A University of Iowa professor argued that the appreciation of beauty inspired by the “white marble” of classical statuary supports white supremacy today.
“The equation of white marble with beauty is not an inherent truth of the universe; it’s a dangerous construct that continues to influence white supremacist ideas today,” Sarah Bond, assistant professor of classics, wrote in an article for the art blogazine Hyperallergic.
Bond noted that “many of the statues, reliefs, and sarcophagi created in the ancient Western world were in fact painted,” so the “white marble” seen in such art today is an accident of history, not the intended look. Marble “was considered a canvas, not the finished product for sculpture.” So it was “carefully selected and then often painted in gold, red, green, black, white, and brown, among other colors.”
But Bond went even further, arguing that the misconception of original statues being marble white has supported — and still supports — white supremacy. “The equation of white marble with beauty is not an inherent truth of the universe,” the professor noted. “Where this standard came from and how it continues to influence white supremacist ideas today are often ignored.”
The professor attacked “most museums and art history textbooks” for showing “a predominantly neon white display of skin tone when it comes to classical statues and sarcophagi.” This “neon whiteness” creates “a false idea of homogeneity — everyone was very white! — across the Mediterranean region.”
Bond pointed to the art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who formed the foundation for art history. Winckelmann argued that the Apollo of the Belvedere — a Roman white marble copy of a Hellenistic bronze statue — is “the quintessence of beauty.” The classics professor suggested that Winckelmann’s preference for men over women might reveal a homosexual identity, and that his taste in art bolstered “white male supremacists.”
Bond also referenced the Dutch anatomist Pieter Camper, who measured human facial features to create the racist “cephalic index,” which was used by the Nazis to support notions of Aryan superiority.
Operating off of this history, the classics professor drew some debatable connections to modern white supremacy. She mentioned the group Identity Europa, which uses “classical statuary as a symbol of white male superiority,” which seems plausible.
But then Bond smuggled in an attack on a prominent Republican congressman. White marble statuary “also continues to buttress the false construction of Western civilization as white by politicians like Steve King,” the professor argued.
Here, Bond went too far. King has been attacked for defending Dutch politician Geert Wilders and tweeting, “We can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies.” He later explained that his remarks were about culture and not race. Even so, liberals twisted his statements to make them seem racist.
Besides the attack on King, Bond also mentioned one example of racial disparity resulting from the misconception of classical art as idolizing “white marble.” According to the Society for Classical Studies, only 9 percent of all undergraduate classics majors were minorities in 2014, and only 2 percent of classics faculty were not white.
“Do we make it easy for people of color who want to study the ancient world?” the professor asked. “The dearth of people of color in modern media depicting the ancient world is a pivotal issue here. Movies and video games, in particular, perpetuate the notion that the classical world was white.” She criticized movies like Gladiator (2000) and 300 (2006) for portraying many characters as white and for presenting the colored Persians as evil.
The racial disparity in classics may be a problem, but those who demonize Western civilization as somehow inherently connected to white supremacy are arguably contributing to that problem. If defenders of Western civilization like Steve King are relentlessly attacked as racist, their ideas might be seen as only fit for white people, which is emphatically not the case.
The classics professor was entirely correct to say that Western culture is not white and need not be considered connected to one race over another. She was entirely correct in stating that most ancient statuary was colored not left white, and the whiteness of bare marble was not an artistic ideal in the ancient world.
But Bond was wrong to mimic the attacks on Steve King, which play into the idea that championing Western civilization makes someone racist. It is important for everyone to study Western civilization to learn the roots of modern ideals like freedom, human dignity, and scientific inquiry.
Rather than emphasizing the negative connection between “white marble” and white supremacy, she should make the case for everyone — minorities emphatically included — to study the classics.