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American Journal of Philology 126.3 (2005) 461-463
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The underlying contention here is that if a Hellenistic poetic description of a person, an animal, the weather, a scene, or an objet d'art adopts a particular way of viewing, we have independent evidence for the habits of viewing that Hellenistic people would have brought to their contemplation of representational art.
So Graham Zanker summarizes the thesis of his new book, the most extensive and detailed account of Hellenistic visuality yet published. This is a carefully worded sentence. Zanker's enumeration of poetic descriptions of "a person, an animal, the weather, a scene or an objet d'art" deliberately exemplifies what he takes to be the scope of ekphrasis and hence reproves those who have taken ekphrasis more narrowly as the description of works of art (cf. 6–10). The target of this disapproval turns out to be especially Simon Goldhill, whom he attacks at 82–83 and in a long endnote (184–85, n. 26). Yet the care to be precise in matters of literary definition goes with such large, even lax, social and cultural generalizations as "Hellenistic people" and "representational art." What Zanker must mean by those whose contemplation of art can be evoked through poetic descriptions is a highly literate and educated social elite—perhaps the court itself—that may have played (Marie-Antoinette-like) at shepherds and fishermen (as in the cup of Theocritus' first Idyll) but surely did so from a much narrower social perspective than the totalizing generalism of "Hellenistic people." The weapon of precision is a dangerous one to use, when it may be turned back on the user.
There are, moreover, numerous problems with both the notion of "independent evidence" and that of "habits of viewing." While the literary evidence of ekphrasis (not only in poetry) certainly encompasses viewing, its specially wrought and often spectacular cleverness may signal the exceptional, even the perverse, as much as (or more than) the habitual. Does a revolutionary statue like the Aphrodite of Cnidos (not actually Hellenistic, but nonetheless rightly incorporated at some length in Zanker's book) reflect or elicit the habitual gaze? In what sense? And, if so, when? Was the gaze it enticed at its moment of creation "habitual," or did that gaze only become "habitual" in its numerous—within our surviving material archive of examples, mainly Roman-period—versions and replications? More difficult still is "independent evidence." I am not really sure what that could be in a topic created from critical and interpretative explications of complex images and texts that do not themselves draw explicit or simple conclusions about viewing (or anything) beyond what readers may impute to them. How they may collectively constitute evidence about viewing can only come about as the result of argument. I think a compelling argument based on the critical interpretation of images and texts may be taken as evidence, but is that "independent evidence?" What does this mean? And such a complex argument is a very different kind of evidence from what Zanker seems to mean by any particular viewpoint we may find expressed in an ekphrasis. [End Page 461]
Again, I do not think it follows that the evidence for viewing we may entice from a poetic description of a person, an animal, or the weather need necessarily be related to the contemplation of a work of art. Indeed, Zanker's use of the term contemplation (with its Kantian overtones) appears to indicate a specifically aesthetic zone of response. Certainly the Hellenistic period explicitly elevated creativity in the visual arts to a new canonical status with its creation of art-historical narratives and histories devolving on the rise of naturalism and on the genius of particular hallowed artists who are preserved for us by the likes of Quintilian and Pliny. That special aestheticism, marked in the choice of works of...