Story. Ocean. Desire. The Day They Came Home

“He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity…these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different stories, and all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story…” Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, 1991

‏All there can ever be – stories. All that there are – oceans. All we have – desire. In Aeschylus, the Oceanids listen in sympathy to the story the bound Prometheus tells, and it is one of desire. Not simply to be free of his own chains, but to remain true to the liberation of humanity from its darkness. In Rushdie, stories emerge from the Ocean of the Streams of Story that Haroun battles to save from the forces of silence. He battles to restore, not simply the story-telling art of his father, but from this, to bring his mother back home. Story. Oceans. Desire. In Lacan, that weaver of theory of desire, of stories of subject, we are engaged by the agalma, that inestimable object of desire. It is the quality within and beyond the surface; it is the treasure we seek.

‏These three elements – story, ocean, desire – come together in the short fiction writing competition – The Day They Came Home, that supports the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to Athens. It will be for the writer to weave these strands together; to speak of emancipation, not simply in return, but for what that return will mean, what it will engage and liberate in us.

‏This is therefore a plea to you, dear reader, to pledge to the competition. Each pledge to fund the competition is a hand that dips into the sea of stories and stirs the currents of invention. It will break the surface of refusal and be a propellor that agitates the currents in the streams of stories. Each pledge creates the desire for the very ocean itself, the medium to navigate the Parthenon Sculptures to their home.

Tom Kazas

Coordinator. The Day They Came Home Writing Competition

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Funding the Reality of The Day They Came Home

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Today sees the launch of the crowd funding campaign for The Day They Came Home short fiction writing competition. This day, like the day the Parthenon Sculptures themselves return, is hugely important.

‏For the writing completion, the arrival of today calibrates a whole sequence of events: the appeal for sponsorship and donations to fund the competition, the reception of submissions, the judging of the stories, the announcement of the winners, the gala celebration night, and finally, the reflection on the stories themselves.

‏For the Parthenon Sculptures, the day they come home also calibrates a course of events: the celebration of success in a long fought struggle, the creation of new meaning in an aesthetic rejuvenation, and a brave gesture of the power of international voices.

‏There are 60 days to reach the target of AUD$15,000. No mean feat. But by offering some currency, you give currency to the campaign for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures. By donating, you will be part of the process of creating the all-important context of return, of nurturing the ideas and stories that will be crucial for return – that will make return an act of inevitability.

‏Although it can be argued that the current geo-political situation leaves little room for this campaign, the opposite is in fact the truth. This campaign is a long, uninterrupted and tenacious campaign; one that is always gaining momentum. Yet never has there been more clarity in the reasoning for return. Never has there been more need for those outside Athens to assume our critically important role in the campaign for return. Because never has the desire to invent ourselves, to recognize ourselves, through the narratives of the sculptures, and through the sculpturing of narratives, been as great.

‏I therefore urge you all to give a little to this desire – to facilitate phase one, the funding drive, of the competition. Success here will then allow phase two, the submission of the stories, that you will hopefully write, to bring us to a discovery of the narratives for the day they came home. Today is an important day.

‏Details about the writing competition and the crowd funding campaign can be found here:  http://www.thedaytheycamehome.net/

‏Thank You

‏Tom Kazas
‏Coordinator of the Competition
‏email: tom@thedaytheycamhome.net

Chance at Sculptural Freedom

Although it appears to be going from bad to worse, that is, that the British Museum (BM) is in apparent negotiations with other institutions to loan them their captive Parthenon Sculptures, I suggest that this can be seen as a positive move for the campaign to reunify the sculptures in Athens.

Letting the sculptures out for the world to see might be just the catalyst for other peoples and other countries to connect with their plight. It affords a wonderful opportunity for people to ask questions about their history and their current bondage. They might start to question the legitimacy of the BM’s continued possession. They might start to raise their voices and add them to the ever-growing global campaign for unification in Athens. These peoples might see into the agalma and hear an inner voice. They will engage in their own aisthesis and connect with, not only a general aesthetics, but with the politics of aesthetics and the poetry of emancipation that is spoken through the sculptures.

What’s the alternative, that the Parthenon Sculptures remain incarcerated in the BM, kept like a dirty secret in their mausoleum, or as Nikos Kazantzakis noted in his otherwise anglophile travelogue of 1939, “In her sooty vials, London stores these marble monuments of the gods, just as some unsmiling Puritan might store in the depths of his memory some past erotic moment, blissful and ecstatic sin.” What’s the alternative, that we say to the BM, no, keep them interred in gallery 18? That we acquiesce to their peonage, forever working under their master’s whip?

To be clear, I do not advocate for the legitimacy of lending the Parthenon Sculptures in some permanent to and fro. Nor that these proposed loans be an example that the Acropolis Museum should ever welcome. Nor either to the acceptance of any claim for the sculptures to remain in, or beholden to, the BM. Quite the opposite. I advocate for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to the Acropolis Museum now, and in full. I am aware of the fragility of the sculptures and the risk of damage involved in any travel. The question of whether potential damage is a limit to any travel, or a necessary risk for emancipation, is one that needs further attention. Yet the BM has decided that it’s time for touring; for a regime of loans and its accompanying narrative. There is really only one journey the sculptures need to make.

The point is that I expect that any loans regime will be, of itself, short lived – that it will bring about a change in the attitude for those that, a) learn of these proposals today, b) come into direct contact with the sculptures, c) can rehabilitate the BM’s position, and, d) see that this loans regime is likely to never get off the ground at all, given the challenges it faces. I suggest that we exploit the opening, this crack in the edifice, that the loans propose. I imagine that the loans regime will have a short life and a natural end, and that the approach to this limit will escalate the reunification to Athens.

Of course the BM has contradicted itself regarding objects that are ‘never to be loaned.’ Why the change? Of course there is hubris in the BM dispensing favours with things that belong elsewhere. Will the sculptures forever travel in clandestine security operations, as Ilissos did to the State Hermitage? (Imagine the sculptures in hyper-security vans…then imagine them in the light, space and dialogue of Athens…) Of course the power-narrative of the BM becomes more illegitimate with time. Of course these proposed loans might be dangled in front of the Acropolis Museum as a temptation to submit to such a regime. Of course there is the risk that such a global travelling parade becomes the norm; the sculptures as stateless but yoked. There might also be the inevitable apology to the world for a just a little damage in their cartage. Of course the BM will perceive this flaunting of the sculptures as a legitimacy for their claim. Of course the BM can do as it likes, despite its mandate to the public. Of course we will hear tales of neo-enlightenment, ‘of the world for the world’. Yet, and here is the central thread – might the BM have noticed its umbilicus? The BM has for some time now been decrying its inseparability to the sculptures – is it time to cut the cord, as every cord must? I would commend the BM for what looks like an attempt to understand its addiction to these sculptures. I suggest that these loans hint at a possible subconscious urge by the BM to free the sculptures. I think we can encourage this maturation.

Let the sculptures out to see the sky, to hear other voices, to smell other lands – let them dream of liberation and of their home. For though they will be freed only temporarily from their incarceration, they will be wiser for their journey, as will we. And if the chorus of wise voices rises? If Ilissos swells it into a turbulence? Then there is the chance for a break. A chance for a new global engagement, a chance for a new story. It is risky for all, but risk is itself a chance at freedom.

 

Ilissos to the Hermitage

British Museum loans the Parthenon Scuplture of Ilissos to the Hermitage

For the first time since their Enlightenment abduction, one of the children of Pheidias has been allowed out of bondage to glimpse the outside world. Ilissos, the river god, has been temporarily freed from the British museum and allowed to travel to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. He has been given a gift, allowed to witness the world outside his vault. Although he’s only really travelled from one institution to another (an inter-asylum temporary sleep-over), and is likely to experience those familiar feelings of alienation in Russia as in England, he nonetheless is the first of his kin to step outside the centuries of confinement in the British museum.

The excitement lay in what he will see and experience on this journey. So far, he would’ve looked out of the bus window, possibly talking with strangers, even asking about his home in Athens. I imagine Ilissos to be starry-eyed, in awe at the wonder of the world he will glimpse, and the brief freedom he will taste. He, a river god, to get his feet wet, to bring his mesmerising Socratic idyll to St. Petersburg. Regardless of how the Russians treat him, and I’m sure he will be absolutely adored by them, sadly, this trip can only end in the return to his enlightenment bondage. Will the god weep?

Unless…this brief jaunt in the world will want to make him break from his alienation and yearn for emancipation. Will he seek asylum in Russia? Will he plot from this distance the liberation of his siblings? Will he feel pangs to see his homeland again? Will the Russians listen to his story, deeply moved, and be the agents of his liberation?

We must applaud his keepers for the risk they take in allowing Ilissos out…Enjoy Russia Ilissos. And if I learn of your escape from there, and hear your mournful homesick murmurings in the flow of the Merri Creek, I too will sing a song to struggle.

British Museum: Living Building Dying Sculptures

2 buildings comp

British Museum left, Acropolis Museum right

The British Museum in London is holding a series of public debates with the theme: ‘Museum of the Future’. How much contention-in-argument there is to be we will find out. These debates give the impression of being more like discussions, rather than debates on contestable propositions.

All three talks have interesting and relevant titles, and the British Museum should be commended for raising these issues. It is to the first talk of the series, to be held on 11 September 2014, that I’d like to draw attention. It carries the title, ‘A living building: How can the British Museum best deliver its constant purpose for a changing public’. This heading exactly raises the kind of questions that are asked by the supporters of reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures from the British Museum (BM) to the Acropolis Museum.

Before identifying some of these questions, a look at the first part of the title: “A living building,” is crucial. This immediately indentifies change. Any organism must adapt to survive. Is the BM an organism that must gain but also shed parts of its body? Do we finally have a concept that allows the BM to return the Parthenon Sculptures? It would seem so, for the attributes of a living building are completely consistent with the need to return the Parthenon Scuptures to Athens. Even at this level of self-supporting existence, the BM has a key operation away from the current stasis of refusing to return the Parthenon Sculptures; for in stasis there is also decay.

However, the crucial part of the phrase is, “…for a changing public.” Changing from what, to what? Who is the public the BM is beholden to? Full analysis of these questions is outside the scope of this piece, but on all acounts reckoned by recent public debates (the adversarial kind), and polls in the UK, the British public supports (by large majorities) the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to Athens.

So the question really becomes, will the BM listen to its public? Will the British government, neatly part of a circular ‘pass-the-parcel’ legal screen with the BM Trustees, also listen to its public? The hope is that these series of talks will enable the BM to confront its own mandate, to allow the legitimacy of this claim to become part of its operation.

However, there is evidence to doubt the ability of the the BM to listen. A little more scrutiny of the relevant BM’s webpage gives the indication that the “museum directors and cultural professionals” might rather intend that the debates become a forum to “…explain what they want and expect from the BM…” The familiar names of Neil MacGreggor and James Cuno, proponents of what Tom Flynn calls the ‘universal encyclopaedic museum’, are taking centre stage at these events. Has their position shifted? Have they noticed the continuing shift in public opinion to return the Parthenon Sculptures? Will they follow their own purpose and responsibility to the public?

A disquieting give-away that the BM and its culturo-historical complex is not listening to its public is found in the line, the BM provides “…a place where people can see the history of what it is to be human.” The direct implication is the well established rationale by the BM that its “constant purpose” is to be a museum ‘of the world for the world’. What this disguises is a very particular narrative, from a very particular point of view, about how the BM sees ‘human history’ to have evolved. This narrative normalises the historical exploits of colonial acquisition; the reason the BM has the Parthenon Sculptures in the first place! This reasoning claims to explain that the BM, and similar universal museums, have a duty to possess-and-curate objects from around the world, to then explain – to the rest of the world – the history of humanity. The only authority and legitimacy in this claim is that of colonial acquistion; that only from this postion can an adequate history be described. It ignores notions of place, of context, of meaning as embodied in those fields; of differing stories and alternative readings, that of course challenge this universal encyclopaedic narrative, that itself is an exoneration of empire. Such a narrative seems too easy a way out, too much like a justification for retention. It helps to avoid the obvious special case for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures.

This case is special because it is absolutely clear from where these sculptures were taken, the history of their theft and subsequent sale, and that these sculptures are part of a single and singular piece of art that is the Parthenon building itself. It is an art that should not remain fractured and separated. Special because with the Acropolis Museum we have the best possible place for the sculptures to live, to be alive; a place that was especially built to house them. The Acropolis Museum is a home, where the Parthenon Sculptures can become reunited into their foundational narratives, as Pheidias had intended. Where meaning is once again created in this reunited embodiment, where the correct viewing orientation is restored, where the sculptures are bathed in the Attic light that vivifies the pentellic marble, and where they join in a direct physical and visual dialogue with the Parthenon on the Acropolis hill.

There might come a time when the Acropolis Museum will need to ask the questions surrounding a ‘living building’, but that time is not now. Because in so many ways the Acroplis Museum has answered these questions; it is alive in a way that the BM is not. Especially for the Parthenon Sculptures in the BM, that continue to languish in a gallery that says more about decay and rule, rather than life and imagination. Yet the fundamental task of serving the public is one that the BM has set for itself, and it is hoped they can act on this most noble of wills. I hope the British Museum chooses life.

Parthenon Sculptures: Narratives of Possibility

Peplos Frieze scene bw

Tom Kazas  13 December 2013.  

This paper is a more detailed expression of a talk I gave on Saturday 16th November 2013 in Sydney, for the International Colloquy, ‘Parthenon: Icon of Global Citizenship’.

I am very happy to be here, and honoured to participate in the campaign for the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures. I’d like to thank Dennis Tritaris for his work in organizing this International Colloquy, and Emanuel Comino for maintaining the charge.

I will say it often and clearly: in full and in place. The Parthenon Sculptures must be in full, as much as is now historically-physically possible, and in place, at the Acropolis Museum in Athens. A Latin expression captures this imperative, and is wonderful for its brevity and clarity: in toto in situ. The Greek translation speaks to the poetry of this plea: ensomatomena ekei pou oloklironontai.

In simple terms, what ‘in toto in situ’ really refers to is the Aesthetic Imperative.[1] This imperative is the argument that the Parthenon Sculptures must be returned to Athens, to be reunited with their severed ‘counter-parts’. For only in this state can we attempt a fuller understanding of the aesthetic qualities these sculptures embody. These qualities are not only those of visual form, but those of narrative itself; the work of literature that the Frieze of the Panathenaic procession is, or the drama that the Metopes and Pediments express, especially in their physical relationship to the dimensional qualities of the Parthenon. The Aesthetic Imperative states that the original intention of the sculptors, as far as possible, must be respected. For in this way we respect ourselves. However, we should be in no doubt that as a campaign for reunification, we are at a standstill. We languish in a kind of post-Mercouri hypnosis. For even though all arguments for retention have been refuted, what is painfully clear is that our desired outcome still eludes us. Clearly much more is needed in the campaign to reunify the Parthenon Sculptures.

I would also make the point that the British institutions, that is, the British Government (BG) and the British Museum (BM), are themselves are stuck. They are a victim of their own history, ambitions, legal system and the contingency of events. Clearly we should not accept the divisions that these British institutions have cleverly created in a 1963 parliamentary Act, between the BG and the BM, that keeps these sculptures in a convenient legal circularity of (ir)responsibility. Former British politician, Andrew Dismore has aptly described this legal operation as “pass the parcel.”[2] So rather than the BM being the only responsible party, it is more correct to refer to the responsible parties as the ‘British Institutions’, in contrast to the British people. The BG are complicit in this refusalism. They not only purchased of the Parthenon Sculptures from Thomas Bruce after stating they were ‘fairly and properly acquired(!), fit for purchase for 35k pounds’,[3] but created a legal structure to obfuscate responsibility for their retention. This complicity, however, does not exclude the argument that the British are themselves stranded. Might this all come down to how they can ‘save face’ upon the return of the Sculptures to Athens? As public opinion in Britain increasingly favours the reunion of the Parthenon Sculptures, seen in recent public debates there,[4] I believe the British want to find a way out but cannot, because their contemporary urges remain eclipsed by the long shadow of their imperial history. Part of our task is to find a way to help the British liberate themselves, to emancipate them from their own condition of aesthetic, legal and indeed moral imprisonment.

Our campaign must therefore be framed as a project of emancipation, it precisely becomes an operation of politics. We should not be proud of the boast that says that our campaign is ‘a-political’, that somehow it is only a cultural property issue, or a justice issue, or even an aesthetic issue. No, for to do so misses the point that we must confront the source of our grievances. We should redefine this task as precisely one of politics; of confronting illegitimate authority. One could say that until we understand this as a political problem, the resolution will elude us.

It is in this way that I read the plea by Emanuel Comino that “there are no more excuses.”[5] Indeed there are not. We must be brave enough to accept this political dimension; how each party has contributed to it, and how we can break out of this loop in which we are caught. So how do we interrupt this procedure, how do we create an emancipatory crack?

What I want to do in this talk is to investigate one very powerful way of breaking out. My talk is now titled: ‘Parthenon Sculptures: Narratives of Possibility’. ‘Narrative’ is many things, and I don’t want to get caught in the different meanings this word has. What I want to do here is restrict its meaning to ‘the stories we tell about the Parthenon Sculptures’. I will show that we have a tremendous power at our disposal, and this is the power of narrative.

One Word: Sculptures

How often are we struck by the power of one word. Either by the way it restricts and evades, or by the way it expands and liberates. But usually, before we can act, that word has moved on and been replaced by another, and then another, until the possibilities of this word have vanished. I say we must halt and focus on one such word, and that word is ‘Sculptures’. For it is impossible to deny the power of language in shaping reality: words shape our thoughts, thoughts shape our actions, and actions shape our reality. So if we want to create the reality of the Parthenon Sculptures returned to Athens, then our task is obvious, we must choose our words carefully.

I am constantly struck by the indecision and fractured nature of how these Pheidian works are referred to. It appears that many people cannot decide whether they are ‘marbles’ or ‘sculptures’. These words are not synonymous, and to fall into the trap that they are reveals either: a lack of attention, an urge for cheap jokes, or an acceptance of a dangerous ideology. This blurring and uncertainty then becomes planted into the reader. It’s like we are hedging our bets; ‘marbles’ as some simple and direct, ‘matter of fact’ term, or ‘sculptures’, when wanting to emphasize the aesthetic qualities. It is precisely the neglect inherent in this lexical interchangeability, this inability to accurately define these Pheidian works that weakens the position of the reunification campaign. These two words have completely different sets of conceptual contents, and by conflating the two, we do the campaign harm. But, this of course this plays right into the hands of the British institutional propagandists.

Just two weeks ago in the Sydney Morning Herald, the title of an article sympathetic to the return of the sculptures, (referring to the UNESCO change in policy), had the title: “Rule changes could end Britain’s game of playing with marbles.”[6] At a recent meeting in Melbourne, attended by supporters of reunification, I heard a similar joke about “losing our marbles”.  I claim that such expressions do harm to our cause, they trivialize and distract from the crucial issues. I say that the reunification campaign is at fault for not insisting on the exclusive definition of the Pheidian works as ‘sculptures’. We are at fault for leaving it to others to mark the territory, and by falling into the trap that ‘marbles’ and ‘sculptures’ are synonymous, and therefore interchangeable. The campaign must claim this definitional space and focus attention on what these objects really are; they are sculptures. So it is in this way that the Comino statement of ‘enough is enough’ is a political plea, a plea to action that must begin with one word. It will be this word, whose use will take root and allow us, or better still the sculptures themselves, to tell their story.

My central point is this, that if we want the return of the Pheidian works from Britain, then we must insist on the exclusive use of the obviously correct term: ‘Parthenon Sculptures’. We must replace the word ‘marbles’ with ‘sculptures’ in our discourse; in our casual conversations, in our formal literature, in the text-space of social media, in our committee names – in our thinking. We should pull people up when they slip and use the word ‘marbles’ and ask them to refer to the these items as ‘sculptures’. For sculptures is what they are.

Sculptures not Marbles

I have yet to find a definition that refutes the claim that the Pheidian works are, first and foremost, ‘sculptures’. All references confirm that a sculpture is a piece of art made by shaping processes.[7] Even at this most basic level, and one that I think is inherently understood, the Pheidian works are absolutely ‘sculptures’. Do we really need to challenge this? I think not. However, my point is much less about an insistence on absolute definition, and much more about what the word ‘sculpture’ brings with it, and what we can leave behind with the word ‘marbles’. This is the pivotal operation.

By changing just one word, from ‘marbles’ to ‘sculptures’, a whole domain of education and activism opens up for the reunification campaign. Firstly, this change allows us to restart the discourse. It allows us to initiate conversation on the nature of sculpture, and its centrality to the Greek Project. In simple terms, we have something important to re-define and to re-broadcast; we take up an offensive. A change of any key word in any discourse would have a similar effect, yet, it is precisely this effect we seek; a way to break out of the predicament in which we are caught. This insistence on ‘sculptures’ allows a redefinition of the terrain and affords an opportunity to re-engage with supporters, yet also those who are indifferent to, the campaign. We would have new issues to explain, such as, why this word was changed, why we think it is better, and what the problem with the old phrase was. This shift allows us to invigorate public attention by raising the status of these Pheidian works to that of their obvious existence as sculptures.

Secondly, this change allows us to reaffirm the Aesthetic Imperative, which I claim is the main argument for reunification. Again, this is the imperative that the Parthenon Sculptures must be in full and in place: in toto in situ. In Full means repatriating the Parthenon Sculptures from London back to Athens so that they can become, once again, an aesthetic whole. The contemporary reality of In Place means in the Acropolis Museum; with its dimensional Parthenaic reconstruction, its direct visual dialogue with the Acropolis hill and the Parthenon itself, bathed in Athenian light that vivifies the pentellic marble, and in context with the physicality of Athens, and wider still, Greece. By making this change from ‘marbles’ to ‘sculptures’ clear and obvious, we make a direct incision into the discourse on Classical Athens.

Thirdly, this change also allows us to subvert the ideology of retention. It allows us to disrupt the narratives invented by the BM that are inextricably bound up in the word ‘marbles’. Not only would we invest the campaign with a positive message, with a reality-check, but we would identify the colonial ideology of appropriation, and begin to remove the conceptual obstacles inherent in the term ‘marbles’.

So why must ‘marbles’ to be abandoned? Firstly, it shares a long association with the term ‘Elgin’, and even for this reason alone it should abandoned. Most of us have dropped this term, but it still influences wider thinking and mainstream journalism,[8] especially for those unfamiliar with this issue. This ‘ownership by association’ with ‘Elgin’ must be broken. The media in general still like to refer to them as the ‘so-called Elgin Marbles’, because we have not effectively challenged this usage. The word ‘Elgin’ adds the advantage of scandal and complexity, it keeps the possibility alive that there is some kind of case to be made by the British, that there is in fact some contention, like that over the supposed ‘firman’, that is in reality only a ‘letter’ by a subordinate, translated and purposefully misconstrued to achieve a ‘permission to plunder’. There is no contention here, but only an art that remains fractured and separated. So while we are distracted by such a scandal, the British quietly continue their possession. ‘Elgin’ is obviously an incorrect term, because it also hides the idea that the sculptures only exist by virtue of the privileged grace of a British lord, that the elite position of Thomas Bruce adds some kind of weight of authority to the claim of possession. One can see the ideological operation here. I claim that we need to permanently break this link with ‘Elgin’ and the British possession it entails. We should abandon the term ‘marbles’, and in doing so, we can start to achieve this.

Secondly, the term ‘marbles’ reduces the Parthenon Sculptures to ‘property’. It is a reduction that signals their status as ‘only’ marbles, namely, that they are a loose collection of fragmented individual ‘pieces’, and as such can happily continue in their current disjunction. Furthermore, it strives to absolve the crimes of theft and vandalism, that these acts are less severe because they are only marbles. The term ‘marbles’ helps to disguise the real nature of these works, that they are sculptures that belong to a whole, and in doing so it demeans them and supports the ideology of retention.

Thirdly, they are not unmediated geological objects. They are not random pieces of irregular shaped rock, nor are they ‘found objects’ in any sense. One must not confuse the material these works are made from with the objects they become after transformation. It is embarrassing to state that they are a product of the ‘plastic arts’. They are not the little glass balls that children play with, nor are they the slabs that are often used as kitchen bench-tops. If we want to avoid such trivializations and obfuscations then we must abandon ‘marbles’ in favour of ‘sculptures’, for that is what they are. It becomes an operation of truth.

One of the problems this shift poses is the question of what happens to the names of a number of campaigning committees that use ‘marbles’ in their titles. The Australian and British committees use ‘marbles’, yet the American committee uses ‘sculptures’.[9] Why is there a difference? What does this disparity tell the world? In the twitter handles of many, including the Australian committee, the term is again used, as with @MarblesUnite. I claim that if we want to take a leap further down the path of reunification, then this naming problem has to be addressed. You might see how opportunities like this rarely present themselves, especially in a case that is 200 years old. So I make a strong plea to the committees to embrace these opportunities and replace the word marbles with sculptures. Now is the time.

The combined acts resulting from the exclusive use of ‘sculptures’ would signal a new solidarity in our cause, in itself is a desirable outcome, and play no small part in the equations of education and activism. It signals a new motivation, and allows us to make the point ever sharper and stronger. So I say most emphatically, this is not a trivial operation, and it becomes a vital precursor to subsequent action.  When ‘Parthenon’ and ‘Sculptures’ are joined we have the full and proper nomination. We have the full narrative in front of us: where they belong and why they are important: in toto in situ. This is the power of narrative, to let the sculptures tell their story.

Parthenon as Singularity: Local not Global

More speculatively, I would like us to consider how arguments of ‘global citizenship’, as stated by the title of this conference, have serious and problematic implications. If one is a citizen of the globe, does this not then negate the need for a singular residence? Does this not then undermine the claim for the importance of the singular site of the Acropolis? This leads onto ideas of ‘universal heritage’ and ‘world culture’, that are not only ill-defined and contentious, but converge dangerously close to the very same arguments the BM use to justify their retention. The BM emphatically advocates for the ‘universal museum’, that is supposed to be an institution ‘of the world for the world’, that somehow can “transcend political boundaries.”[10] Are not these curatorial narratives a construction of a particular point of view that supports the claims, and spoils of, empire? One can begin to see the proximity between ‘global citizen’ and ‘universal institution’, and it is this association, that I claim, emerges as problematic.

By attempting to trump the adversary’s claim to ‘global universality’, are we not conflating two quite separate things? Namely, that there exists a specific physical location whose aesthetics has been vandalized and whose integrity we are trying to restore, with, the idea that a ‘world culture’ allows the fragmentation of artworks because it somehow tells a more ‘important’ global story. Is this latter account anything other than a ‘curation story’, that supports retention by framing their possession in a British colonial story? It seems important to clarify that these types of stories are only ever inventions, contingent and never free from bias. If we are to neutralize these operations we might focus on the problem from the other end.

Can we make the argument that Ancient Athens was a ‘local’ culture, as opposed to a ‘global’ culture? Can we say that this culture was in fact a ‘singularity’? That the Parthenon itself is a singularity? A ‘singularity’ speaks of a specific location in space and time. It speaks of meaning as being embodied in that location in space and time, created by the unity and continuity of these sculptures being ‘in full and in place’. This conception does not deny the impact on world civilization of Classical Athens, nor does it exclude the reinterpretation necessary by subsequent societies. What it does say is that the local situation in Athens, and in particular the Parthenon, is that of a singularity. That this local embodied singularity precedes all later retro-active interpretations and selective cultural appropriations. In this way, the claim for unification is precisely the claim that the local context is paramount, and not the reverse, that of some diffuse global condition. The conception of ‘local singularity’ is more akin to the somewhat forgotten phrase of ‘think globally, act locally’. It is from this local context that the proliferation of meaning follows, from this singularity that cultural iterations begin. This is to say that the Parthenon Sculptures do not, at all, have the same meaning outside their reunified embodiment.

You see, the British institutional narrative attempts to subvert this idea of ‘local’ phenomena. They would have it that the Parthenon Sculptures in Athens are only part of a ‘local history’ that should be subsumed to the importance of a ‘global history’, and that this is only possible by their retention in London. This is the rendering of a binary opposition that privileges ‘global’ over ‘local’, that is a justification for retention. This leaves us with the patently absurd proposition that to understand Classical Athens we must fetishize it from afar; that by being fractured the Parthenon Sculptures can tell a superior story, and that only in an ‘encyclopedic-universal-museum-story’ can their global significance be understood. This is not only an error, but a deception.

I want to highlight the work of Tom Flynn in critiquing this concept of the Universal ‘encyclopedic’ Museum,[11] by discussing as he does, not only the history of these institutions from the 17th century ‘cabinets of curiosity’, their Enlightenment compulsion for taxonomy, but the imperial ideologies of acquisition and possession that support the mythologies of empire. These above speculations of mine, on ‘location’ and ‘singularity’, trace part of their genesis to this work by Tom Flynn, and I encourage you all to become familiar it.

What I am saying is this, that if one wants to understand these works of art, the narrative whole of the Parthenon Frieze, the embodied meaning of the Metopes and Pediments, the dimensional physicality of the Parthenon, the effects of Athenian light on the pentellic marble, the elevation and dialogue between the Acropolis Museum and the Acropolis hill, the context of the physicality of Greece, the history of ‘place’, the singularity that was the culture of Classical Athens – then this is best achieved in Athens at the Acropolis Museum.

I think what we need to be saying, in the campaign to reunify the Parthenon Sculptures, is that the Parthenon has a ‘citizenship of place’. This ‘citizenship’ and this ‘place’ reassert the idea that the Parthenon is an unparalleled edifice whose singularity must be respected, and though it exists in this particular place, it becomes a citizen of the world by being ‘invited in’ to the psyche of civilization. Citizenship of place does not become an end point, but a beginning.

The Day They Came Home

I’d like to conclude with a far simpler idea, and one that I believe can have a huge impact on the reunification campaign. Its inherent acts of imagination and creativity become another way of breaking the stalemate in our campaign. In this way, we have a movement from the narratives contained in ‘one word’ to the power in ‘one story’. This is the story of ‘The Day They Came Home’. It is a story that will tell of the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to Athens.

This story, in fact the manys stories, will be the imaginatively detailed and beautifully written accounts that will describe in detail the events of this day. It is vital to create these ‘future narratives’, because to imagine this day is to bring it closer to reality. This imagining will provide the maps required to navigate the Parthenon Sculptures back to their home.

Stop and imagine that day…

Will it be a Saturday?

What type of ceremony will there be; simple and solemn, a cultural spectacle,

a jubilant party?

Which composer shall we engage for the music?

Will there be dance?

Who might we ask to write a poem for that day?

How many poems will be written?

Will it become a public holiday for Greece?

What route will the precession take?

Will there be people lining the streets for a parade?

How will we, necessarily, acknowledge the British?

This last question is crucial. What stories will we now start to tell of the British? How will we affirm the integral role the British have played in the story of the Parthenon Sculptures? How will they be celebrated for their gesture? What might the British now say of themselves?

One begins to get lost in the possibilities of The Day They Came Home. It will be in these stories that we will explore the possibilities of return, and allow the world to test and rehearse the ideas and practicalities of reunifying the Parthenon Sculptures in Athens. Storytelling as a glimpse of the future.

The campaign for the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures requires an agitation that must wield many powers. But we must also harness the power of narrative; the politics of sculpture, the function of a singularity, and the poetry of return. It is these powers that will change thinking, that in turn will chage reality, which makes me believe that the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures is much closer than we think.

Thank You

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Notes

[1]  For a fuller treatment of the aesthetic imperative see Christopher Hitchens 2008, The Parthenon Marbles: the Case for Reunification, Verso, London.

[2]  From the video of a talk given by Andrew Dismore 2012, Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles. A Legal Perspective. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wwIWg3kHU8>

[3]  ibid.

[4]  Such as the Intelligence Squared Debate in London on 11/6/12, with the motion ‘The Parthenon Marbles Should be Returned to Athens’ <http://www.intelligencesquared.com/events/parthenon-marbles/> What is interesting is the swing in audience voting. Prior to the debate the audience voted thus; for the motion 196, against 202, undecided 158. After the debate the audience again voted; for the motion 385, against 125, undecided 24. A rather striking message.

[5]  This plea by Emanuel Comino, chairman of the IOC-A-RPM, was an introduction to the 2013 International Colloquy, Sydney 15/11/13, ‘Parthenon: Icon of Global Citizenship’. <http://www.parthenonmarblesaustralia.org.au/colloquy2013/index.php/emanuel-j-comino-am&gt;

[6]  From an article by David Hill in the Sydney Morning Herald, 8/11/13 <http://www.smh.com.au/comment/rule-changes-could-end-britains-game-of-playing-with-marbles-20131107-2x49r.html>

[7]  The Parthenon Sculptures are additionally many things, including architectural elements, but this additional context does not negate their status as ‘sculptures’. Perhaps ‘sculpture’ as defined by ‘The Shorter Oxford Dictionary, On Historical Principles, 6th Ed., Vol.2, N-Z, 2007, p.2718, cuts to the essence, “The art or process of creating (now usu. large) representational or abstract forms in the round, in relief, or (formerly) in intaglio, by chiseling stone, casting metal, modeling clay or some other plastic substance, carving wood, etc., or, now also, by assembling parts, the practice of this art.”

[8]  Such an example is the article ‘Top Ten Plundered Artifacts’ in Time magazine (online version, undated) <http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1883142_1883129_1883001,00.html> What is interesting in this article is that, apart from the erroneous term ‘Elgin Marbles’, the Parthenon Sculptures are the only ‘plundered artifacts’ that are not referred to by an original cultural name. Instead, they are referred to by the name of the plunderer.

[9]  The following three committees collaborate in the campaign for reunification of the sculptures, whose names are as follows: The International Organizing Committee – Australia – for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles’ (IOC-A-RPM) <http://www.parthenonmarblesaustralia.org.au/>,  The British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles’ (BCRPM) <http://www.parthenonuk.com&gt;, The American Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures’ (ACRPS),’ <http://www.parthenonmarblesusa.org/&gt;

[10]  The British Museum webpage on the Parthenon Sculptures, that introduces the self-appointed concept of itself as a “resource of the world.” <http://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/news_and_press/statements/parthenon_sculptures.aspx> Both Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, and James Cuno, President of the Getty Trust advocate for the Universal Museum in their many books and talks. For a critique of the language and ideology of retention at the British Museum webpage on the Parthenon Sculptures see Tom Kazas 2012, Part 3, Parthenon Marble Cake: Having and Eating it Too’. <http://www.tomkazas.net/tom_kazas/Pentellics__The_Parthenon_Sculptures.html&gt;

[11]  See Tom Flynn 2004, ‘The Universal Museum: a valid model for the 21st century?’ <http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/tomflynn> See also <http://tom-flynn.blogspot.co.uk/p/the-universal-museum-valid-model-for.html> for a video of his talk on this subject at the Parthenon Marbles colloquy 2012. For a transcript of that talk see <http://www.elginism.com/similar-cases/the-structural-and-philosophical-problems-confronting-the-universal-museum-concept/20120717/4845/&gt;

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Parthenon Marble Cake: Having and Eating it Too

marble cake

For a moment my mouth watered at the thought of eating a piece marble cake. I imagined a wonderfully tasty delight – pentellic undulations narratively encircling an iconic Greek cake, nourishing my humanity and my fantasies. However, a close look at the recipe provided by O’Really, meant that I had to: “travel to Greece, find a beautiful cake, vandalise the tastiest parts, proclaim ambassadorial privilege, then return with my souvenir cakes.” O’Really and some of his respondents even have some serving suggestions: a sea salt curing method, a basement storage tip, and a way to remove the crust and freshen them up for presentation.

What’s going on? I just want to eat cake and have my conscience too. If so, then we need to dismantle the ideological writings of the British Museum (BM) on the Parthenon Sculptures, as found on their website here. (Thanks to the Elginism website for the tweet sharing the above ‘recipe’, and for the continued research and voice into this issue.)

Starting at the top of the BM webpage: “What is the Parthenon and how did the sculptures come to London.” The Parthenon indeed has a long history, but contrary to what is stated, it is not “complex”. It is rather straight forward. The building has been subject to many ravishes that can be sequentially itemised, laying out a history both clearly and simple. (Attempting to describe that history as “complex” is a way to pollute and scandalise it as a ‘difficult problem’.) In fact, a simple exposition is then what proceeds for the remainder of the two paragraphs; an exposition whose facts are as erroneous as they are trivialised; whose flaws I cannot bring myself to enunciate here, given this has been eloquently achieved by many others, such as Christopher Hitchens here.

What I want to do, is examine the ensuing sections on the BM webpage, starting with, “Where can the surviving sculptures from the Parthenon be seen?” The remarks made in this section contain all the ingredients for the ideological apologia that it is; using language as the obfuscating tool it can be, then, letting rip with the force of gunboat diplomacy. Is there an urge here that seeks to hide the BM’s complicity in the retention of plunder?

Firstly, and it’s all about context now; the BM describes the sculptures as “surviving”, (read: poor, wayward, unable to look after themselves fragments), that are “equally divided between Athens and London,” (trying to bring a sense of acceptable ‘balance’ in that distribution),…”While important pieces are also held in the Louvre and Vatican,” (reputable institutions like these, also parentally overseeing these vagabond sculptures).

Next we have, “Parthenon Sculptures in Athens.” It tells us that the Greek authorities have been “removing the sculptures,” (to place inside the Parthenon Museum). The notion here is that the Greeks themselves are also vandalising the building, (‘just like we have, so they are no better than us’),…”work that was begun over 200 years ago by Elgin.” Indeed. Equating the modern Greek acts with the acts of Elgin is nothing short of scandalous. The BM continues.

“Parthenon Sculptures in London.” “Sometimes known as the Elgin Marbles”, (only by the BM and its supporters, everyone else uses the respectful and obviously rightful term of the “Parthenon Marbles”)….”have been on display since 1817” (‘behold the public service we’ve been providing to the Empire and the world), …”and..(the real kicker)…..”for free.” (‘To charge would be inappropriate, and our concern for the public at large is paramount – our morals remain intact.) The following argument of “seen by a world audience” is simply refuted by the idea that, if we want as many people as possible to see the Marbles, then let’s put them in Disneyland. I won’t dwell on the BM’s “research” into discoveries of ancient applied colours; is this research a result of removing (scrubbing off) layers of marble from the sculptures in the 1930s?

“Parthenon Sculptures in other Museums.” A list of museums follows, somehow justifying the BM’s retention, as well as diverting attention to the legitimacy of the other institutions acquisitions, and promoting the idea of a necessary parental ‘custodial role’.

“What has the Greek Government asked for?” Here it states that “Since the 1980, (only as recently as that? what a weak claim!), Greek Governments have argued for their permanent removal,” (read: abducting these children from the bosom of the BM.) Absolutely nothing about ‘returning them to their rightful home,’ illegally taken or not)… of “all the Parthenon Sculptures in the BM.” (The important word here is “all.” What, and leave nothing in the BM? ‘But we’ve grown fond of them here’.) Then we come to another kicker: “The Greek government has also disputed the British Museum Trustees’ legal title to the sculptures.” (Fancy that, disputing the upright imperial legality of the ‘title’ that the BM ‘claims’ to have.) Continuing on, they give us the most generic hyperlink, to the homepage of the ‘Greek Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, Culture and Sports.’ No direct link to the opposing arguments, presumably hopeful that we might get bored in having to research the appropriate section outlining the Greek government’s position. A thinly veiled attempt at claiming some moral high ground by providing ‘balance’.

“What is the British Museum’s position?” Following here is the argument for the ‘Universal Museum.’ This argument basically posits that, (the BM as the definitive example), antiquity belongs to all humanity, and cultural artifacts belong in big encyclopedic museums. As James Cuno, CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust states, we need a place that promises(?) to, “promote tolerance and understanding difference in the world,…that is against essentialised national differences.” Read more here and here. Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, has become the most vocal proponent of this position, adding that we can have “all the world’s cultures under one roof”, in a “secular cosmopolitan space.” The encyclopedic museum “enlarges one’s view of the world.”

As Tom Flynn argues in, “The Universal Museum: A valid model for the 21st century?”, such institutions trace their “historical roots in the Cabinets of Curiosity assembled by European princes from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. The early ‘universal’ cabinet collections ultimately formed the foundations of the great western ‘encyclopedic’ museums which in turn benefited from the era of colonialism and imperial adventure in the nineteenth century.”

Flynn continues, “the concept of a ‘universal museum’ is philosophically and practically flawed, an anachronistic aspiration that is the product of an idealistic, eighteenth-century Enlightenment mindset devoted to the accumulation and classification of all species of flora and fauna, natural and man-made objects. Such collections are not only unsustainable but perpetuate many of the worst aspects of the age of imperialism.The fact is that Universal Museums are self appointed. No other countries have asked them to look after their cultural treasures – and then refuse to return them later. As such, they have no moral right to hang on to the huge numbers of items that were acquired in very dubious circumstances, carefully omitted from the labels on the artefacts today”

Flynn even identifies the “therapeutic function” of such museums, taking on a ‘healing’ role, in the face of ‘resurgent nationalism and sectarian violence,’ that might damage these works; acquisition as benevolence, retention as remedy.

Later, on the same BM webpage, we read of the “acceptance” by the BM of the sculptures in the Athens Parthenon Museum as being part of a “backdrop of ancient Greek and Athenian history.” This primes us for a claim that the Marbles in London are an “important representation of ancient Athenian civilization in the context of world history.” Oh dear. Let’s leave to one side the aspect of ‘representation’; this idea means that the Marbles in Athens are only part of a “local” history and culture, (placed in their local museum setting), while claiming the very fact of their importance in “world history” that is is only possible in London!

We are than asked to accept the BM Trustees’ “conviction” that the “current division” (between Athens and London) allows for “different and complimentary stories to be told.” (These are false dichotomies, creating the very divisions they seek to eliminate, that allow the manufacture of ‘competing’ stories. Stories from whose perspective? It might be acceptable if the BM told stories are of dubious firmans, of grotesque hacking at marbles, of sunken loot, of selling to the BM, etc, but instead we get stories of ‘stewardship’. Surely not stories from the Parthenon Frieze itself, whose very narrative is fractured, and unable to be ‘read’ in toto, and in situ. So that the only way to affirm, (and here comes the patronizing attempt at being magnanimous)…”the place of Ancient Greece among the great world cultures,” is to fetishize it from afar.

Lastly, a plea to the visitors of the British Museum, especially in this Olympic year – that if you have cake, probably at the BM Café, just maybe, you are eating it too. Imagine the day, when we can share a piece of cake, in front of the oven that baked it, with the children of the cooks, and marvel at how tasty and sustaining these morsels are.

(originally published Wednesday, 11 July 2012)