic and public buildings in North America. A little bit of the Pantheon's DNA can be found in the hulking concrete designs (and Brutalist designs) of the twentieth century: Frank Lloyd Wright's Googenheim in Manhattan, or Oscar Niemeyer's national congress building in Brasilia, or even McMaster's own Health Sciences Building.

Whatever your level of engagement, investigations of the Classical World will fulfill your query and push you forward just enough to inspire you to know a little more. This is one of the beauties of studying Classics: it will give as much as you take, and provide something of value at every step along the way. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Congratulations to Mac Classics Graduates!

Congratulations to all Mac Classics Graduates, ever shall your names, honours, and praises remain.

Mac Classics graduates were recognized by the Faculty of Humanities with numerous awards. Congratulations to Ms. Naomi Neufeld and Mr. Owen Phillips, who placed first and second for the Dean's Medal for Excellence in the Humanities. Ms. Neufeld and Mr. Phillips were also both awarded the A.G McKay Prize in Classical Studies. Ms. Neufeld is presently excavating at Cerveteri, Italy and Mr. Phillips recently co-curated the Antiquities exhibition at the McMaster Museum of Art :  http://www.mcmaster.ca/museum/exhibitions_schedule.html. Both students will return to Mac in the Fall to undertake graduate studies in the Department of Classics.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Studying Culture and Creating Culture, or Why Apotropaic Cupcakes Matter

Classics 735 Graduate Seminar in Winter 2013 examined the relationship between a city and its countryside (asty and chora); we examined the foundation of apoikiai in the eighth century BC and border conflicts across the Classical period, the installation and use of extramural and intramural sanctuaries, and discussed new foundations and developments with the city in the Archaic and Classical periods. Our investigations took us to the Argive Heraion; the Athenian Acropolis; Delphi and the poetics of Colonization; the Achaean apoikiai of southern Italy; intramural sanctuaries and the use of public space in Syracuse, Megara Hyblaia, Selinus and Akragas; the greek-indigenous border in Sicily; Aitna and the court of Hieron with Pindar and Aeschylus; and the frontier contested by Athens and Thebes. 

The beautiful thing about a seminar is that not only did we examine a culture, but also created one. 

To Kill a Mockingbird's Atticus Finch summarized cross examination by stating that you never ask a question that you don't already know the answer to. A seminar is different. we are all participants -- instructor and students (both roles exist in name and attendance-taking only) alike work together because there is something we don't fully understand and with it academic territory to convert from unknown to known. In this pursuit, there is strength in numbers; by dividing up the material into areas, each seminar member can make a contribution that builds to a greater understanding. To see seminar members feed off one another and collectively create an understanding is to see success take flight. It begins with providing a question, bibliography, and a foundation level of knowledge regarding how these questions are treated in scholarship today, but then develops in its own direction shaped by the investment and involvement of the members. When that collides with an ethos that binds everyone, the results move from satisfactory to sublime. To get a group of students to care about an angle or view or theory that they had not been familiar with before (territoriality, the significance of Pindar at Syracuse, the location of Xouthia) is good, when that expands into caring enough to create apotropaic-anti evil eye cupcakes, it is even better.