Blog Post #80: Graduate Student Feature with Matt Coleman

One of Peopling the Past’s goals is to amplify the work of young and/or under-represented scholars and the amazing research that they are doing to add new perspectives to the fields of ancient history and archaeology (broadly construed). We will thus feature several blog posts throughout the year interviewing graduate students on their research topics, focusing on how they shed light on real people in the past.

What topic do you study?

I study the reception of Hellenistic art in antiquity and the modern world. Specifically, my interest is in the study of “popular” viewership and our sources for art’s variable interpretation by everyday onlookers. I have always been interested in the popular usage of ancient culture – as in movies, comics, and tv shows – and my goal in graduate work has been to critically assess how people other than art critics, classical philologists, and ancient historians relate to the material culture of antiquity.

In an ancient context, I want to know what our sources can tell us about who interacted with the art of ancient heroes, royalty, monsters, and gods – beyond critics and philosophers – and what the average person’s relationship was with figural sculpture. That is, I want to know who was making jokes about the art they saw, who “missed the point” of an art piece, and who fell in love with the statues they passed in the streets every day. In the modern setting, I want to know if people still care about ancient material culture outside of academic circles. If not, that’s fine! But if they do, what exactly interests them about it? From there, we can compare the interests and visual capabilities of popular audiences from antiquity and the modern world to make the study of ancient art that much more interesting for broader audiences.

I think we as scholars of the ancient past can be a bit precious with the material that has survived to us from antiquity. The art of the Hellenistic period, for instance, was strange, dramatic, sexy, it was fun, and it was funny. Our ancient sources tell us as much. The visualities that interest me, that survive in the images and texts from the ancient world and in conversations with our community members, are those which highlight the passion that the ancient peoples had for their visual culture and don’t treat ancient sculpture solely as objects of study and analysis. Ultimately, by embracing the liveliness and playfulness of ancient art and the testimony of its viewers, we can begin to see over the barriers that separate us from the people of the past and make their legacy more accessible and meaningful to us in the present.

Close up of a marble statue of a young boy holding a goose in his arms. The goose's mouth is open, as if gasping for air.
Boy with Goose (Public Domain)

What sources or data do you look at?

My research’s approach to sources, both in image and text, aims to respect the popular responses of ancient art beholders by neither judging their conclusions as ‘right’ if they align with a traditional, expected response, nor dismissing them as ‘wrong’ if they seem divergent. Our documentary sources for viewers who “mis-read”, “mis-interpret”, or “mis-understand” traditional works of art are re-evaluated as valid interpretations of material culture, cut with that person’s relative capacity for visual analysis and interpretive judgement, informed by their life experiences. To this end, I look at ancient poems, epigrams, travelogues and the like and compare them with the formal qualities of the sculptures and their ancient settings.

The sources I work with represent attempts by viewers to make sense of content not necessarily composed with these, often underrepresented, viewers in mind. For our purposes, what might come across as a strange interaction with a sculpture in the accounts of popular viewership can signpost for scholars in the modern world the polyvalent and relatively undertreated diversity of aesthetic responses produced by common sculptural types. For instance, we can think of how viewers, like Kharikles and Kallikratidas in Ps.-Lucian’s Erotes 13-14, were affected by the Aphrodite of Knidos’ unique sexual appeal in her open temple, as they view her from the front and back, as a straight and gay man, respectively. These men viewed the same statue, in the same location, but had very different responses to its content. In Herondas’s Mimiamb 4, the women who view the statues of a girl reaching for an apple, a bull, and the famous Boy Strangling Goose, don’t comment on any high mythological narratives or the values that these pieces represent for the history of art – the viewers simply admire the artwork for its everyday subject matter and extraordinary life-likeness, voicing their personal interests in the scenes, exclaiming: “sometimes men give life to stones!” These women want to help the girl reach her apple, are terrified by the bull, and play along with the boy. These are the personal, intimate sources that interest me.

The Temple of Aphrodite at Knidos (Credit: Dosseman CCA-SA 4.0)

How does this research shed light on real people in the past?

Between the late-Classical period and the Hellenistic age, poetry and art forged a new “cosmopolitan” aesthetic that embraced subject matter which was concerned more than ever with shared human experience and broad viewer integration. For instance, popular figural types in texts with “low” protagonists, like shepherds or goatherds (e.g., Theoc. Idyll 1) and in art, like the Drunken Old Woman (ca. 3rd c BCE), were put forward to as many eyes as possible in the expanding Hellenistic world. These types were imposed on new and more culturally diverse locales than in preceding periods and their common subject matter was popular precisely for its ability to plug into any audience member’s aesthetic understanding as something “real” or “everyday”.  The Hellenistic period, in my view, is characterized by images which rely on the creative friction of these Subject / Object relationships which are essentially open and accessible to all. So, my work aims to describe how traits like sexuality, gender, class, race, religion, and a variety of factors unique to the antique and modern worlds, prime real people to react in deeply individual ways to Hellenistic visual culture. Our sources tell us that there was no one way to read an image; everything depended on who you were and what you brought to the artwork.

Marble statue of an old woman clutching an amphora of wine in her hands, as she sits on the ground.
Drunken Old Woman (Public Domain)

To this end, my work attempts to move beyond universal, or essentializing, classifications of viewers seen in visual theory since the 1950s (e.g., the Female viewer; the White viewer; the Gay viewer, etc.) which repress the “heteroglossia”, or complexity, in the identities of these real people from the ancient world. For example, applying a generic label like “the Male viewer” to both Kharikles and Kallikratidas, whom I mentioned before, is unproductive because understanding their distinct interpretations of the Knidia requires recognizing that in addition to being men, one character is heterosexual and the other is homosexual. On top of that, we can add the men’s relative origins as an Athenian and a Corinthian; and with clues from the text, we can add to our picture of ancient viewers their ages, jobs, familial associations, religious dispositions, etc. Each one of these aspects influences viewing habits and interpretation on a personal level. By appreciating the critical differences between these men, we can avoid limiting our analysis of their perspectives by forcing them into overly simplistic classifications and theoretical approaches. In my view, there is no one viewer who can be classified by a singular defining characteristic because there is no one person who could be composed of a single characteristic in the first place. My research goal is to present the fullest reading possible of how the spectator in our sources relates to the images they interact with, including their interpretations, ancient social contexts, and daily lives.

Selected Bibliography

Elsner, John. 2007. Roman Eyes: Visuality & Subjectivity in Art & Text. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Goldhill, Simon. 1994. “The Naive and Knowing Eye: Ecphrasis and the Culture of Viewing in the Hellenistic World.” In Art and Text in Ancient Greek Culture, edited by Simon Goldhill and Robin Osborne, 197–223. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hardiman, Craig. 2012. “‘Popular’ Aesthetics and Personal Art Appreciation in the Hellenistic Age.” InAesthetic Value in Classical Antiquity, edited by Ineke Sluiter and Ralph Rosen. Mnemosyne, Supplements 350. Boston, MA: Brill.

Herring, Amanda. 2022. “Empire and Art in the Hellenistic World (c. 350–31 B.C.E.).” SmartHistory, Reframing Art History (blog). 2022. 

Skinner, Marilyn. 2001. “Ladies’ Day at the Art Institute: Theocritus, Herodas, and the Gendered Gaze.” In Making Silence Speak: Women’s Voices in Greek Literature and Society, edited by André Lardinois and Laura McLure, 201–22. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Image of Matt Coleman standing in a museum pointing to a statue
Matt Coleman

Matt Coleman is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, in the Department of Art History. He works with Prof. Björn C. Ewald and studies Ancient Art with a specialization in Mediterranean Archaeology and Digital Humanities. Before joining the PhD program at U of T, Matt received his BA (2018) and MA (2020) in the Classical Studies department at the University of Waterloo, under Prof. Craig Hardiman. There, his Master’s thesis focussed on the purposes for antiquities collection and the aim of sculpture display in the Italian Renaissance. His current research interests include viewership, copy culture, modern antiquarianism, and Hellenistic epigram. Centrally, however, Matt focuses on Hellenistic visual art (esp. sculpture) and its reception in later periods. Matt is particularly interested in the moment of visual reception – how the individual interprets Hellenistic art – and the popular use of ancient material in movies, comics, tv shows, and video games. In the Art History department at U of T, Matt continues his exploration of the many ways in which individuals and societies, from antiquity to the present day, interact with the culture of the ancient world.

Published by Peopling the Past

A Digital Humanities initiative that hosts free, open-access resources for teaching and learning about real people in the ancient world and the people who study them.

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