Serious Art

MURRAY WHITE

October 21, 1992|By MURRAY WHITE

WASHINGTON — Washington.--When Americans vote on November 3, we will pay homage to the Greek invention of democracy. Less than three weeks later, we will pay homage to an equally great product of ancient Greece -- the art masterpieces of its classical era.

Twenty-two of Greece's grandest sculptures from the 5th century B.C. -- most of which have never left Greek soil -- will go on view November 22 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Entitled ''The Greek Miracle: Classical Sculpture from the Dawn of Democracy,'' the exhibit will travel to New York's Metropolitan Museum in the spring.

Greece has agreed to lend us these irreplaceable national treasures as part of a year-long celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the birth of democracy, which is generally considered to have occurred with the reforms promulgated by Kleisthenes in 508 B.C. in the small city-state of Athens.

Ironically, the American visit of these hallmarks of art history -- including a portion of the Parthenon frieze -- comes at a time when our nation is discussing the relationship between art and ++ civic life with more fervor than probably at any other time in our history.

Vice President Quayle's pointed references to ''Murphy Brown''

and the ''cultural elite''; the police unions' opposition to Ice-T's ''Cop Killer'' song; Patrick Buchanan's attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts -- all these episodes show the unprecedented prominence which Americans now give to the question of how we want art to influence, or not influence, society.

Although there is a strong temptation to try to draw analogies between the role art played in the lives of the ancient Greeks and the role it plays in our lives today, it is virtually impossible to do so accurately. As Robert Goldwin, a prominent constitutional scholar, points out: ''Sculpture was to ancient Athens as advertising is to the United States today.''

This observation has particular resonance in light of an incident which occurred in August. The Coca-Cola Company's Italian division ran a full-page ad in an Italian newspaper in which the columns of the Parthenon were depicted in the shape of Coke bottles. When offended Greeks protested that this was an insult to a temple they revere, Coke officials quickly apologized and stopped running the ad.

According to the Associated Press, a Coke executive explained that, ''There was no malice involved. They weren't aware of the depth of feelings Greeks have for the Acropolis.''

One reason that Greeks continue to have such strong feelings about art that was created in the 5th century B.C. is that it was imbued with a deep sense of seriousness and austerity. Art enabled ancient Greek viewers to attain a heightened level of contemplation which was useful in their ongoing internal struggle with the conflicting impulses of Apollonian reason and Dionysian passion.

Most significantly, art taught them how to live a life based upon the Greek ideal of ''sophrosyne'' -- which translates as ''moderation.'' On a societal scale, moderation was essential to the smooth functioning of a system of government in which, according to the great Athenian statesman Pericles, ''administration is not in the hands of the few, but of the many.''

The key to success both for an ancient Greek individual and for democracy itself was summed up by an immortal slogan carved into the shrine at Delphi: ''Nothing in Excess.''

Obviously, this message has unlimited potential for curing a myriad of America's current malignancies, such as widespread violence and the decline of values. Unfortunately individuals who, from society's viewpoint, are most in need of learning the importance of moderation -- for example, convicted criminals and criminals-in-waiting -- are unlikely to be among the hordes visiting ''The Greek Miracle'' in Washington and New York.

People fortunate enough to see this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition will be able to improve the health of our democracy by extracting as much wisdom as possible from the masterpieces and afterward spreading the message of moderation, either consciously or unconsciously, throughout the nation.

After the sculptures return to Greece in May, let us hope that their sterling messages will linger in America's psyche long enough for democracy to flourish here for the next 2,500 years.

Murray White writes about the arts and works at the American Enterprise Institute.

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