Saturday, July 7, 2012

Why the ancient Greeks have already won the London Olympics

From The Guardian June 8 2012

Why the ancient Greeks have already won the London Olympics
The British Museum is celebrating the ancient Greek passion for victory with an 'Olympic' trail around its collection. But classical Greek culture has always been first among equals

There are winners in life. There are winners in history. Greece may currently seem far from victory, but a trail that has just opened at the British Museum is a reminder of its triumphant ancient culture. 

Winning at the ancient Games celebrates this summer's Olympiad with a series of objects and models, scattered through the museum's collection, that commemorate the ancient Greek passion for victory. The museum's renowned statue The Discus-thrower is part of it, as well as a wonderful loan – a statue of a charioteer discovered in Mozia in Sicily, once a Greek colony. The flowing robe of the charioteer as he stands proudly in triumph is an artistic miracle. I last saw the Mozia charioteer in Athens in an exhibition to celebrate its staging of the Olympic Games. It stunned me. It is one of the most beautiful ancient Greek masterpieces.

Then again, masterpieces are two a euro in the British Museum's Greek galleries. The Elgin Marbles, to take the most stupendous, are so elevated in concept, so excellent in execution that it is hard to respond to their beauty, and easier to rant about where they properly belong. Greek painted ceramics are equally staggering: gods and goddesses and scenes from myth painted in such graceful style. Meanwhile, caryatids stand tall, and Alexander the Great dreams of eternity, in this museum's jaw-dropping Greek art collection.

The British Museum is probably the best place outside Greece to encounter the civilisation of the ancient Greeks. You could almost say that with the Olympics soon to arrive in London, athletics is coming home.

Whenever I visit this museum, thoughts about Greek victory nag at me. The modern British museum is committed to seeing all world cultures as equal. Yet tour the museum from any starting point, and the Greeks are always there, always winning.

It is impossible to ignore classical Greek culture. It is not just another way of seeing – it is the best way of seeing. The Greeks brought human consciousness out of the darkness of prehistory into the light of philosophy, mathematics and drama. This deepening of the mind is embodied by their art. You can see humanity discovering itself in this art – as Karl Marx said, the Greeks were happy children.

Greek art is "classic". That is not an elitist myth but a reality the collections of the British Museum make all too plain. The museum is right to rejoice in the variety of human creativity, but an honest visitor here will always conclude that the ancient Greeks are first among equals. Isn't that the reason we still celebrate their Olympic Games?

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