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Title: The classical in the contemporary : contemporary art in Britain and its relationships with Greco-Roman antiquity
Author: Cahill, James Matthew
ISNI:       0000 0004 7226 4363
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2018
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From the viewpoint of classical reception studies, I am asking what contemporary British art (by, for example, Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst, and Mark Wallinger) has to do with the classical tradition – both the art and literature of Greco-Roman antiquity. I have conducted face-to-face interviews with some of the leading artists working in Britain today, including Lucas, Hirst, Wallinger, Marc Quinn, and Gilbert & George. In addition to contemporary art, the thesis focuses on Greco-Roman art and on myths and modes of looking that have come to shape the western art historical tradition – seeking to offer a different perspective on them from that of the Renaissance and neoclassicism. The thesis concentrates on the generation of artists known as the YBAs, or Young British Artists, who came to prominence in the 1990s. These artists are not renowned for their deference to the classical tradition, and are widely regarded as having turned their backs on classical art and its legacies. The introduction asks whether their work, which has received little scholarly attention, might be productively reassessed from the perspective of classical reception studies. It argues that while their work no longer subscribes to a traditional understanding of classical ‘influence’, it continues to depend – for its power and provocativeness – on classical concepts of figuration, realism, and the basic nature of art. Without claiming that the work of the YBAs is classical or classicizing, the thesis sets out to challenge the assumption that their work has nothing to do with ancient art, or that it fails to conform to ancient understandings of what art is. In order to do this, the thesis analyses contemporary works of art through three classical ‘lenses’. Each lens allows contemporary art to be examined in the context of a longer history. The first lens is the concept of realism, as seen in artistic and literary explorations of the relationship between art and life. This chapter uses the myth of Pygmalion’s statue as a way of thinking about contemporary art’s continued engagement with ideas of mimesis and the ‘real’ which were theorised and debated in antiquity. The second lens is corporeal fragmentation, as evidenced by the broken condition of ancient statues, the popular theme of dismemberment in western art, and the fragmentary body in contemporary art. The final chapter focuses on the figurative plaster cast, arguing that contemporary art continues to invoke and reinvent the long tradition of plaster reproductions of ancient statues and bodies. Through each of these ‘lenses’, I argue that contemporary art remains linked, both in form and meaning, to the classical past – often in ways which go beyond the stated intentions of an artist. Contemporary art continues to be informed by ideas and processes that were theorised and practised in the classical world; indeed, it is these ideas and processes that make it deserving of the art label.
Supervisor: Vout, Caroline Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Classical art ; contemporary art ; classical myth ; British art ; Greco-Roman ; Greco-Roman antiquity ; Sarah Lucas ; Damien Hirst ; Mark Wallinger ; Marc Quinn ; Gilbert & George ; Renaissance art ; neoclassicism ; Young British Artists ; classical realism ; classical influence ; classical tradition ; classical reception ; Pygmalion ; mimesis ; fragmentation ; sparagmos ; classical plaster casts ; art history ; Duchamp ; classicism ; modernism ; classical antiquity ; modern art ; postmodern art ; postmodernism ; Erwin Panofsky ; Ovid's Metamorphoses ; Pliny ; Malcolm Bull ; Titian ; Michelangelo ; Venus de Milo ; Belvedere Torso ; Winckelmann ; Giorgio Vasari ; performance art ; art and agency ; intertextuality ; Auguste Rodin ; Turner Prize ; Pablo Picasso ; Les Demoiselles d'Avignon ; aesthetics ; Giuseppe Fiorelli