Mary Beard on How We Look at Art

If ancient Greeks were transported to the rural Ukraine of the 21st century, they would have been surprised to see elements of their designs used with a liberal hand. A faux Greek portico attached to a housing unit meant “a cultural institution” to Soviet planners. Many mini-Parthenons dot the bucolic landscapes, the so-called Houses of Culture that once disseminated the light of the Marxist credo and hosted weekly village dances and now shelter shops and offices, capitalist style. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 rejected much about the old order–the language, the traditions, the customs, the family allegiances, but such was the power of classical art that the Soviet style became defined by it. Culture had to come with Doric columns in tow.

Mary Beard’s book Civilisations: How Do We Look/The Eye of Faith (public library) is about the way we look at art and the notions we have about it. A renowned historian of the ancient world looks at the way people throughout history thought of art and expressed their ideas of themselves by both creating it and interacting with it. The Soviet example is a good illustration for Beard’s idea of art as used to inscribe certain values and principles into the landscape and into daily life.

In telling her story, Beard travels from ancient Egypt to Greece and from England to Turkey and beyond. Her examples range from the ancient funerary statues of Greek maidens to the Istanbul mosques. Her topics are likewise eclectic–art and the idea of the body, art and the conception of the polity, art and religion. Instead of telling us what art instructs us to be, Beard probes the question of how we look at art and what we ask of it. She brings the viewer into the picture.

Beard doesn’t take the concept of civilization for granted–what is it, who defines it, and her exploration of it alone is worth the time spent with the book. Kenneth Clark, who wrote the original BBC Civilisation series, said that civilization was something he thought he could recognize when he saw it. Beard isn’t so sure that civilization is such a self-evident idea. As she comments, “‘we know that ‘we’ are civilised by contrasting ourselves with those we deem to be uncivilised, with those who do not –or cannot be trusted to –share our values.” Think of how often in current political debates we hear the word “values”–Western values, European values, the so-called civilized values. Civilization is as much about closing doors in the face of others with “different values,” as it is about opening them.

Beard has many gifts, and among them is her ability to animate the world of antiquity and to draw links between people living thousands of years ago and us today. She fuses color into images of ancient Greece and Rome, sometimes literally so by reminding us that Greeks used to color their statues in bright, often garish hues. She makes events in the distant past real and significant.

The second part of the book has Beard look at religion and the debates surrounding the representation of the divine. Her training in the classics gives her an interesting perspective to examine topics as diverse as representing God in human form or the destruction of art in the name of piety, morality or progress.

I particularly like the discussion of calligraphy in Islamic art. Despite the common notion that in Islam representations of God are forbidden, Beard argues that God is indeed represented–as a word. I remembered standing in the Jameh Mosque in the Iranian city of Yazd. It glittered with turquoise tiles decorated with arabesques and flowers and I stood for a long time with my head thrown back enjoying the azure glow around me. And then suddenly I realized that the twists and turns on the tiles were no simple decorations, but were the 99 Names of God. They gave me a shiver and a thrill of discovery, these talking walls of the Yazd mosque.

Since the book is based on the BBC series Civilisations, along with David Olusoga and Simon Schama, Beard at times merely skims the surface without diving as deep into each topic as I would have wished. Nevertheless, Civilisations: How Do We Look/The Eye of Faith  is still an engaging and thought-provoking work. Its biggest value for me was inspiring the curiosity to delve deeper. (The thorough bibliography at the end of the book is a boon.) Beard also prompted me to see familiar artworks in a new light. Art is not static, the historian reminded me. Every time the viewer stands in front of a painting, reads a book, or listens to a piece of music, she brings her own experiences and ideas. The viewer becomes the co-creator. The art becomes the mirror.

Images: carved relief at Persepolis, Iran; Yazd Jameh Mosque, Iran, photography by Bois de Jasmin. Mary Beard in Delhi, photography by BBC, via BBC website.

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42 Comments

  • Anne: Right up my alley! Thanks for reviewing it. July 2, 2018 at 8:01am Reply

    • Victoria: Glad that it caught your eye. I also liked the series on which the book was based. July 2, 2018 at 10:43am Reply

  • Sandra: “Civilization is as much about closing doors in the face of others with “different values”, as it is about opening them.”-

    This is a timely remark, given the travel ban.

    Thank you for this review. Adding this book to my list! Thank you for the library link also. July 2, 2018 at 8:49am Reply

    • Victoria: Although I wished she went deeper into each of her subjects, the book overall is engaging and interesting. It took me a couple of hours to find it, and it was time well-spent. July 2, 2018 at 10:43am Reply

      • Alicia: I read, some time ago, a book of hers on the Roman Republic. It was very good, particularly covering the end of the Republic (the period that interests me most). I don’t remember the title, Victoria; sorry for that, and thank you for this review. July 4, 2018 at 12:18am Reply

        • Victoria: I thought that it might have been SPQR, but it was published fairly recently. I’m also eyeing “Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations” as my next read. July 4, 2018 at 3:17am Reply

          • Marie-Helen: I read Confronting the Classics a year ago and I think you’ll like it, if you liked SPQR and other books ft Mary Beard. July 5, 2018 at 12:41am Reply

            • Marie-Helen: *by* July 5, 2018 at 12:41am Reply

            • Victoria: Thank you! July 5, 2018 at 1:52am Reply

          • Alicia: Victoria, I found the card on the book in my archive. It seems that it is from the library, meaning that I don’t own it. Rome in the Late Republic (with Michael Crawford). I read the revised edition of 1999. Nearly twenty years ago! Tempus fugit. July 6, 2018 at 5:11pm Reply

            • Victoria: Thank you. Good to know. July 13, 2018 at 3:21am Reply

  • Severine: I have watched Mary Beard’s Meet the Romans and Caligula. I like her presentation even though I don’t always agree with everything she says. 😀 July 2, 2018 at 9:17am Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve watched several series with her as a presenter, and I enjoyed them very much. Her book SPQR was also very good. July 2, 2018 at 10:29am Reply

      • Carla: My husband enjoyed SPQR. July 2, 2018 at 8:38pm Reply

        • Victoria: I read it alongside Tom Holland’s book on the Caesars, and while I liked both, Beard’s was my favorite. July 4, 2018 at 12:10am Reply

  • Karen: Thank you for this post, Victoria. I agree – the TV series (particularly David Olusoga!) is excellent and now I will search for Mary Beard’s book as well.

    I have just finished Ceridwen Dovey’s new and unputdownable novel, In the Garden of the Fugitives (https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/ceridwen-dovey/in-the-garden-of-the-fugitives/), which explores the themes of antiquity (in this case, Pompeii), film making, art, and guilt/shame (South Africa). I stayed up late to finish it in one fell swoop, it’s that good. July 2, 2018 at 11:40am Reply

    • Victoria: David Olusoga also has a book as part of these series, but I haven’t read it yet. It might be next. Like you, I liked Olusoga’s presentation.

      Thank you for the recommendation. All of these topics are enough to catch my interest. July 2, 2018 at 1:41pm Reply

  • Tiffanie: Marvelous! Thank you for sharing this perspective on art, culture, and how these are shared through time and space. I will look for the book this summer.

    I watched an episode of Civilizations last night and enjoyed it very much. Each episode in the series has taught me something new. Those programs and your words today remind me that it is important to explore and discover the world with “new eyes.” July 2, 2018 at 6:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: I agree with you. The best part of making any discovery is the way it makes you see the familiar things with new eyes, as you’ve put it so well.

      This book also includes images of the artworks Beard describes, which is helpful. July 4, 2018 at 12:16am Reply

  • Carla: This is such a good review. I read every word carefully, something I almost never do on an electronic device, which is why I still get the newspaper, read real books, etc. Such a thoughtful review! July 2, 2018 at 8:40pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much. The book is packed with so many interesting ideas, so there is enough to reflect on. July 4, 2018 at 12:09am Reply

  • Marco: Perfect timing for me, because I was thinking about reading something about the Romans or the ancient world. July 4, 2018 at 9:46am Reply

  • Marco: I mean, I want to read SPQR. Or is there anything you or your readers would recommend? July 4, 2018 at 9:48am Reply

    • Victoria: I also read Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland, and it was engaging and well-written. I’d take a look at it as well. July 5, 2018 at 1:54am Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: Hi Marco! It’s always my pleasure when somebody wants to read about the ancient world.
        Mary Beard has a style of her own, those who like it like it a lot, and she is reliable as an historian. So please read SPQR!
        My favorite aurthor of the Roman world is Adrian Goldsworthy. Here is a list:
        A. Goldsworthy: Caesar.
        A. Goldworthy: Augustus
        A. Goldsworthy: Pax Romana
        A. Goldsworthy: In the Name of Rome
        Barry Strauss: The Death of Caesar (thrilling!)
        Ronald Syme: The Roman Revolution (classic for a reason)
        H.H. Scullard: From the Gracchi to Nero
        Nigel Spivey: Classical Civilisation: Greeks and Romans in 10 Chapters
        Anthony Everitt: Cicero

        David Stuttard Nemesis. Biography of Alcibiadus. Stuttard is a fabulous storyteller!

        Peter Jones: Eureka! everything you wanted to know about the ancient Greeks…(entertaining and instructive)

        Richard Miles: Ancient Worlds
        Fernand Braudel: The Mediterranean in the Ancient World

        I hope you will find a good read. The Ancient World is fascinating, enjoy! July 5, 2018 at 3:54am Reply

        • Cornelia Blimber: Alcibiades of course!!
          I feel like a mulus July 5, 2018 at 3:56am Reply

        • Marie-Helen: I’m glad Marco asked this question, because I also benefited. What a reading list. I’m printing out this article and the comments. July 5, 2018 at 5:03am Reply

        • Aurora: A lot of inspiration here for reading, thank you Cornelia. I am reading Plutarch’s lives, at the moment Alexander, very educative. And I see that you list a fellow countryman Fernand Braudel. July 8, 2018 at 10:10am Reply

          • Cornelia Blimber: Hi Aurora!
            Yes, the eminent historian Braudel..in an english translation, a Penguin, easy to find. I presume you read him in French!

            Reading the ancient authors is the best you can do, so enjoy your Plutarchus! You are doing right!
            Maybe you will like Herodotus as well, the translation by Tom Holland is very vivid (and the Penguin is a very handsome book).
            And what about Caesar himself? The Gallic War is a thrilling read. July 8, 2018 at 11:02am Reply

            • Aurora: Hi Cornelia: To my shame I haven’t read Braudel yet, just know about him, but you’ve given me the will to start. Yes, I will read him in French I think, and I keep Herodotus and Caesar in mind next, you’re such a specialist, I know I will come back to you for ideas about ancient history. July 9, 2018 at 12:32pm Reply

              • Cornelia Blimber: I found today ”Confronting the Classics” by Mary Beard…for € 12,50! Of course I could not resist. There is a review of Anthony Everitt’s Cicero.
                Rather severe: ” A patchwork of ancient texts, sewn together with a thread of common sense, guesswork and sheer fantasy”. Oef!
                Mary Beard is a better historian than Everitt, true. And likely she is right that he is too credulous reading Plutarchus: Cicero’s mother ”suffered few labour pains”. A common story ”of the birth of an extraordinary child”. True: extraordinary births are a literary topic, like dreams as well.
                But that does not exclude that sometimes they are true. Mary Beard is often on the sceptical side. It’s always the question: how reliable are the ancient authors?

                With all its weaknesses I enjoyed ”Cicero” because I have, like Everitt, a soft spot for Cicero.
                Enjoy SPQR and keep on reading the classics! July 9, 2018 at 3:12pm Reply

                • Aurora: So glad you found MB’s Confronting the Classics at such a good price. She doesn’t mince her words, of course in the case of Lives P. was relating events already far in the past, but he is a such a valuable bridge, what a Greek under Roman rule of thought of the great men of past centuries, inaccuracies, trivia and all. What makes you fond of Cicero, Cornelia? July 10, 2018 at 1:28pm Reply

                  • Cornelia Blimber: His eloquence, those beautiful sentences, he was my favourite author already at school. The way he made Latin a language fit for philosophy.
                    The combination of weakness and self-esteem, making his way in Rome being a ”new man”.

                    Yes, far in the past. But you know, historians like Mary Beard are relating events even more far in the past, haha! July 10, 2018 at 2:57pm Reply

                    • Aurora: Thank you, Cornelia! July 11, 2018 at 11:26am

        • Victoria: A great list! Thank you. July 13, 2018 at 3:22am Reply

  • Eudora: Thanks Victoria for showing me a fascinating door. I will explore Civilizations and Beard’s work. July 4, 2018 at 3:48pm Reply

    • Victoria: I hope that you’ll like it. July 5, 2018 at 1:53am Reply

  • Potimarron: Mary Beard was one of my uni lecturers. She’s brilliant at bringing the classics to life. July 6, 2018 at 3:45pm Reply

    • Victoria: How lucky! I can imagine what a great class it has been. July 13, 2018 at 3:22am Reply

  • Aurora: I enjoyed this review so much, Victoria and the comments. I wasn’t familiar with Mary Beard but now I will keep her on my radar. You know I was thinking we lament and are horrified by the loss of artefacts due to current wars but if one thinks of the destruction of monasteries and catholic church ornaments in the XVI century here in England it puts things in perspective; fanaticism is such a universal human trait. July 8, 2018 at 10:24am Reply

    • Victoria: She puts it in perspective, without excusing it. In general, I found this book full of thought provoking observations and I look forward to her new book. July 13, 2018 at 3:24am Reply

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