On Not Writing the History of Roman Art

Article excerpt

A centipede was strolling along when a journal editor came by and asked, "How do you know which foot to put down first?"

It was days before the centipede could walk again, and weeks before she could stroll.

Looking at this title, ART> < to lead the one element inside the other. So what should this essay do besides bemoaning the problem? My training is in Roman art, so the ideas I'll put forward here are born of some problems that arise from working in this field; Roman art seems to me to pose an interesting challenge not only to the ever-more destabilized terms ART and HISTORY but also to the processes of writing ART HISTORY. I address two primary questions: how do we understand the concept of audience? and how might we more effectively engage multiple social categories such as gender and class as we discuss the production as well as the reception of visual materials?

Just because the terms ART and HISTORY are so unstable at present doesn't mean I'm not duty bound, as are we all, to keep wondering what they might be or how to talk about them. But to be a feminist working on Roman art is to be in the position of having always to confront the arbitrariness of modern ideas about these two terms. After all, the Roman art that I study--the political monuments of the provinces, the shop signs, the statues of naked middle-class matrons--has long been marginalized by traditional art history as interesting (maybe) but unlovely; yet it, like the coins, the stamped pottery, and the mundane wall paintings that share so much with Nay York coffee-shop murals, constitutes the material production of a world in which the category of ART differs substantially from that of the postmedieval world. The container ART must stretch so wide that it begins to change shape altogether, and the term, in its early modern and modern senses, must be replaced by "material production" with its implications of the writing of a history broader than

narrative of objects in their relations to one another. The Romans had their own category of ART-Pliny, we remember, declared art dead after a certain date; they had their aesthetic objects, too: statues, cameos, silver, paintings on marble, and these demanded both refined classicizing tastes and an appreciation of fine materials and complex techniques.(1) But the moment we ask, WHICH ROMANS?, the difference between ART and material production comes into sharp relief. The Romans who wrote about art, who collected it, were men of the urban elites, largely from the city of Rome or other metropolitan centers, and for them the value in an object came from its luxurious or evocative materials, the degree of its resemblance to nature (in other words, its technical excellence or its relation to a classical ideal), or its ability to remind the viewer of other--ennobling--times and places. The ART of these men resonates with the Neoclassicism of Winckelmann, but for a later generation it posed the burdensome problem of how to identify Romanness in Roman art, how to put together this slice of Roman art with all the others out there and make a coherent narrative of it.(2) Those others, the provincial and frontier monuments, the coins and pots, the things made for enslaved and freed men and women, for soldiers or artisans, or for prosperous nonelite individuals and families in towns and rural areas all over, these refUsed to fit into the narrative, refUsed to be silenced by a formalist early twentieth-century art history that could not find a place for them as long as it still tried to write a coherent history of style. Thus, in thinking about the decorative forms of late antiquity and the origins of medieval art, Alois Riegl associated Roman production with the early Middle Ages rather than the Greek world; this functions as both an attempted solution to the problem of where to put Roman art in a historical narrative and, at the same time, as a capitulation to the linear notion of history. …