In my own specialism (I haven’t a clue what happens in English or Modern Languages, let alone in Science), there are two basic types academic conference. The one squashes as many papers as it can into the time available: 15+ papers in a day, with as many participants speaking as many different languages as the organizers can muster, with hardly a moment for proper discussion – but if you’re lucky a good party, and generous quantities of alcohol at the beginning and end of proceedings.
The other is a more gentlemanly affair. A small group of experts round a table, just a handful of papers, and hours and hours of discussion, to which everyone is expected to contribute. As a rule of thumb, you consume less alcohol but learn a lot more, and have to work harder, at this sort of occasion.
The conference at Williamstown, hosted by the Research Institute attached to the Gallery, was emphatically of the second type. There were just ten of us and we had each submitted a written paper in advance. Some of these were weighty foot-noted affairs; mine, I must confess, was rather lighter. At the conference we were given just fifteen minutes to re-introduce what we had written; I was more obedient on this time-limit than some, I can boast. Then it was just discussion for two days -- fortified by copious amounts of healthy food, fruit-juice and mineral water.
The subject was the “Art of Spoliation”. It wasn’t actually quite as relevant to modern geo-politics as that title might imply.
Some of your emails have asked what this was all about. So here goes.
As art historians now use the term, “spoliation” is the re-use and re-incorporation of some earlier work of art in a later one. The idea goes back to the heart of the Roman world and the display of captured weapons and booty (spolia) in Rome. But the key monument that set the whole academic ball rolling is the triumphal Arch of the emperor Constantine, built in Rome in the early fourth century AD, just after Constantine had defeated in battle his rivals for the throne, with the help it was said of the new Christian god. (I've shown it at the top of this post.)
It’s the arch that stands next to the Colosseum. And what most visitors probably don’t notice is that many of the sculptures that decorate it were not carved in the early fourth century, but rifled from earlier Roman monuments, put up by earlier Roman emperors, Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. (In this picture taken from the arch the roundels are Hadrianic, the relief below Constantinian.)
The question is: why?
One view is that it was an admission of cultural defeat. The sculptors of the fourth century had the sense to realize that they simply weren’t as good as their predecessors (just look at the bits they did do on the arch!) and so resorted to outright borrowing – re-carving, in the process, the features of the earlier rulers to make them look like Constantine.
The other main view is that the whole thing was deeply ideological. Constantine – or his artists – didn’t just go randomly to whatever monuments could easily be despoiled. They specially chose sculptures from the great tradition of “good” Roman emperors, so as to underline the fact that Constantine was following in their footsteps. It wasn’t artistic deficiency, in other words, but clever PR.
There, in a nutshell, is what we talked about for two days. But we didn’t stop with the ancient world. The same issues came up with works of art of much later periods. I was particularly intrigued by a marvellous gold medieval crucifix, with the head of Christ made out of a blue lapis lazuli head of (probably) the empress Livia.
But what really got us academics talking was an advert for body lotion from the New York Times, which dispayed an elegant modern model in the same pose as Ingres’ Odalisque. Was this spoliation in a contemporary guise? Was it honouring Ingres’ original? Or neutralizing it? Were advertising images the site of the most ambitious modern artistic practices?
Constantine would have turned in his grave.