In this, our American politics are not classic Greek—despite what the Republicans were saying sarcastically about Obama's Democratic convention stadium stage. Once again, the GOP displays its ignorance of the Greek culture by suggesting the Democrats wear togas to the Obama speech.
Togas are Roman. And our American politics are quite Roman, too, right down to the political elites lounging in their expensive, catered skyboxes—at Republican and Democratic conventions—the lobbyists looking down upon the orator charming the common people with words.
The Roman elites also developed the habit of chattering excitedly about the many virtues of the imperator even though the elites knew better. And these days, our chattering media elites confer unearned virtue on Obama, and earlier, before they became bored with him, piled similar grandeur on John McCain.
In case you didn't watch the spectacle, here's a good photo of the structure from the New York Daily News:
As they note, it does look more like the White House than a Greek temple. WSJ commentator Peggy Noonan suggested:
The famous Greek amphitheatre didn't look all Alexander the Great if you were there. It looked instead like the big front display window at Macy's during Presidents Day Sales Weekend. You expected to see "Sofas 40% off!" in a running line on the bottom of the screen. A friend said the columns looked like "a ballroom divider at the Hyatt Hotel.
Clive Crook in the Financial Times was similarly dismissive about the set:
Who in the world thought that the Greek temple stage-set was right? If the designer’s brief had been ”low-budget hubris”, it worked; by any other standard it was a calamity.
I think Witold Rybczynski in Slate nailed it, though (even if he pondered whether Obama was a "closet Classicist"):
Actually, the Denver setting was a loose (and much smaller) version of the neoclassical colonnade in Chicago's Soldier Field. That structure, part of an athletic stadium designed in 1919 by Holabird & Roche, commemorated World War I soldiers, hence the name.
Philip Kennicot in the Washington Post (painfully) dissected the imagery even more:
There is no more generic architectural statement in the United States than the Greek temple. White columns and classical proportions are the aesthetic DNA of our banks, libraries and office buildings, as well as almost every important structure in Washington, from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. It is the default architectural style of democracy -- and totalitarianism, too.
Which makes criticism of the neoclassical platform on which Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination Thursday evening rather odd. John McCain's campaign mocked the structure -- the "temple of Obama" -- which included simple Doric-style columns supporting a classical entablature. The "Barackopolis," it was claimed, was a sign of Obama's hubris.
The sudden aversion to classical references on the part of Obama's opponents puts them at odds with a distinguished history of conservative scholarship. Conservative academics, invited to speak in Washington, can't seem to get started without reaching for the Greeks. Donald Kagan, a Yale scholar, cited Sophocles, Herodotus, Thucydides and Aristotle in his 2005 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture. Two years later, Harvey Mansfield, another Jefferson lecturer, focused on the Greek idea of thumos -- which means something like "spiritedness."
As the culture wars roiled academia, and classical studies were threatened by multiculturalism, conservatives became possessive in their defense of the Greeks, which irks left-wing classicists, and would confound writers such as I.F. Stone, the progressive journalist who wrote "The Trial of Socrates." The Greeks were volatile people, and their legacy is not easily reduced to "conservative" or "liberal" ideas.
"We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality," said the Athenian leader Pericles in his "Funeral Oration" -- a remarkable expression of tolerance during a time of war. Try selling that, as a Democrat or a Republican, on the hustings -- a term that originally referred to the platform on which a political candidate would speak.
Closer examination of Obama's platform (the architectural, not ideological one) suggests some basic neoclassical precedents, including the Oval Office. That may account for part of the criticism he received: It is presumptuous to assume the trappings of the White House before earning the keys to it. This is hubris, the Greek term for dangerous pride.
It's an idea that Republican National Committee spokesman Danny Diaz emphasized by slyly comparing Obama to a deus ex machina -- the divine figure at the end of a Greek play who sets the world in order.
"It's only appropriate," Diaz said, "that Barack Obama would descend down from the heavens and spend a little time with us mere mortals." Never mind that George Bush gave his 2004 acceptance speech on a very similar husting. Obama's opponents may worry that the deus ex machina idea needs to be mocked so it doesn't get traction. Obama, after all, would love to be seen as someone who can cut through intractable problems and rebalance the political order.
This suggests that the platform wasn't so much a temple as a theater. And indeed, it somewhat resembles a Greek theater with its distinction between the palace, behind, and the public forum in front.
But there's another architectural reference that may have greater resonance. While neoclassicism was the default architectural style across the United States, it became particularly associated with the aristocratic architecture of the antebellum South. Obama wasn't just borrowing ancient precedents, he was unconsciously recalling -- and appropriating -- the look of Tara and dozens of other (real) plantation houses.
Is race involved in the criticism of Obama's "temple"? Perhaps.
Consider an academic debate that roiled classical studies in the 1980s and '90s. This was the "Black Athena" controversy, which centered on claims of Martin Bernal -- a professor of ancient Eastern Mediterranean cultures -- that Greek culture was essentially cribbed from Afro-Asiatic roots. Bernal's book is not held in high repute today, but it fostered an important debate about the role of racism in classical studies.
The vitriol of the discussion also demonstrated the extent to which "classical" culture is equated with "white" culture, even on the most superficial level: white temples, white statues, white marble. Which turns out, of course, to be an illusion of history. Greek temples and statues were routinely painted with vibrant colors.
Efforts to use race against Obama often have centered on a stark juxtaposition of architectural ideas with Obama's blackness: One cartoon circulating on the Internet shows Obama painting the White House black; the controversial July 21 New Yorker cartoon in which he appeared as a terrorist inside the White House, rendered the Oval Office with precise neoclassical details: an arched alcove, molding and wainscoting.
The debate, then, isn't about arrogance, or Greek gods, or hubris. It's about whether Obama can lay claim to an architecture, and a culture, that is perceived as both our collective inheritance, yet is also deeply coded as European and white.
Wow ... apparently it doesn't take much in the U.S. to "lay claim" to something.
Whatever the case, when this rogueclassicist saw the set, he thought not of Athens or Rome, but of Pergamon ... specifically the altar therefrom ... here's a photo from UTexas:
I won't presume to mention what Albert Speer used the Pergamon Altar for (and no, I won't engage in praeteritio) ...
Meanwhile, up here in Canada we keep getting rumours about impending elections calls ourselves ... moves to assert our sovereignty in the Arctic (including furthering the search for ship remains from the Franklin Expedition) are much more interesting effort at 'laying of claims' ...
Amicus noster John McMahon just posted an item from the LA Times by architecture critic Christopher Thorne on the thing which has a couple of things in the same vein ... first a description:
Not content with a basic combination of video screens and slogans, Obama's campaign produced a full-on neoclassical temple facade: four imposing Doric columns and 10 sizable pilasters, all connected by a frieze and arranged in a gently curving arc. From the center of this colonnaded contraption extended a long peninsular walkway, lined with blue carpeting and capped by a circular stage and wedding-cake steps. Like a nervous parent dropping a child off at school, the set seemed to protect Obama and push him forward at the same time.
... and the symbolism:
Classicism offers an almost bottomless pool of symbolism, and the campaign dipped into it with a number of goals. For an American viewer, a row of columns can suggest stability or even martial strength, which may have appealed to counselors eager to use Thursday's speech to take on charges that their candidate is soft on national security. Such columns can also suggest populism and public participation -- the highest-minded ideals of democratic government.
Obama clearly wanted to forge a link to the 1960 Kennedy appearance, which conveniently enough took place inside a neoclassical stadium. Even more obvious was the way the four big columns -- two on either side of the stage, framing a pair of video screens -- and the frieze suggested the imposing facade of Henry Bacon's Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech 45 years to the day before Obama's address.
I now note that Michael Barone in US News also saw the Pergamon Altar connection (tip o' the pileus to A.V. Michaels)
I also should mention that amicus noster Jan Gabbert reminded me that it was John Stockdale who was the Epictetus reader; I haven't been able to find such a connection to McCain ...
Jess Paga scripsit:
When I was watching the speech, the backdrop reminded me of the Lykourgan skene from the Theatre of Dionysos in Athens - central skene with doors, flanked by two paraskenia, all topped with a Doric entablature. I thought this reference was particularly pertinent given the general theatricality of these conventions, with Obama in the "orchestra," and spectators ringed around him.