Column: Plaster Divinity

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Athena Valletri. Plaster cast of a Roman copy of a Greek original by Kresilas or Alkamenes, ca 420 BCE. University of Missouri, Columbia, MO. Photograph by the author.

Athena Velletri.
Plaster cast of a Roman copy of a Greek original by Kresilas or Alkamenes, ca 420 BCE.
University of Missouri, Columbia, MO.
Photograph by the author.

Athena looms. She towers. She stands above me, dominating my entire field of vision. She raises her right hand into the air, as if to bring some other addressee to a pause; she stretches her left hand to me, palm upturned, as though she were offering to help me to my feet. Fabric folds around her body, bunching together at her waist and shoulder – enough fabric, it seems, to wind around the world. Her war-helm rests atop her head; on her breast sits the head of Medusa. I stare up into her eyes; they are blank, but that blankness is the opposite of empty. Every emotion is inscribed on Athena’s face.

I kneel there before the goddess for a long moment, my breathing haggard from the proximity of the sublime.

Somewhere behind me, I can hear women’s voices. I think they are talking about payroll. In front of me, behind Athena’s back, a car passes by. I see it through the mini-blinds: a black Acura. The windows face out onto the Mizzou North parking lot, which lies off of Business Loop 70 in Columbia, Missouri, the college town where I live. The building itself used to be a cancer center; other medical facilities still share the parking lot. The neighborhood is an aging commercial district, separated from the main campus by about a mile and a half. Around Mizzou North, one finds a Ford dealership, a Break Time gas station, a Payless shoe store, a Long John Silver’s. It is a strange place to go looking for gods – and yet here they are.

The University of Missouri is moving its Museums of Art, Archeology, and Anthropology over to this building from their old homes on the central campus, and so most of the collections aren’t yet on display. One galley, however, is open – the Cast Gallery, full of plaster casts of ancient Greek and Roman statuary. The casts on display are packed together in a single L-shaped room on the first floor of the building. I found it rather cramped, but the density of the collection heightened my sense of the sublime; within only a few hundred square feet, the Venus de Milo, the headless Nike of Samothrace, and the Apollo of Olympia shared space with the tender pair of Hermes and the infant Dionysus and the mute horror of Laokoön and His Sons being killed by sea-serpents. A row of luminary busts sits against one wall: the heads of Homer, Sophocles, and Theseus all sit together, members of parliament never elsewhere convened in history.

But the piece de resistance, at least for me, was the Athena Velletri. A copy of an original housed in the Louvre, Athena Velletri dominates her section of the gallery, and I found myself drawn to her over the dozens of other masterpieces littering the room. Perhaps it was simply the size of the statue – Athena stands 10 feet tall, such that her outstretched left arm is at eye-level for the average person – or perhaps it was the intricate details of the bunched cloth in her robe. More likely, it was simply that Athena has always been one of my favorite goddesses, as far back as I knew what a goddess was. (Just now, I remember something: the first book – or long story, at least – that I ever wrote, when I was twelve. The main character worshipped Athena. Write what you know, so the saying goes.)

As I knelt before the Athena, I found my mind wandering away from the cast gallery, and even away from the milieu of the classical world in general, moving instead to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In that essay, Benjamin advanced a theory of “the aura” of an individual artwork – that is to say, the combination of history and physical presence that serves to instill art with the value of authenticity. For Benjamin, this aura originated in the religious functions that works like the Athena Velletri would have had in their classical origins, and which was maintained even after the end of the Pagan period: “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition,” he writes. “This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol. Both of them, however, were equally confronted with its uniqueness, that is, its aura.” When art became separated by religion, that holy aura came to be embodied in other ways: in aesthetics, in majesty, in l’art pour l’art, all of which he theorized would find their final culmination in fascism.

Benjamin argues that reproduction cannot help but destroy the aura of the work of art, finding its most triumphant expression in the creation of modern art forms like the film, a genre of art that has no “original” to possess an aura at all, only the many copies[1]. (I’m hardly the first to ask this, but one wonders what he would have made of the internet.) In the age before mechanical reproduction – before photographs or high quality lithography, certainly before instant Google searches and Wikipedia – to experience a work of art, one had to physically travel to that work of art, had to confront its aura personally. Even if one had never worshipped Athena, had lived in a world that had, to all appearances, abandoned worship of that goddess two thousand years before, to see the Athena Velletri was to be a part of Athena’s cult.

The Athena that rises above me is made of plaster, smooth and white. Her right arm is a little out of joint, exposing a crease that reveals the many pieces of which she is made. She is, indeed, a copy of a copy, and perhaps more iterations than that. I am sure that some museum shop would happily sell me a copy of this statue, one of many anonymous thousands. And yet the aura is there – not the aura of aesthetic and authenticity, as proposed by Benjamin, nor even quite the old cultic aura he supposed was held by the Greeks. For me, it is an aura of overpowering recognition. I was raised without temples, but with the longing for them; I suppose I made the identification of the museum with the mysteries long ago. I kneel and whisper my prayers to Athena, to the Athena, to the goddess in the plaster. I am still trying to catch my breath.

 

[1] He thought these new art forms, bereft of aura, could resist the fascism from which he had fled, and was on the whole much more positive about technology than most art critics.