The Statues We Love to Hate

Statue-toppling has been making headlines around the world, from Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, to museum artifacts in Mosul, Iraq. According to a new book by Professor Rachel Kousser of The Graduate Center, CUNY, the distant past may offer insight into this controversial phenomenon.

The Afterlives of Greek Sculpture examines the Greeks’ contentious relationship with sculptures in the classical and Hellenistic eras, locating their destruction in a larger cultural context that resonates today.

As Kousser notes in the book, the ways in which the Greeks interacted with sculptures took two opposing forms. On the one hand, “the Greeks washed, perfumed, and polished statues,” as well as prayed before them. On the other, they also engaged in highly destructive practices, “damag[ing] statues, looting them in war, [or] stealing or vandalizing them in peacetime.” Kousser adds, “They overturned marble sculptures and melted down bronzes; heads were cut off, eyes slit, projecting limbs broken away.”

The Afterlives of Greek Sculpture spotlights behaviors “deemed inappropriate, aberrant, or dangerous,” and in doing so challenges traditional perceptions of Greek cultural identity. “There’s a belief, which seems very intrinsic to the Greeks, that the statue is a privileged site for contact…be it a god, the dead, or rulers,” Kousser says. “When you do something to the statues, it’s a way of communicating with that representative power. You can do good things and give the god gifts, or you can get really mad at the ruler and dash his statue down.”

The same kind of practice is still enacted more than two millennia later — for example in 2003, when protestors felled a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

“The Greeks told themselves they only interacted with images in rational and pious ways, whereas other cultures had a very different treatment,” Kousser says. “This rhetoric has powerful resonances today, particularly when the maltreatment of images becomes a cultural stereotype applied to the Middle East.” Statues may elicit a certain degree of reverence, but as Kousser’s book notes, there were equal parts rebellion bound up in that relationship.


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The Afterlife of Greek Sculptures: Interaction, Transformation, and Destruction
Cambridge University Press, 2017

Work By
Rachel Kousser (Professor, Art History) | Profile

Colleges and Schools
The Graduate Center

Bonus Content
The Ancient Greeks Did It Too (The Graduate Center)

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