A new show at the Met called “Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World” aims to explain how a handful of people we know as the ancient Greeks living on a small rocky peninsula with no natural resources taught the world most of what it knows - politics and science, as well as art. Clearly, it’s an improbable aim to carry out. So this column hit the history books to fill in some of the blanks.

Throwback from Crete

For starters, we need to quit calling classical art Greek. The word was a Roman invention. The way historian Hendrik Van Loon noted the story in his 1934 tome “The Arts,” the Hellenes, as they were known, never used the word “Greek.”

And speaking of Roman inventions, to hear historian John Boardman tell it in his treatise “Greek Art,” much of the so-called Greek sculpture available to us today is gleaned from later reduced copies or free adaptations -- and likely some of it from the Romans.

Classical art knock-offs

What we have at the Met, then, is a show of what Hellene art looked like rather than their actual work. Not that there isn’t plenty to marvel at, like all the whopping statues of gods and kings and the especially imposing statue of Athena that stood once in the Acropolis. This exhibit example is a shorter version, but at 13 feet, it still looms over pretty much everything else.

Art of the land of Crete lasted a brief 1,500 years, yet it held the center of the historical stage. And because the modern west grew out that brief presence, it’s still in the spotlight. For instance, western society is devoted to sports and you might say we got that from the Hellenes who were big on athletics and fitness. You can see it in the perfectly proportioned bodies that they sculpted with dazzling artistry.

To hear historian Kenneth Clark tell it in his tome “The Nude,” the perfecting of the body was the Hellenes’ longing to feel like a god.

But here’s the thing. While the Hellenes did extraordinary work, their story is too often told without the how and why. What explains their achievement?

Follow the money

The Hellene artists were economically independent. They didn’t need to worry about food or shelter.

They had plenty of free time on their hands to work on their art and model the human form as perfectly as they did. What exactly allowed them such freedom? Aside from patronage of the royal courts, there was a system of slavery. So while we look with wonder at their achievement, we should take a moment to remember that the art of the “Greeks” lived on the labors of others. The Hellenes lived like gods.

Imagine what artists of today could accomplish if they didn’t have to spend most of their days earning a living. According to a recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, growth of employment for arts is slower than the average for all other occupations.

Don't miss our page on Facebook!
Click to read more