LONDON – A recent opinion piece in the Guardian newspaper draws a simple and straightforward conclusion: 1) the Parthenon Marbles are the world’s most beautiful art; and 2) therefore, they should be returned to Greece.
Guardian art writer Jonathan Jones, referencing his trip to the Acropolis Museum, which he describes as “state-of-the-art,” and makes the case that returning them to the Acropolis” has one advantage London can never rival – you can look from the sculptures to the museum’s glass wall and see the Parthenon itself, making a sensual connection between the art and its architectural home.”
Further elaborating on the importance of context, Jones continues: the marbles have “only a handful of rivals in the highest rank of artistic achievement – think Leonardo da Vinci, think Michelangelo.
“But the sculptures of the Parthenon were created 2,000 years before the masterpieces of the Renaissance. They have a life, energy, calm and grandeur all their own. The figures of reclining goddesses from the east pediment, for instance, are daunting yet yielding syntheses of mass and grace that are more like dreams than objects. The veins that throb on the horse-flanks of a centaur; the pathos of animals lowing at the sky as they are led to be sacrificed; such details add up to a consummate beauty that is, I repeat, rivalled only by the greatest art of the Renaissance.
“If the Sistine Chapel frescoes had been detached from their ceiling in the 19th century and hung on the walls of the National Gallery, would we appreciate them as much? No. We’d struggle to imagine the real power of Michelangelo’s paintings in their original location. We’d miss the thrill of stretching our necks and the excitement of walking through the Vatican to get to them, even the fuss of queuing. Context is all.”
Moreover, Jones contends, it is not just that the Marbles belong back home in Greece, but their current location, besides being inappropriate, is insufficient. “The sad truth is that in the British Museum,” he writes, “the Parthenon sculptures are not experienced at their best. For one thing, they’re shown in a grey, neoclassical hall whose stone walls don’t contrast enough with these stone artworks – it is a deathly space that mutes the greatest Greek art instead of illuminating it. So if the British Museum wants to keep these masterpieces it needs to find the money to totally redisplay them in a modern way.”
Or, England could just return them to Greece, where such a state-of-the art museum already exists, he argues.
As much as Jones would like to see the Marbles returned to Greece, he does not wholly support Greece’s accusation that Lord Elgin simply “carried off” the Marbles. Jones gives Elgin, and England, credit for preserving the Marbles, keeping them in “superb physical condition,” contrasted with the deteriorated state of their counterparts on the Acropolis in Athens, which suffered considerable damage, particularly during the pollution-laden 1970s.
Jones’ point is that by taking the Marbles, Elgin saved them. But now that Greece is in as good – and even better – a position to care for them, the Marbles should be sent home, where they belong.