The Gory That Was Greece

It’s not surprising that much of the attention focused on the newly refurbished Greek and Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been lavished on the building rather than the art-on New Yorkers, that is, rather than the Greeks. Michael Kimmelman declared in The New York Times that the renovated wing is “the most spectacular space to be opened in New York City since the renovation of Grand Central Terminal”; in The New Yorker , Calvin Tomkins made a few passing references to the artwork in a piece otherwise largely devoted to the history of the “nobly proportioned” galleries in this, “the nation’s greatest museum.” And why not? The Greeks have been part of our cultural kit for so long, and the accouterments of their civilization have become so comfy and familiar-Olympics, democracy, nice pecs-that they’ve become almost transparent. “Is your figure less than Greek?” Lorenz Hart asked, casually, in “My Funny Valentine.” Nobody wants to look like the jackal-headed Egyptian divinities you see just across the hall from the new galleries-everybody at the gym wants to look “like a Greek god.”

Appearances can be deceiving. To the satisfaction of pretty much everyone but the most conservative culture warriors, the past generation of classical scholarship has demonstrated just how “exotic and distant” (to quote one recent volume on Attic vase-painting) the Greek world is. If the Athenians’ refined achievements in politics and art and philosophy make them appear familiar and reassuringly Western and even modern to us, they were also a people who organized themselves, like Native Americans, by tribe; whose “everyday” china featured images that would make Tom of Finland blush; whose idea of respectable churchgoing was to get all dolled up in their Sunday best and kill some piglets, the rotting bodies of which they would dig up a few months later. Greek democracy is nice, and somehow culturally reassuring, but what about Greek slavery?

There’s no question that the new installation is a vast improvement on the past-not the ancient past, but the Met’s past. The artifacts, selected from the Met’s superb, gigantic collection, are intelligently annotated and-eschewing the grandma’s-attic approach of earlier times-crisply displayed. The statuary in the main room, the 140-foot-long Mary and Michael Jaharis Gallery, which runs parallel to Fifth Avenue, has been organized in meaningful clusters that successfully fill the space (thereby alleviating the feeling that the room is merely a drafty corridor to the still awful, still ridiculously overpriced restaurant). Two adjacent Roman copies of the

“Diadoumenos,” a work by the High Classical Greek sculptor Polykleitos powerfully convey how a canon of artistic “classics” was already being established and promulgated during ancient times.

But many of the objects are presented in ways clearly intended to emphasize not esthetic or art-historical points, but rather social “themes” and everyday human activities; the effect is to make the Greeks seem not all that different from you and me. One vase, depicting a matron choosing jewelry, is placed next to a bronze hand-mirror; another, showing athletes in competition, shares a vitrine with an aryballos , the little ceramic oil bottle such athletes would have carried around the locker room. Calvin Tomkins found the juxtaposition of a painting of a woman holding a phiale , a ritual vase, with a fourth-century B.C. silver phiale , “oddly moving.” It made him think of Matisse.

What about thinking about the Greeks? The new exhibition is informative and elegant, but too often the attempts to provide meaningful historical and sociological context (as opposed to casual surface resemblances) fall short: There are minor omissions whose cumulative effect is to rob the Greeks of their real strangeness. A text describing a fifth-century B.C. marble relief of a maenad (a female Dionysiac groupie) dutifully notes her ritual attire, says something about Bacchic revels and makes a high-minded reference to Euripides’ Bacchae -but tastefully neglects to mention that the matrons who attended the annual Dionysiac ritual were occasionally inspired to go whole hog: to indulge in the ritual dismemberment and eating of wild animals. Some wall text placed next to a prize-amphora, typical of those given for victors in regional games, points out that “athletic contests became a unifying, peacemaking force” in Greek culture; I’d like to see something about the way in which the idea of competition fueled every aspect of Greek culture-not only in sports but in the arts, politics and law. The Athenians enjoyed-and deserved-their reputation as the most litigious people on earth. One of the reasons I first loved the Greeks, and wanted to study them, was their sheer cantankerousness: They reminded me of my contentious Jewish relatives.

On a recent visit, I saw that a lot of people were wandering around the central sculpture gallery, gazing at the barrel-vaulted ceiling. It’s not hard to understand why: The statues are bound to fade somewhat into the background in a room clad in limestone of almost exactly the same sandy-gray as the figures themselves. But of course, in ancient times those marble figures were garishly gilded and painted in lifelike, decidedly un-Martha Stewart colors; the Met’s color scheme seems to have been chosen to match the statues as they are now-visual clichés of classical purity-rather than as they once were. That’s as apt a metaphor as I can think of for the uneasy relationship between the Met (which is to say, us) and the Greeks. Is the installation about them, or about us and our need to feel elevated-to find relief from our own cultural messiness by gazing at artifacts whitewashed of their bizarreness?

The moment you walk into the Met’s Egyptian wing, you’re overwhelmed with texts and photographs and maps and graphs. By contrast, the wall text and item descriptions in the new Greek galleries are terse and more discreetly placed, as if you didn’t really need them. You do need them-and something else that’s missing, too. Blame it on those contrary Greeks, maybe, if not on the Met; certainly not the generous donors whose largesse helped make these galleries possible. They have given the city a fine present; still, even the most spectacular civic space to open in years can’t fully contain the Hellenes themselves-noble, savage, enlightened, inscrutable. But then, one should always beware of gifts bearing Greeks.