On Wednesday, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee sent the Lucas Brothers to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to examine why the Alt-Right is obsessed with Greco-Roman statues. The brothers and their team of experts concluded that the white marble of the statues has falsely created a culture of white supremacy around the sculptures which the Alt-Right is exploiting for political gain. This is stupid, and as much as I like Samantha Bee and her show, this segment was flawed, predicated on the facile conflation of the color white with the social construction of Whiteness.
In the clip, you can see the Lucas Brothers express shock at learning that Classical statues were originally painted in bright, lifelike colors. This fact has been widely known since the 1800s, and every two to five years since then it has “shocked” society to rediscover it. Museums today routinely include depictions of how the statues would originally have appeared, and many textbooks of Classical civilization going back a century show ancient buildings and statues in color. Even movies have started showing Greco-Roman buildings in their more accurate color schemes. After three hundred years, I think its time to stop being shocked by statues’ polychrome paint jobs.
That we are shocked is due to eighteenth-century classicist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who argued that statues best represented idealized human forms when they were stripped of their paint. “The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is as well,” he wrote, for he believed color distracted from the perfection of form. His equation of whiteness with beauty shaped attitudes toward Greco-Roman Antiquity, but also reinforced the idea that white coloration was equivalent to the White race. This is why, for example, the Nazis were able to falsely claim that Greco-Roman statues represented “Aryans” even as they denigrated Greeks and Italians as lesser people. However, until the end of the nineteenth century, the “white” color of the statues was seen as cold rationality, form over ornament, an artistic rather than a racial statement.
But the problem is that the Lucas Brothers conclude that adding color—any color—to Greco-Roman statues turns them into representations of racial diversity. “Whiteness is not a skin color. Whiteness is a system of oppression,” one scholar tells them in the video, even as everyone involved conflates Caucasian ancestry with the literal color white. They and their expert commentators are, of course, correct that the Greeks and Romans did not share the modern concept of race and that their cultures included people from Africa and the Middle East, as well as Europe. But the surviving Greco-Roman statues largely depict the people who held power in Greece and Rome, and the ideal forms they idolized. Those were Mediterranean people, and they would have been painted accordingly. The segment envisions statues painted dark shades of brown, but this did not necessarily indicate biological skin color, however much it would conform to modern preferences. The Greeks preferred sun-bronzed olive skin on men and pale lily-white skin on women. This was fashion. Within living memory, Americans did, too.
The segment seems self-evidently inspired by Sarah Bond’s controversial essay in 2017 alleging that white marble is racist, seeing as she appears in the video. In a pair of 2017 articles, Bond alleged that museums display Classical statues without their original coats of paint because it helps to reinforce white supremacy through their emphasis on the color white. She did not explain why bronze statues failed to support diversity since they are various shades of brown and green. Nor does the argument account for Antique sculptures in black marble, purple porphyry, and stones of other colors. Or, more likely, the segment took its direct inspiration from an October article in The New Yorker that cited Bond and rehashed the same argument yet again and once more delivered the news that ancient sculptures were painted as though it were breaking news.
That article, to my dismay, reported that a grad student in 2000 had his mind blown upon discovering traces of color on a statue, having only experienced Greek statuary in black and white textbook photographs, and how one in the 1980s had the same horrified revelation. How, I wondered, could someone make it through graduate school studying this subject and have no idea about facts clearly established for the better part of three centuries? The color plates from my old Victorian books about Greek and Roman history depict statues in polychrome colors. The New Yorker is of course correct that it is willful ignorance to perpetuate the lie of blank statuary, but when the magazine compares the white statues to the austere white public spaces of midcentury modernism, it lost me entirely in the argument that any use of unadorned white space is a statement of race. White people aren’t actually white-colored, and the Taj Mahal testifies to the fact that they own no monopoly on the use of the color in architecture.
Anyway, Bond told the New Yorker that she was inspired by posters that the white nationalist group Identity Evropa uses featuring Greco-Roman sculptures to combat their appropriation as symbols of whiteness. (Some of the posters actually depict Renaissance sculptures, including Michelangelo’s David.) I think that while Bond’s intentions are good, and Identity Evropa’s are bad, it isn’t entirely wrong to cite Greek and Roman sculptures as exemplars of Europe’s cultural heritage. Greece and Rome were certainly diverse, but not in the way modern multicultural democracies are diverse, and Greek and Roman cultural achievements form one of the major threads animating European culture, no matter how embarrassed some on the far left are that there is such a place as Europe. There are certainly examples of sub-Saharan Africans depicted in Greco-Roman sculpture, but they aren’t numbered among the gods, emperors, and heroes. To pretend otherwise is to impose modern multicultural preferences on the ancient record and to try to mask the ancients’ ethnocentric preferences for their own “superior” cultures based on their homelands.
Besides, the New Yorker undercuts its own argument by noting that Classical sculptors often used basalt to sculpt African people and painted them in dark brown paint. This would actually be evidence that white marble sculptures were in fact intended to serve as the undercoat for lighter paint jobs. In fact, the Metropolitan Museum of Art itself, the very institution where Full Frontal shot its piece and spoke with its experts, declares that Black Africans were considered exotic and a marked contrast to Greek self-perception until fairly late in Antiquity, the Hellenistic Period and after, when Black Africans are seen more widely in Greek society.
This points to another problem: The arguments also tend to lump together all of Antiquity from Archaic Greece to Late Antique Italy. They aren’t the same. The world of imperial Rome, particularly in the last centuries of the Western Empire, was much more diverse than the much smaller and more homogenous world of Archaic or Classical Greece. The magazine cites the Berber origins of second-century emperor Septimius Severus as an example of diversity in the Roman elites, but he was a product of the vast expansion of Roman culture in the imperial age that would have been utterly foreign to the Republicans of three centuries earlier. (Literally: Roman citizenship was only expanded outside Rome under the Lex Julia of 90 BCE and did not include every free man in the empire until the son of Severus, Caracalla, expanded citizenship in 212 CE.)
Bond is right that the Greeks and Romans had no concept of Whiteness as a race (or any other color as a race for that matter), but both she and the New Yorker go to illogical extremes to try to deny that the Greeks should even be counted as “white” in modern terms—a claim that would have made the Nazis smile. The magazine, citing Bond and classicist Tim Whitmarsh argue that the Greeks favored pale white skin for women but preferred their men bronzed to show that they worked outdoors and engaged in healthy pursuits. As you might instantly recognize, they are talking about sun tans, not race. Conflating a sun tan with modern racial constructs in order to combat white nationalism does a disservice to the Greeks and to the intelligence of modern audiences. Whitmarsh notes that the Greeks preferred darker skin tones in men, but this referred to variation within the general olive-colored Mediterranean type. It was a social fashion, not a statement for or against racism, any more than the preference for pale women is an endorsement of whiteness. (It is interesting that only men’s bodies are considered to embody the true racial heritage or lack thereof in the views of both art historians and Alt-Right racists.)
Understanding that Greek and Roman sculptures depicted Greeks and Romans in their diversity is an important corrective to the idea that they were somehow Nazi-style Aryans, but I guess I just don’t understand the argument that white marble is racist. After all, when the statues were painted, they were still the same Greeks and Romans, and the majority of those people were ethnically Greek and Italian. Paint doesn’t change that. The real problem seems to lie in the more subtle argument that the art historians laid out, namely that imagining Greeks and Romans as the only ancient people to have celebrate form over ornament and to have left their statues unadorned out of cold rationality has historically been used to separate the West from the rest of the world. But this isn’t a claim about race.
The claim about race is being used to combat a different issue: the idea that Western civilization is something special or to be celebrated. And all of these pieces under discussion here have mixed together the white race and Western civilization and essentially declared both to be shameful. Identity Evropa tries to use Greece and Rome, along with racist claims, to create a unified European identity where one never historically existed, but these rebuttal pieces go too far the other way and go beyond correcting the factual record to use Greco-Roman art for an opposing political message based on modern multicultural ideology and cultural relativism.
All of that is a lot to fit into a couple of minutes on a comedy show, but I would have liked to see Full Frontal be a little more circumspect about the implications of painted statues.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.