Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 23, 2000
Bettina Bergmann and Christine Kondoleon The Art of Ancient Spectacle Yale University Press, 2000. 384 pp.; 15 color ills.; 224 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (0300077335)

For some years now, a lingering sense of inadequacy has plagued U.S. historians of ancient art and text, a sense of having somehow got behind in the great “race for theory” (Barbara Christian’s phrase). Everyone elsewhere and in other fields always seemed to have read more broadly and to have thought more originally about theoretical frameworks for scholarship. But The Art of Ancient Spectacle, an elegantly produced and intellectually sophisticated collection of nineteen essays on Hellenistic, Etruscan and Roman culture, demonstrates the pointlessness of continuing the lament; the majority of papers reveal a breadth of theoretical awareness and understanding, a light touch in the use of models from other fields, and an increasing consciousness of the utility and pleasures of messing about in other people’s kitchens. Rather than hearing philologists and historians claim that their training prevents them from using visual materials, or finding art historians and archaeologists complaining about the field being “behind,” we find a set of common interests in space, cultural performance, and representations of the visual world. In this collection, the common project of figuring out how to use all kinds of materials and approaches combines with the goal of understanding what constitutes spectacle and how it works in Greek, Etruscan, and Roman culture. Disciplinary boundaries have faded as frames of reference have become more diverse.

All this is made clear by co-editor Bettina Bergmann’s splendid introductory essay. The collection is a product of a 1996 conference at the Center for the Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, designed and implemented by Bergmann and her co-editor Christine Kondoleon, on ancient spectacle; the editors not only set the topic but apparently found ways of cajoling every one of their participants into taking on the issue of the visual nature of spectacle. The introduction neatly gathers together the various strands spun by individual authors, contextualizes their contributions according to both ancient definitions of spectacle and modern theories, especially that of Guy Debord, with or against whom the essays react. At the center of Bergmann’s introduction, and visible throughout the collection, is the question of how spectacle (in all its many forms) worked to make Romans and what kinds of Romans it made; the essays often add to this the question of the relative ease or difficulty involved in the process of making a Roman collectivity as well as individual Roman subjects. From her concern with spectacle as (and as part of) a sign system to her measured warnings about the potential problems in using a modern construct, whether it be Debord’s spectacle or Lacan’s gaze or Gramsci’s hegemony, Bergmann sets the stage for the extraordinarily diverse papers that follow. She allows us to see why philologists, historians, archaeologists, and art historians are willing to engage with something fundamentally ephemeral.

What all the papers share, along with their interest in the many forms of spectacle, is the ability to think broadly and theoretically about the visual nature of spectacle. Spectacle can be a matter of what happens in the theater or arena, both on the stage and in the audience, along the processional routes of triumphs or funerals or in the everyday routes along the streets, at public festivals such as the Floralia, or even at great banquets (in someone’s house or in a theater). Whether the corpus under consideration is textual or visual, all the authors make a clear effort to think about how spectacle was visually (as well as aurally) experienced. For some, the visual experience is enriched by a sense of people moving through space, as when Barbara Kellum explores the impact of a kind of material intertextuality for people walking along the streets of Pompeii and seeing shop signs and graffiti as they pass, or when Richard Brilliant considers the effect on the audience of the noise, color, and movement of the passing triumphal procession. Both of the authors I have just cited are art historians, but what makes the collection interesting is that they are joined by historians and philologists who are equally willing to think about sensory experience. John D’Arms, discussing Roman banquets as spectacles, takes up the question of why writers wanted to stress the visual impact of the moment, why the rhetorical traditions they used valued the details of the foodstuffs served, the plate on which it was served, the performative character of the serving. Kathleen Coleman’s paper on the punishment of informers, delatores, in the arena where they were paraded and displayed, confronts in a different way and with a different set of Roman texts, the legal and political uses of visual experience for leaders as well as non-elite audience members. The pleasure of the collection is, then, to a large degree a matter of diverse approaches not just to a topic, spectacle, but to the challenge of thinking about the visual in time. Here Kondoleon’s exploration of visual images of time and their role in linking “civic order, performance, audience and producers” 329), in space, and in social context helps to spotlight the temporality of spectacle in the other essays as well as providing a concrete demonstration of some ways in which specific spectacles marked social and ritual time in various parts of the Roman empire.

A further pleasure comes from the scope and focus of the collection. So many of the authors give serious attention to matters of historical change and cultural interchange. Henner von Hesberg’s essay on Hellenistic stage representations of kings describes the movement away from royal self-representations that used the forms and ideas of the theater; instead of rulers building images of themselves on the basis of the images projected by actors in the theater, the kings begin to distance themselves from the theatrical. The royal Self now becomes a kind of citizen leader who stands apart from the luxurious and emotion-laden spectacle of the theater. John Bodel takes up a similar problem in his consideration of the Roman funeral’s movement away from late republican/early imperial spectacle, conducted in the public spaces of civic life as a kind of political entertainment. He tracks the funeral to increasingly privatized spaces of pyre and suburban burial site as part of a process in the Empire of the creation of new spaces and less politically fraught contexts for the funerals of those outside the court.

As a vehicle for cultural interchange in very specific historical contexts, spectacle and its spaces can be tremendously revealing, and a number of the authors explore this role without losing sight of the diachronic. Focusing on three public spectacles that all took place in a space of eighteen months in 167-66 BCE in Rome and the Greek East, as Jonathan Edmondson does, helps to reveal the spectacle as site of both cultural contestation and social interaction among patrons, audiences, and literary reporters. For Katherine Welch, the architecture in which spectacles took place is, likewise, a site of contestation over Greek versus Roman traditions; she looks at the performance of gladiatorial games in Corinth and Athens and sees the spectacle as revealing two quite different paths taken by cities in relation to the cultural impact of Roman power.

I regret not having the word limit that would allow for discussion of the important contributions by Mario Torelli, Ann Kuttner, J. R. Green, Diane Favro, Christopher Jones, or T. P. Wiseman, or to do justice to the majority of the papers, over which I so lightly skimmed. But I want to leave room to point to one of the interesting debates that emerges rather from the conjunction of papers in this collection: the nature of audiences. Not only do the majority of papers take up explicitly the reactions of audiences, many attempt to think about who actually was in the audience and how those people acted out their own roles, enacting their own interpretations and contestations of the messages and images offered up to them. The active nature of the audience—participating in making meanings rather than submitting to an already seamlessly orchestrated experience—emerges clearly in, for example, Nicholas Purcell’s paper on mimes and theaters in the Roman period. He takes up some issues evident in Hesberg’s paper to ask about the ruler as actor in a spectacle, but he then makes an interesting additional point that “the interaction of images in the emperor’s own public ‘acting’ with ones developed by those around him is an essential and characteristic part of the nature of the imperial system” (183). Using anthropological theories of performance, Purcell allows us to see the relationship of impersonation, self-presentaton, and representation in making rulers, performers, and audiences-as-Romans. The audience here, as in the papers of D’Arms, Kellum, or Holt Parker, is vigorously active and sometimes insistent on having its own point of view. In contrast to (or perhaps alongside) this, and often within these very papers, is the notion of a kind of trickle-down effect, as non-elite audiences take up and adjust the forms of spectacle generated by the elite (see explicitly remarks by John Bodel, 262, and John D’Arms, 311). As Barbara Kellum suggests, “there is no such thing as a passive spectator set apart from the spectacle” (287), and yet there seems to be a layer of spectatorship that needs more explicit definition, a layer that may have to do with class, gender, or foreign/provincial status as much as with the opportunities for debate provided by specific kinds of spectacles. Within that layer, people adjust and play with what they receive rather than generating alternative forms and positions. Can they ever really create something new as “spectating subjects” of the hegemonic presence (Brilliant, 222)? In Richard Lim’s examination of the depiction of audiences in late antiquity, spectators are at heart passive, not because of some essential nature of spectatorship but rather because of the needs of representation. As he shows, visual imagery demands that spectators appear as embodiments of good order, proper hierarchy, and consensus to reinforce the fragile nature of hegemonic rule; the moralizing texts of pagan and Christian writers require passive audiences in order that the performers be the culpable ones, the ones who incite emotionality, irrationality, and, by implication, the feminization to which Parker also points (166). Neither genre “tells the truth” about audiences, but both together make clear how much is at stake in describing audiences. That so much important thinking on the constitution of audiences, as active or passive, as representations, as Greeks or Romans, and so on, should emerge from these discussions of spectacle demonstrates, I think, just how valuable a focused, elegantly theorized, interdisciplinary collection can be. The Art of Ancient Spectacle offers answers, but, more importantly, it offers new questions and approaches.

Natalie Boymel Kampen
Barnard College, Columbia University

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