The Art of Contact

Explicating the relationship between theory, method, and interpretation, The Art of Contact destabilizes categories such as orientalism and Hellenism and offers fresh perspectives on Greek and Phoenician art history.

The Art of Contact
Comparative Approaches to Greek and Phoenician Art

S. Rebecca Martin

2017 | 320 pages | Cloth $59.95
Classics | Archaeology | Fine Art
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Culture, Contact, and Art History: Framing the Theoretical Landscape
Chapter 2. Arts of Contact
Chapter 3. Exceptional Greeks and Phantom Phoenicians
Chapter 4. The Rise of Phoenicianism
Chapter 5. Hybridity, the Middle Ground, and the "Conundrum of 'Mixing'"

Works Cited

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Here is the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus so that things done by man not be forgotten in time and that great and marvelous deeds, some by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory; and especially that the causes may be remembered for which these waged war with one another. Those of the Persians who have knowledge of history declare that the Phoenicians were the cause of the dispute.—Herodotos, Histories, proem (1.1.1-1.5.4), trans. after Godley, 1963
The proem (1.1.1-1.5.4) to Herodotos's history of the Greek-Persian Wars is a discussion of causation. For good reason is it one of the most studied passages in classical history. Herodotos begins by relating the long-standing conflict between Europe and Asia from the points of view of the Greeks' chief antagonists, Persian and Phoenician barbaroi (barbarians, foreigners; see Maps 1-4). He is characteristically balanced and skeptical about these accounts: "Among the Persians, the learned men say that the Phoenicians were the cause of the dispute." According to Herodotos's Persian sources, Phoenician traders kidnapped Io, among other Argive women, and carried them off to Egypt. No particular reason is cited for this deed. Perhaps Io's kidnapping occurred, simply, because both were there? In revenge, some Greeks then kidnapped the king of Tyre's daughter Europa.

Despite the clear fragmentation of these episodes, they set off a chain of female abductions, including Medea's and Helen's, that in turn led to the sometimes ruinous pursuit of the abductees. The Persians say they only got involved when Greeks made incursions into Asia with the invasion of Troy (1.4.4). The Phoenicians of course denied their part (1.5). They claimed that Io had ingratiated herself to the Phoenician captain, became pregnant, and ran off on his ship to Egypt in shame and "of her own free will" (cf. 1.4.2). To Herodotos, all this attention paid to the kidnapping and attempted recovery of women was folly. Critique of the "cherchez la femme" cycle of fate is implied.

As far as Greek-Phoenician contact studies go, there is something to learn in these Persian tales. At first it is surprising that Herodotos's Persian sources do not blame the Greeks from the outset, or not directly; rather they blame their own subject-allies, the Phoenicians, using Greek mythology to do so. It is interesting how the Phoenicians are said to have turned the tables on the story. In claiming that Io left Argos of her own free will, they frame the Greeks as jealous, impudent, and thoroughly guilty. In this tale, the rapes of Europa and Medea, not of Io, set off the cycle of fate. Whereas the Persian account promotes Phoenician desire for Greek women, the Phoenician account suggests instead the desirability of a foreign ship captain to a well-born Greek girl. It is hard to deny the humor in this part of the prologue as seen through the eyes of barbaroi (compare it to Xerxes's incredulous reaction to the naked, hair-combing Spartans in book 7). I agree with those who do not see in these tales genuine history writing. Yet we should take the passage seriously for what it says about the perceived differences between Greeks and barbaroi, especially when the "Persian tales"—not Io's journey to Egypt—are given the responsibility of articulating the separation of Europe and Asia. By placing the story in the context of these conflicts, however they are parodied, the difference between Europe and Asia is framed in political, not "natural," terms, as something "historically determined rather than essential." It is a compelling idea with which to begin.

Many attempts have been made to sort through and characterize just this kind of intense interaction in the eastern Mediterranean in which the coastal Levant was a regular participant. The tension in the ancient accounts between the accidental, coincidental, or historical and the essential, structural, or inevitable carries on, although, as I argue in this book, most scholarship draws at least a little bit from both sides. Greek-Phoenician studies are typically concerned with the idea of influence resulting from physical proximity and the abstract notion of "culture contact." Common topics are colonization and two intense periods of interaction in the Iron Age and in the Classical and Hellenistic eras, referred to as "Orientalizing" and "Hellenization," respectively. Critique of the latter is where this study began.

Hellenization is a problematic and dissatisfying term thought to describe an acculturation process through which people become more Greek. Notwithstanding the recent emphasis on conscious choice, Hellenization is frequently presented as the inevitable result of culture contact—the result of the use of Greek-made objects by a non-Greek person—nearly always without addressing the agency of the human actors or the influential objects (compare the Persian account of the abduction of Io). Hellenization presupposes that interaction with Greeks or their art leads to acculturation and assimilation, which are characterized by changes to non-Greeks with different, limited, or no impact on Greeks themselves. A similar Hellenocentrism is apparent in studies of the earlier Orientalizing phenomenon that tend to generalize external "input" and frame the Greek art that responded to it as exceptional. I wish to emphasize at the outset that my criticisms of Hellenization and Orientalizing are not just critiques of these terms, although that discussion matters very much, but in fact are fundamental critiques of the concepts' merits. As I will argue, Hellenization and Orientalization by any other names are just as flawed.

Although its proponents now tend to describe it as an active process on the part of the Hellenized, Hellenization nevertheless assumes a center-to-periphery model. It relies on the idea that cultures or ethnicities are delineated clearly—a debatable notion, and one that is undermined further by some striking behavioral parallels manifest in Greeks and Phoenicians that complicate up front the understanding of how they changed in response to contact. To the idea that contact results in acculturation and assimilation may be added the outcomes of bilingualism, syncretization, hybridity, and creolization, which have had some traction in the many book-length studies and anthologies about the relationship of Greece and the East. Of these alternate models, hybridity is currently the most popular in ancient Mediterranean studies, though, as I will argue, it can serve as another proxy for acculturation. Hence this book requires at least brief reconsideration of the ideas of culture and acculturation; of what it meant to be, become, or behave like a Greek or Phoenician; and of modern scholars' ability to define their boundaries and interactions from the available evidence. The discussion will avoid the idea that Greek cultural imperialism was inevitable.

The Art of Contact is written with a classical audience in mind, particularly for those interested in Greek-Near Eastern contact studies, art history, and historical methods. Its premise is straightforward: the methods we use to study ancient history shape our perceptions of it; art histories of the first millennium BCE Mediterranean are dominated by misleading primordialist narratives; and, while these narratives have been effectively critiqued since at least the 1980s, the fields of classical and Phoenician art history have not really moved on. Many scholars are willing to embrace some hard-won ideas (such as Greek receptivity to Near Eastern craft) and terminology (such as agency, hybridity, and networks), but much Greek art history remains essentialist and chauvinistic. Why? The reasons, I argue, can be found in our basic understanding of what "Greeks" and "Greek art" were and how both concepts are used to prefigure the presumed political and cultural triumph of Greece. Core characteristics of the field of classical art history, one of which is evident in its very name, encourage its resistance to methodological change—a criticism of classics made already by Edward Said in the late 1970s. One result is that the rise of culture studies in classics has mostly increased Hellenocentrism and helped fix racial ideas about ancient Greeks. Recent interest in Punes and Phoenicians has only somewhat shifted this discourse and certainly has not undone the East/West dichotomy. Yet I neither call for an end to positivism nor espouse a new, overarching theoretical model. Rather, Art of Contact takes a long but selective view of Greek and Phoenician art and artistic interaction, and a holistic view of their modern study, in order to advocate for greater awareness of the relationship between theory and the writing of ancient (art) history.

It should be clear, I hope, that I am not following longue durée approaches that deemphasize events over long-term processes. Rather I am trying to use a handful of works of art ("events") over a reasonably long stretch of time to critique still-popular dichotomies, evaluate terminology, and destabilize ideas about fixed long-term processes. Geographically and chronologically diverse case studies are preferred to the sustained study of a particular time, place, or class of objects, because the problems of interpretation I wish to address are, I believe, pervasive. A comprehensive study would not suit. Of course it would be idle to deny that the decisions I have made are personally intriguing. I work in the eastern Mediterranean and so have favored the region with which I am most intimately familiar. Yet I think it is important to avoid emphasizing the "Mediterranean context" as a perfect route to understanding, because the idea of a single Mediterranean context, no matter how connected, is false, and the complementary notion of a Greek or Phoenician context is in itself often quite problematic. Since culture and context are always problematic in the study of Phoenicia, "Phoenicia" is an important idea to study, not least of all in comparison to our much more comprehensive notions about "Greece."

Some of the particular objects that make up the case studies come from quite clear contexts, such as coins minted in fifth- and fourth-century Sidon and Tyre. Others—from Hellenistic Delos, for example—were selected precisely because of the difficulty (often impossibility) of assigning a clear-cut cultural context to their site of manufacture, display, or deployment. Through these case studies, I hope to balance the familiar with the less known, to underscore that problems of interpretation are not particular to only some objects of contact some of the time, such as objects made in "contact zones," but rather to all arts of contact every time they appear. Accordingly, the discussion moves in time and space to keep it from growing too comfortable with any one area or idea, to maintain a healthy critical attitude as much as possible. Ultimately I find the case studies representative of the kind of challenges that we face in contact and comparative studies. In selecting them, I hope to show how art can contribute to the understanding of Greek and Phoenician identities as well as Greek-Phoenician relationships. Thus, while critical and to some extent minimalist, this book is not pessimistic about the possibility of writing Greek and Phoenician art histories.

My claim that art is a key tool in the understanding of Greek-Phoenician contact is not in itself new, and in several respects it reflects traditional priorities in the field of Greek art history, notably the theory of style. I am attempting to espouse an alternate approach to this fundamental issue, however, one that proceeds from criticism of grand narrative contact histories, and one that sees no important distinctions for historians between the terms "art," "craft," and "material culture." Although many of the examples that follow are recognizable as "art," I am not concerned here with the problem of fine arts (les beaux arts) versus minor arts or crafts, as it seems to me that we can use the term "art" in the sense of expressive object. It is nonetheless important to keep in mind that ancient people could and did distinguish between arts and crafts, artists and craftsmen, some being held in higher esteem. Likewise, if we were to think of "craftsmen" in our sense of laborer, they should be distinguished from "artists," because art is expressive in a way that other utilitarian objects that constitute a material culture might not necessarily be. I am not interested in all the kinds of artifacts that compose material culture. I write here about metal bowls, not hammers; marble statues, not chisels; coins, not dies. While it would be possible to make the case that metal- and stone-working tools are expressive objects, I do not necessarily see them as such. They do not fit my understanding of art and are not as interesting to me in terms of what they express about responses to contact.

But as James Porter and others have pointed out, all arts and crafts result from material manipulation, suggesting that, as in the contest of line drawing between Apelles and Protogenes (Pliny HN 35.81-83), all artists are craftsmen—are makers—of some sort. So one might argue that not all craftsmen are artists, but that certain practices, such as signing works of gems and sculpture, and mosaics and pottery, transcend genre distinctions (cf. Hephaistos, Il. 18.478-614). Put simply, the lines between these categories are blurry and not always important. I subscribe to the claim that "works of art are a form of address," and, "like most forms of address, they demand a response." This kind of expressive object is at the center of the case studies used here.

Principles and Aims of the Project

The story of the interaction of Greeks, Phoenicians, and their neighbors is as challenging as it is compelling. It must be assembled from a variety of sources—historical and literary, archaeological and art historical—each of which offers its own, limited, perspective. Only occasionally does any one of the four support the others. The often-recognized imbalance of the written evidence—overwhelmingly Greek—encourages us to take on a Hellenic literary perspective even when the focus, as here, is on objects. It is, therefore, important to state at the outset that any classicist will approach the Near East through the varied stereotypes of the Greek record, and Phoenicia offers little to a discussion thus defined. So, in addition to pursuing the question of what it is we mean when we speak of "Greeks" and "Phoenicians," a major goal of this book is to articulate what is signaled by their respective artistic labels. The advantage of focusing on a theme—art and behaviors that seem to be produced by contact—is that it allows us to compare our methods, reveal biases, and explore different theories. By locating the study in the first millennium, the book takes a view of these artistic traditions in a way that engages the classical canon and the impact of the "non-Western" world on Western visual conventions. I will stress that acknowledging interaction and mixing is only a place to begin, not an explanation or argument in itself.

Four principles guide the project. The first principle is simple: barbarians matter. Direct contact between Greeks and others—in particular the peoples of the Near East—is the main reason Hellenists find themselves studying non-Greek people. Non-Greek peoples contextualized Greek behaviors, contributed to Greek patterns of thought, and, especially through colonization and conflict, provoked the self-fashioning of the Hellene. Following Walter Burkert, we understand that the so-called Orientalizing phenomenon was attributable not only to the trade in raw goods and cultural products but also to the migration of people from the Near East; following Sarah Morris, we know that the effect of the Near East on Greek art and literature of the Iron Age was profound; following Ann Gunter, we understand how to locate this process in history; and following Margaret Miller, we know that the emulation of Persians was a real phenomenon even in a Classical Athens "obsessed" with ethnic difference. Yet, foreign peoples—here Phoenicians—should matter to us not only for what they can tell us about Greeks but also because they are interesting and important in their own right. Their artistic traditions show what other choices were made by people experiencing similar "global" events and employing similar materials. I do not wish to imply falsely that Phoenicians and Punes are unpopular; quite the reverse, especially in Italy. Rather I am suggesting that in Greek-Phoenician comparative studies it is incumbent upon Hellenists to take the Phoenician component seriously. Accordingly, I juxtapose the Greek and Phoenician artistic traditions to elucidate both. One goal of doing so is to challenge the very canons that delineate them.

Throughout this book I attempt to distinguish between "Hellenes" as an ancient ethnocultural group and "Greeks" as a group forged by modern scholarship, and "Hellas" as regions inhabited by Hellenes and "Greece" as the scholarly idea of ancient Greece that correlates to a great extent with the modern nation of Greece. Such distinctions are not always clear and can be fraught, but the attempt serves, I hope, to emphasize that the convenience of referring to a loose, largely nonnationalistic, and, especially in Alexander's day, mixed group of people as "Greeks" from "Greece" obscures a rather complex picture. The monolithic term "Greeks" encourages polarization and facile contrast with "others." The term "Phoenician" is, of course, at least equally problematic as an entirely etic term. The Greek record suggests that "phoinikes" is an "all-embracing [term], enveloping the whole range of Semitic peoples from the Levantine region, without distinction." The name really cannot map on to the region in any meaningful way or on to our modern usage of the term "Phoenician" to refer to a people whose mainland was bounded, approximately, by the geography of modern Lebanon.

The second guiding principle of the project is rather less simple: proper use of theory is our responsibility. In juxtaposing Phoenician and Greek art, we can compare different reactions to similar historical, social, and economic stimuli. The comparison gives us the opportunity to reexamine our patterns of thinking about ancient people as well—to reexamine our methodology or theoretical principles. This self-consciousness is important because the field of classics is not a discipline, per se, but a commitment to the study of ancient history primarily through Greece and Rome. Training is rigorous, especially as concerns languages and source criticism, but while it does enshrine institutional perspectives, classics does not tend to articulate particular approaches to thinking about the past. It is not a methodology. Training in adjacent disciplines is often expressly theoretical, allowing its practitioners to identify with schools of thought or major theorists. There are Boasian anthropologists, processual archaeologists, Gombrichian art historians, and so forth. There is a healthy number of theorists working in classics, with pioneering work appearing in areas such as prehistory; memory and symbol cognition; phenomenology and landscape; postcolonialism; the expressly theoretical cultural journal Arethusa; and so on. Yet theory itself is not now pervasive in the Anglo-American tradition of classical studies, nor has it ever been.

If the term "theory" itself provokes discomfort, we can replace it with a variety of euphemisms, as I do here: approaches, points of view, and so on. But in these more friendly phrases we lose, I think, the constant reminder that inquiries about the past rest on a series of decisions we have made, not on incontestable truths. Because so much remains of the historical record of Greco-Roman antiquity—because classics is, relatively speaking, spoiled for choice—no study can or should attempt to engage all available data in any given area. Such a task is impossible and undesirable; we must be selective—but selective how? Here is the point where theory comes in, or should come in, because methods are shaped by theoretical perspectives whether or not we acknowledge them. While other periods of art history might be more or less (but rarely not at all) expressly theoretical, it is not unusual for Greek or Roman art history to consider itself unconcerned with theory, to frame "doing theory" as a choice, or to praise work for being free of jargon. Most classical art and archaeology is proudly atheoretical or theoretical only on a systems level, rarely on the level of the object. I believe that it is a mistake to deny the critical role of theory to all forms of object-centered or social history writing.

Through the juxtaposition of current approaches to Greek and Phoenician art history, I argue that theory is a responsibility that must be taken more seriously. Our main framework for studying the classical past is culture, and culture is a theory. Further, a major framework for the study of ancient art is style, and style is also a theory. Some art historians believe that even the act of looking is guided by theory. In other words, if we are writing cultural history or using formal analysis to date an object, we are already doing theory. One person's jargon is another person's critical terminology, and it is impossible to claim that classics or Near Eastern studies should strenuously avoid using terms and ideas unfamiliar in everyday discourse in order to increase their accessibility to nonspecialists. As I hope to demonstrate here, a number of theories have the potential to make deeper inroads into classics because they form clear bridges between the empirical and the interpretative. Contextual-based middle-range theories and hermeneutics offer interpretive structures for moving from artifacts to interpretation of behaviors/processes to evaluation of those interpretations. They can also lack some of the irrational dogmatism that many people tend to associate with the term "theory," and disdain. Whatever approaches are used, I believe it is important to retain the term "theory" as a vivid reminder that not everything we consider important about the past was or can be measured scientifically (for which, some would say, see already Beazley).

The third and fourth principles guiding the project are: contact makes critical contributions to the expressions of identity in art, and art is where we might learn the most about Phoenician collective identity. This book is a call to use theoretically informed approaches to better understand what we mean by collective identity, context, and contact and how these key contributors to the human experience operated in antiquity. I show that interaction can have a variety of effects on art and behavior, from little discernible impact to significant, if sometimes subtle or unanticipated, changes. Again we can see that Art of Contact is not attempting to replace universalizing acculturation with a new theory; rather it eschews universalism in favor of theories of interaction and art history that challenge the status quo. Art history is important for this relationship, as it offers a legitimate and intellectually rigorous set of approaches even for the study of objects that have suffered from radical recontextualization and decontextualization. Social theories are among the most popular ways to study objects at present, but I do not believe they are always the best (or only) ways to understand how art objects were made, valued, or functioned. Art history and art criticism encourage the study of connections between the immaterial (such as aesthetics) and their expression in the object. And while objects can be used to talk about various social processes (such as interrelationships), I am certain that we should also talk about art itself.

Each chapter that follows contains a methodological study of limited scope, bounded by genre, chronology, and context. Each slowly builds the case that interaction affects art in a way not fully explained by current models. The chapters are arranged in thematic, roughly chronological, order. Chapter 1 serves as an introduction to the main stakes in the book. It begins with critiques of major terms and concepts—Orientalizing and Hellenization, culture, material culture and art, culture contact—before offering brief introductions to Greek and Phoenician art history as they relate to this study. Chapter 2 shows how the apparent advantages of traditional approaches are often instead limiting. It focuses first on Greek art history by juxtaposing the kouros and the Hellenistic picture mosaic. It aims to expose the double standard of Orientalizing and Hellenization in eastern Mediterranean art history. I conclude that an original, and possibly lasting, goal of the kouros was to emulate Egyptian art, whereas the Hellenistic picture mosaic should be understood as a Mediterranean—not "purely Greek"—craft produced by interaction and elite patronage. The chapter concludes by introducing a category of Phoenician art, the anthropoid sarcophagus, that is caught in the crosshairs of Orientalizing and Hellenization. I show how various attempts to make these objects derivative of foreign art have impaired the understanding of how and why the first Phoenician monumental art form came to be.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 explore how we came to understand the meanings of "Greek," "Phoenician," and their artistic traditions. Chapter 3 builds on Chapter 2's conclusions to show how essentialism shapes our perceptions of ancient people. I argue that race was and is a major factor in the drawing of Greeks as exceptional relative to their neighbors, a truth that we must acknowledge rather than disguise as culture. The chapter attempts to set out some main characteristics of Greek art but suggests that there is no evidence of a "Phoenician art" in the Iron Age. Instead, I follow those who see Phoenicia and Phoenicians of this period as literary constructs rather than ontological categories. Nonetheless it is clear from the ancient record that beginning in the later Iron Age, the city-states we associate with Phoenicia grew together politically. It is under Achaemenid rule that Phoenician identity most clearly emerges in the archaeological record. Following on that claim, Chapter 4 uses examples of monumental and portable art to show how Phoenician collective identities were represented. I conclude that Phoenicianism (the term I use to describe collective Phoenician identity) does exist after all; but it is evident archaeologically only beginning in the late sixth and fifth centuries when the rise of the Achaemenid Empire created the conditions for the growth of regional identities. In Chapter 5, I scale down the discussion further, by considering the value of two theories—hybridity and Richard White's middle ground—to our understanding of two specific works of sculpture, one each produced in Sidon and Delos: the "Alexander Sarcophagus" and the "Slipper Slapper," respectively. I argue for the limited and cautious use of hybridity and middle-ground theory for understanding eastern Mediterranean art and show how neither work can be understood fully until it is approached as part of Phoenician art history. The chapter closes by sketching the persistent challenges of Phoenician art and cautiously beginning to define it.

The book's Conclusion reflects on the art of contact through two lenses: originality and the idea of the artwork as an agent, perhaps a quasi-autonomous one. I review the examples that have come before to emphasize the relationship between theories, methodologies, and outcomes achieved in an effort to further characterize Phoenician art and challenge the idea that Greek art, although indebted to other traditions, was exceptional. I stress that originality is not an objective feature of ancient art and suggest that the now-popular theory of art agency is not novel, because art history has been interested in critical object-centered methodologies since at least the late nineteenth century. Nonetheless, I conclude that the current version of art agency is an important tool to understanding artistic interaction; it might be a useful way to reinvigorate the study of works of Iron Age art called (carelessly, in my view) "Phoenician." Finally, I call for a few objectives for future studies of Greek and Phoenician art history that respond to the principles outlined in this Introduction.