The study of Classical art is very unfashionable. For every thousand people who know the name of Damien Hirst, and who believe they are informed about art on account of it, there are probably 50 who could name a work by Michelangelo, five who would know where to find the Gates of Paradise, and (at a pinch and excepting the Venus de Milo) one who could name a single piece of antique sculpture.
The further back you go the less informed people appear to be and the fewer still are those who actually know anything about it. Eventually, as these remaining few die out, we'll draw a line under the past, say around 1250, write off everything prior to that and start the clock again. Awareness and interest, it seems, are in every walk of life skewed heavily and uncritically in favour of the contemporary. Even the Secretary of State for Education considers Medieval history an indulgence - heaven knows what he'd think of a teenager keen to devote years to the temples of Agrigento or the relief sculpture of Babylon. Enjoyment of history and the past is interpreted in official circles nowadays as evidence only of a pathetic and effete avoidance of the present.
This is particularly true of art, where 'Contemporary' rules as a monopoly. To be progressive and forward-looking is all that counts. Any other loyalty is deeply suspect. It has always mystified me why a dull-witted charlatan like Tracey Emin should be considered more contemporary, more capable of arousing responses and worthy of study, than a 2500-year-old statue of an athlete. This obsession with the immediately contemporary is a sad deceit. The best art of whatever period is always contemporary because human thoughts, anxieties and feelings haven't altered much in recent millennia.
Being about as far from contemporary art as you can get, Classical sculpture is overlooked because it is difficult to understand and, at least on a superficial level, irrelevant to modern life. I'm convinced that this general ignorance of Classical sculpture, its sheer distance from us and resistance to being easily understood, is at the root of the reason why the likes of former foreign secretary Robin Cook, former US president Bill Clinton, London Mayor Ken Livingstone and other clever media addicts lend support to the campaign for the restitution to Athens of the Parthenon Marbles. Their arguments lack any conviction or cogency, and one suspects that their first-hand experience of the sculptures is at best through the swiftest of perfunctory visits to Bloomsbury or, more likely, from an emotive television documentary in which half-truths are passed off as facts.
Over 30 years of visiting the British Museum I've come to understand the truth of the argument presented first by former director Robert Anderson and more recently by his successor, Neil McGregor, that the importance of the Parthenon Marbles in the context of other works in the British Museum is unique, profound and unrepeatable elsewhere. This argument could be dismissed on the basis that we art faggots would say that - but I know that Christopher Hitchens' convenient claim that the Parthenon Marbles' removal to London was 'a loss to sculpture and scholarship' could not be further from the truth. On the contrary, the scholarly argument, which will be understood only those willing to study the evolution of sculpture during unquestionably its greatest two centuries, is the most important one against restitution. Although this is the most compelling reason, it is the one least likely to convince. Few will empathise with it because few have learned to see Classical sculpture. Before attempting to describe the thrills of those west-wing rooms to which the Parthenon Marbles are central, I want to rehearse as fairly as possible the other pros and cons most frequently deployed in the debate.
The commonest argument for the return of the Parthenon Marbles is that they were illegally acquired in the first place. Though I have serious reservations about the honesty of Elgin's stated, saintly motives in removing them, not to mention his own optimistic interpretation of the Ottoman Sultan's ambiguous authorisation, there is not a court in Europe that would find against the British Museum's legal ownership of these works. Even the Greek authorities have now realised that contesting title is a non-starter, arguing instead that: 'The marbles are best seen and understood in the context of the Parthenon for which they were made.' This is seductive as sentiment but far from persuasive as argument. It might be more convincing if two-fifths of the Parthenon frieze and a large proportion of one pediment were not already in Athens giving a flavour of what the Parthenon was like when it was completed in 432BC.
Precisely how helpful is it, really, to have all the sculptures in the same place? Extremely useful to scholars but an irrelevance to everyone else. None of the Parthenon's sculptures now resembles in any way what first appeared on the building. To start with, the iconography is uncertain. The precise meaning, therefore, not to mention their exact ordering on the building, has proved elusive. Additionally, all the colour, gilding, weaponry and the white-deadening toning which we know was applied to the blinding raw marble have been removed. The truth is that we cannot begin to imagine today either the full significance of the sculptures in terms of their original meaning or, most critically, of their original appearance. And if we could we might be disappointed. Am I alone in not regretting the loss of Pheidias's ghastly-sounding, gigantic chryselephantine Athena housed in the Parthenon's cella, and what must have been the gaudy spectacle of the same building's brightly polychromed frieze high up in the half-light of an inner passage? If we could see them precisely as designed and executed we might consider them more appropriate to Disneyland than to a fully paid-up Wonder of the World. [more (a lot more)]