June 19, 2017

The alt-right disagrees that these statues are alt-white


A painted terracotta cinerary urn, 150–100 BCE, from Chiusi, at the British Museum. Photo: Sarah Bond for Hyperallergic.

We know that the Alt(ernative)-right in this country takes pride in co-opting other people’s art and flipping it on its head to suit their message. We know also that online trolls enjoy few targets more than a female classicist. Last week Artforum posted a piece that brings us the worst of both impulses.

The story concerns the recent woes of Sarah E. Bond, a classics professor at the University of Iowa. Bond published an essay at the internet’s home for art criticism and features, Hyperallergic, entitled Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color.” Bond essay begins with the simple statement that much of the ancient Western world’s statuary was painted. That is, the white marble we see today is what’s left after time’s had its way and chipped all the paint off. Bond argues that misunderstanding this fact has lead to the dangerous and false idea that the Greeks and Romans were all white-skinned (they weren’t), or would have identified with our modern construction of “white” as a race (they wouldn’t).

In her words:

To many, the pristine whiteness of marble statues is the expectation and thus the classical ideal. But the equation of white marble with beauty is not an inherent truth of the universe. Where this standard came from and how it continues to influence white supremacist ideas today are often ignored.

As if she’d summoned them — enter the white supremacists. Artforum is reporting that the essay has earned Bond death threats from the alt-right, who have a lot of skin (!) in the game, as the whiteness of canonical statues, and the pride of place given to Roman and Greek art, are often cited as an argument for the supremacy of white people today. Now, that’s a bad (if very popular) argument on any grounds, but, as Bond helpfully shows us, it’s one that not even the statues themselves bear out.

Bond also sees the backlash as part of a right-wing trend of worrying about the hyper-sensitivity of liberals in the academy. She commented:

The United States is extremely polarized right now. There is a binary that is getting applied to everything. The trolls think I’m applying that binary, but all I wanted to talk about was art, the manipulation of art for various reasons, how beautiful color is on statues, and how we should embrace it just like we should embrace people of color all over the country.

Don’t let the trolls drag you down, Professor Bond.



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.