Scholars' Association News
Issue 43
August 2017


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A World of Emotions at the OCC in New York and accompanying public programs

The path-breaking exhibition "A World of Emotions: Ancient Greece, 700 BC - 200 AD" was successfully completed on June 24 at the Onassis Cultural Center New York. Thousands of visitors had the opportunity to admire rare exhibits that speak eloquently about the timelessness of human emotions.

The exhibition of more than 130 masterpieces from some of the finest museums in the world including the Acropolis Museum, the National Archaeological Museum Athens, the Louvre, the British Museum, the Vatican Museums, among many others, explored the ideas and attitudes of people in classical antiquity toward emotion and the ways in which the emotions were depicted, revealing how some are strikingly familiar to us and some shockingly alien. The exhibition featured vase paintings, sculptures (ranging from life-size statues from the Acropolis to relief carvings from cemeteries), theatrical masks, amulets, coins, and votive offerings, among other artifacts from the early 7th century BC to the late 2nd century AD.

The event got triumphant reviews from American media; a remarkable New York Times review, among others, described it as a “strange and wonderful exhibition.” New York Times columnist Holland Cotter wrote: “The show … uses objects to tell a human story, one that changes our view of the past, brings it into the present; makes it ours.”

And further down he notes: “One of the lessons the show teaches and expands on in its catalog, is how difficult accurate cross-cultural readings of emotion can be. In a quick scan of the gallery, for example, images of everyday domesticity and profound mourning can be hard to tell apart. A relief of a child playing with a dog is a sweet backyard scene until you discover that it’s a tombstone.

And, again, searching faces for conventional modern signs of emotions won’t get you far. Despite the occasional laughing or scowling face, most Greek public sculpture before the fourth century B.C., shares a demeanor of grave restraint. Restraint, considered the product of thought-through emotion, had moral value in Greek Classical tradition. As ever-more-remote inheritors of that tradition, we may acknowledge this value historically, without relating to it. In our own age of nonstop noise and cartoon politics, that old restraint is what makes this art feel at once exemplary and alien.

But is it really so alien? And, for that matter, is it really so restrained? The exhibition, organized by three scholar-curators — Angelos Chaniotis of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.; Ioannis Mylonopoulos of Columbia University; and Nikolaos Kaltsas, director emeritus of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens — argues no” Holland Cotter wrote.

A wide variety of accompanying public programs run in parallel to the exhibition to engage audiences in the consideration of emotions in Ancient Greek culture and how they resonate today. Fiona Shaw, the famous Irish actress and director, participated as a special guest in the signature Let’s Walk series hosted by philosopher and Onassis Foundation New York Board member Simon Critchley. They talked about exhibition highlights and how emotions expressed in them resonate today especially in the field of Drama and Theater.

A series of off-site events and co-presentations with Onassis Cultural Centre long standing partners, such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and New York Public Library (NYPL), were organized; they were invited to approach their programming through the lens of the Emotions exhibition.

The People Speak program co-presented by BAM and the Onassis Cultural Center consisted of readings and musical performances by some of today’s leading artists including Staceyann Chin, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Deva Mahal, Frances McDormand, Peter Sarsgaard, Stew, David Strathairn, and Marisa Tomei. Building on the work of historian Howard Zinn (1922–2010), The People Speak brought to life the extraordinary history of ordinary people who built the movements that made the United States what it is today.

Furthermore, distinguished writers presented their work at special events in cooperation with BAM. Writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit was invited by BAM for the launch of her new book, The Mother of All Questions (Haymarket Books), a timely and incisive follow-up to her national bestseller Men Explain Things to Me. Joined by writer, art historian, and photographer Teju Cole, Solnit discussed the women who refuse to be silenced, misogynistic violence, the fragile masculinity of the literary canon, the gender binary, the recent history of rape jokes, and much more.

On June 13, writer Roane Gay presented her latest book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. In her phenomenally popular essays and long-running Tumblr, Gay has written with intimacy and sensitivity about food and body, using her own struggles as a means of exploring our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health. In Hunger, she explores her past—including the devastating act of violence that acted as a turning point in her young life—and her journey to understand and ultimately save herself.

Finally, on June 19 Booker Prize-winning author of The God of Small Things Arundhati Roy launched her richly moving new novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, spoke about the creative process and participate in an audience Q&A.

On May 15, the Onassis Cultural Center co-organized a discussion between the award-winning author Colm Tóibín and the distinguished poet Louise Glück in the context of the Onassis Programs at Live from the New York Public Library series. Their discussion focused on the myth of Clytemnestra, its relevance and her character’s ever-lasting charm.

After its conclusion in New York City, the “World of Emotions” exhibition traveled to Athens to the Acropolis Museum where it was launched on July 18. Τhis impressive narrative exhibition will continue to shed light on the invisible universe of emotions in the personal, social and political life of the ancient world at the Acropolis Museum until November 19.

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