UI professor receives death threats over article on classical art

Roman sculptures on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. — photo by Allison Meier via Flickr

In an era when alt-right groups have co-opted images of classical white marble statues, a University of Iowa classics professor published articles about ancient art undermining those achromatic images, which has led to death threats and virulent online commentary.

The face of classics departments in universities across the country is often depicted by a pearl-white statue — more times than not, a dude — from the ancient Roman and Greek eras. But the evolution of ultraviolet technology now suggests the reason these famous sculptures stand so monochromatic is actually due to natural weathering that has worn away the original paint. With this in mind, Sarah E. Bond, an assistant professor of classics at the University of Iowa, published an April article in Forbes about the impact of depicting classical statuary as bright white.

The Forbes post was later followed up with a personal blog post and then an article in Hyperallergic. The essence of her argument was this:

“The equation of white marble with beauty is not an inherent truth of the universe,” Bond wrote in Hyperallergic. “Where this standard came from and how it continues to influence white supremacist ideas today are often ignored.”

But the discussion quickly devolved, with Bond stating on her blog a few days after the Forbes piece published that, “the hatred and invective I received from this post was more than anything I have ever received to date.” (And that was before The Blaze, Campus Reform and other conservative publications picked up the story and conflated Bond’s arguments with her calling the marble sculptures racist.)

“The United States is extremely polarized right now.” Bond said to the arts-focused publication, Artforum. “There is a binary that is getting applied to everything. The trolls think I’m applying that binary, but all I wanted to talk about was art, the manipulation of art for various reasons, how beautiful color is on statues and how we should embrace it just like we should embrace people of color all over the country.”

Bond isn’t alone in bringing attention to the lost polychromy in classical art. And it isn’t new. “Gods in Color,” an exhibit based on archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann’s research, traveled the world from 2003 to 2015. Bond frequently refers to the exhibit, which presented colored reconstructions of famous sculptures next to the original, weather-beaten ones.

Bond notes in her articles that classical sculptures have been used to develop ideas of beauty, including those who believed the statues could be used to find the ideal set of ratios and angles to define “beauty” — a notion that was embraced under the Third Reich to support an idea of Aryan superiority. Since then, alt-right organizations and forums, such as Identity Evropa, have used imagery of classical sculpture as part of their platform.

Bond posited that our current representations of Greek and Roman artwork have whitewashed the public’s imagination of the period, influenced the field of study and impacted people of color. Racial minorities comprised a mere 9 percent of undergraduates in classics departments across the United States, according to the Society for Classical Studies, which Bond cited in her essay.

Little Village reached out to Bond for comment, but was told she is no longer comfortable doing interviews. A UI spokesperson did pass along one statement from Bond in which she said that the university has “stood by me and supported me through all of the online harassment.”

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