Today I discussed plaster casts of Classical works with my students from an introductory survey course in Art History. They had to read a few different materials and then watch a video from Cornell called “Firing the Canon” about efforts among faculty, staff, and students there to work with and on the cast collection that has been relegated to a little used warehouse.
When I asked my students the kinds of themes and questions we can pose for considering plaster casts, they came up with a good number. Things like:
- Philhellenism (love of ancient Greek culture)
- “canon” and standards of art and beauty
- meaning is contingent (on culture, society, time, and place)
- “whiteness” vs. “Other”
Through some good conversation and considerations of several photographs we were able to tease apart some additional issues for these kinds of objects and collections:
- accessibility and reproducibility
- differences in photographic reproductions and plaster cast reproductions
- visibility of Greek or Roman cultural production but the potential to de-value, detract from, or sideline the material culture, visual forms, and even the bodies belonging to other groups/societies/geographic locations
- why the popularity of cast collections has decreased since the 1970s and how motivations to work against the “canon” can also be related to efforts toward Civil Rights and other movements of the time
- how “copying” today is denigrated as “bad” or “lazy” but in another time and place (Ancient Rome) it could mean something very different–something elevating, beautiful, and honorific (repetition has its own merits and can carry a variety of meanings that aren’t necessarily believed in our contemporary moment).
While many of our modern values for art and beauty can be tied to Classical sculpture, they don’t reflect the ways in which Classical sculpture was seen in its moment of creation.
We considered examples such as:
Also considered the pros and cons of viewing works in 3-dimensions as opposed to 2-dimensions and viewed numerous photographs of The Winged Victory of Samothrace in various locations and contexts to help us think them through. Photographs can hide and reveal various details and information but always when an object is transformed from 3-dimensions to 2-dimensions information is lost. You inherently will lose something–whether a view of its back, a view from a top, a view of its base, or considerations of scale, or what it feels like to encounter that object in different locations. The images below are a selection of those that we considered.
Actually viewing a famous work in person can be a vastly different experience than doing viewing it from a photographic reproduction via computer screen or textbook page.
Textbooks and other art historical resources frequently separate objects from their usual environments–which also changes our engagement and our understanding of an object.
We ended by tying these ideas together–authenticity/authorship, original/copy/reproduction, space & place, cultural context, Philhellenism, and so on–with this final image. Its caption will give you additional context.
**You can find out more about each image depicted here by simply clicking on them. They are hyperlinked to take you to the source pages for where they were found. Each was originally accompanied by another text, by another author, who can offer additional insights or considerations.