OT: Are you ducking kidding me?!

Warning:  Irate academic rant forthcoming…

I thought I had positioned myself for this to be a good Monday – maybe really good.  Last week was all but brutal…I hit the ground running after returning from Greece and felt like I was swimming in deep water most of the week.  By Friday afternoon though, things were starting to get better.  I had word from Kos that the boxes of dental hygiene kits and school supplies I’d sent a week ago had arrived safely – good news indeed since for the extremely low shipping costs, I had thought they were travelling via donkey cart.  By Sunday afternoon, having spent several hours grading and formatting, I had the most intensive of my three active courses up to date and ready to fly.  I was in good shape for the new work week.  Was.

That all came to an end and my current state of tipping between irritation and disgust started, when I woke up around 1am (I do that often enough) and looking at my phone for the time, noticed an Outlook notification.

**Disclaimer**

I know I should have ignored it and gone back to bed, but sometimes I can’t sleep and I can get some correspondence sorted in the interim.  I’d also sent some emails to associates in Europe, so I thought I might get in front of that.

No. Such. Luck.

Instead, it was this (name redacted to protect the sender…I’m good about that even when the sender is being a complete and utter TOOL)

tool-message

Source of "Homosexual artwork"  discomfort...

Source of “Homosexual artwork” discomfort…

Given the reaction of this student – a fully grown adult student in an upper level college course on Greek History – you might wonder what kind of depraved licentiousness I assigned (in addition to the piece above) that provoked it.  Rest assured, I did not spend extra time delving through the catalog of Ancient Greece’s Most Shocking and Immoral works…the assigned piece was a YouTube video of a college production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.

While I will grant you that this play is certainly risque leaning heavily toward bawdy, it is also not out of place in a class week which was centered on the topic of the Peloponnesian War.  Part of what this class is doing is analyzing primary source material in an effort to better understand the history and culture of ancient Greece.  This play is a great primary source.  It was first produced 411 BCE, just two years after Athens’ cataclysmic defeat in the Sicilian Expedition, and is generally regarded as a clear commentary on the war.

The action revolves around the title character, an Athenian woman named Lysistrata (which means ‘Army Disbander’) who comes up with an ingenious plan.  She rallies all of the women of Greece – Athenian, Spartan and all points in between – to go on a sex strike until their husbands agree to end the war.  Not surprisingly, the play is full of a whole panoply of of sexual innuendo and outright dick jokes – complete with male character costumes sporting outsized erect phalluses in ancient staging.  It is also a hilariously funny commentary on gender relations in ancient Greece…undoubtedly made more funny in the original by the fact that every single female character would have been played by a male actor in drag.

This play is pretty standard fare in classical studies courses at all kinds of universities regardless of their religious affiliation, and a quick search reveals that numerous Catholic universities have run productions of the very same play over the years…it is hardly uncharted territory.  I have never, in 15 years of teaching at my current university (a Catholic institution), been asked to avoid addressing any aspect of classical culture for fear of offending a student.  In fact, part of the liberal arts mission is to challenge students to open their minds and experience other cultures without prejudice.  Epic fail in this case.

In the end, I provided this student an alternative assignment…a big, heavy passage from the historian Thucydides (Servetus may be the only person I know who doesn’t groan at the prospect), but I must confess that I am startled and dismayed that in 2016 a student, enrolled at a liberal arts institution, is comfortable relaying such a clear level of narrow mindedness and outright homophobia to me, her professor.    It bothers me as an educator, but it bothers me a lot more as a human and especially as a parent of a child whos sexual identity would apparently cause this person to be uncomfortable.  I am a professional, so I didn’t suggest that perhap a different class would suit better because I find this attitude offensive.  I’ve already come up with an alternate to this week’s film, Alexander (2004) in case it too is deemed “inappropriate” with its homoerotic undertones and all.

Alexander (Farrell) and Hephaestion (Jared Leto)

Alexander (Farrell) and Hephaestion (Jared Leto)

Hopefully I’ve purged at least a little of this annoyance so that I can get through the final two weeks of this class without completely losing my s@#t at someone!  (I’m making a case that we should earn hazard pay for teaching upper level liberal arts classes online!)

ὅ παῖς καλός – Richard Armitage and the Fountain of Youth

Robert Ascroft released two new images of Richard Armitage this week that have generated a quite a lot of discussion and I’m happy to jump on the band wagon with a καλός offering.

The ancient Greeks valued youth and youthful vitality enormously, so much so that they personified the idea of youth in a goddess named Hebe ( Ἥβη).  A fairly minor player in Greek mythology,  Hebe was  the daughter of Zeus and Hera, the king and queen of the Greek pantheon.  Her principle role, until she was married to the deified hero Herakles, was as a cupbearer who served ambrosia and nectar to the other gods on Mount Olympus .  Hebe also had the ability to bestow eternal youth and to make the old young again

Hebe serving ambrosia and nectar to Hera Photo:  www.theoi.com

Hebe serving ambrosia and nectar to Hera
Photo: http://www.theoi.com

The pursuit of youth is certainly not unique to the Greeks.  Several lines of discussion on blogs this week addressed how youthful Richard Armitage appears in the image below.  I’ll allow that some of the youthfulness may be courtesy of Photoshop or other photographic “magic”, but the whole tone of the shot conveys an idea of youthful vim from the perch on a narrow seat to the untucked tee and unlaced Converse sneakers.

Picture of youthful vitality Photo by Robert Ascroft Courtesy of richardarmitagenet.com

Picture of youthful vitality
Photo by Robert Ascroft
Courtesy of richardarmitagenet.com

Youthfulness seems to be an element of life that we all wish to maintain in some shape or form.  In part, I think, youth is a state of mind.  I have known people who were “middle aged” in their twenties, but I have an 81 year young friend at church who yesterday expressed an interest in joining a laser tag outing.   I’m not surprised that Richard Armitage is able to convey a look that belies his actual years, even without sipping from Hebe’s nectar cup.  He’s admitted in past interviews to thinking of himself as younger than he is.  He’s also made no secret that he enjoys an active lifestyle and he’s pretty clearly physically fit.  All of the above speak of a youthful attitude inside that shows through.   In an industry where youth seems to be something of an obsession, I think he’s looking pretty good – ὅ παῖς καλός!

PS:  try scrolling up on this image slowly from bottom to top…I really like the impact!

ὅ παῖς καλός – Armitage and Ascroft

I’ve been talking a lot about the Greeks, but the ancient Romans also made enormous contributions to the classical tRAdition.  A new photo of Richard Armitage that emerged over the weekend put me in mind of the Roman tradition of portrait sculpture.  The classical Greeks were skilled and prolific sculptors – arguably far surpassing the later Romans in virtually all areas…except one:  portraits.  It wasn’t that the Greeks couldn’t generate realistic portraits, it was that they just weren’t interested.  I think that it has to do with a vast divide in ideologies between the Greeks and Romans.  To boil it down, the Greeks saw much of life as a quest to achieve ἀρετή (arête or excellence in English).  I’ll have more to say about Richard Armitage and ἀρετή at a later date, but suffice it to say now, that viewed through this lens, realism gave way to idealism for the Greeks in many artistic genres.

The Romans, in contrast, have been defined by many as centering themselves around the concepts of pietas (piety) and gravitas (gravity or severity)  If the Greeks were the great “out of the box” thinkers of the classical world, the Romans were the pragmatic doers. In its original role, portrait sculpture served as a visual means of keeping the pious Romans connected to the spirits of their departed ancestors, an important part of traditional Roman religion.  The earliest Roman portrait busts are thought to have been sculpted from wax “death masks” molded from the recently deceased’s features.  Not surprisingly, the results are realistic down to the wrinkle…a “warts and all” sculptural tradition.

"Veristic" Bust of an Old Man - Vatican Museum

“Veristic” Bust of an Old Man – Vatican Museum

As the Romans expanded out of Italy, into the wider Mediterranean world, amassing a huge territorial empire, the function of portrait sculpture also expanded to include realistic portraits of important public figures like the one of Julius Caesar below.  It is meant to be a realistic portrait, but also to show the power and importance of this individual.  This portrait represents Caesar in the mid 1st century BC (BCE) at about the age of 50…not a young man, but not old either.

caesar bust

Julius Caesar – Vienna, Austria

By the 2nd century AD (CE) we can see a very different style of portrait sculpture emerging.   After several hundred years of exposure to the Greek artistic aesthetic, some of it has clearly rubbed off on the Romans in this “portrait” of Antinous, the favorite of the Roman emperor Hadrian.  To be fair, Hadrian was a massive Hellenophile, Greece’s 2nd century sugar daddy, so the Greek influence is extremely pronounced here.  But Roman portraits from this period forward reflect a blending of the Romans desire for realistic portraiture with the Greek preference for an idealized look.

Antinous_Mondragone_Louvre_Ma1205

“Portrait” of Antinous – Louvre
Photo Credit: Wikimedia

So how does the latest Robert Ascroft portrait of Richard Armitage (below) fit in here?  The Romans would have loved modern photography for its ability to realistically portray the human face down to the last wrinkle, blemish and gray hair.  The Greeks would have loved Photoshop for its ability to make that all disappear and produce an idealized view.

Photo by Robert Ashcroft 2012 - Courtesy of richardarmitagenet.com

Photo by Robert Ascroft 2012 – Courtesy of richardarmitagenet.com

I can’t tell you if this image has been retouched – although I doubt that many professional images are released without some adjustments.  We see a mature man, not an idealized youth here, and for me, at least, the impact is a stunning blend of the realistic and ideal.  ὅ παῖς καλός indeed!