April 26, 2013 6:25 pm

Censors and sensibility

A statue may be shocking but a museum that never shocks is failing in its duty

Culture wars do not come more richly laden in comedy than this. Since the end of March, an exhibition in the Qatari capital Doha has been celebrating the world’s most enduring sporting event. “Jump into an Olympic experience!” proclaims a promotional slogan, exhorting us to “discover the spirit of the Ancient Games”. All well and good. But be careful what you jump into. And never set the bar too high.

It seems that two statues of nude male athletes were among a collection of art works lent from Greece to form part of the travelling exhibition that in Qatar bears the title “The Olympics – Past and Present”. This should have come as no surprise. Nudity was revered in ancient Greece, and evidence shows that athletes competed naked in the Games.

But the Doha organisers were unimpressed and decided that the statues could not be shown in their original state. From here, accounts are a little blurred. According to reports in the Greek press, a compromise solution was suggested in which the statues would be covered in a piece of black cloth. “This was easily dismissed for its ridiculousness,” said the Greek newspaper To Vima, perhaps too easily dismissing the ridiculousness of much cultural diplomacy.

Enter Costas Tsavaras, Greece’s deputy minister of culture, on a bridge-building mission between the two countries. On visiting the exhibition, he reportedly found the statues behind a screen. The Furies – let’s keep it mythological – then descended. An ultimatum was issued, and declined. Tsavaras ordered the statues to be sent back to Greece. The rest of the exhibition, including a partially bare-breasted statue of Nike, remained intact and continues until the end of June.

The Qatar Museums Authority, in a statement to the Doha News, denied that the move not to display the statues was censorship, but “a decision to remove the objects was based on the flow of the exhibition, awareness of the outreach to all schools and families in Qatar, and desire to be sensitive to community needs and standards.”

Quite apart from its potential as a plot for a contemporary opera buffa, I liked this story for several reasons. First, it showed that the ancient world still has the power to disturb us. We are depressingly used to the damaging, often calamitous, effects of religious conflicts. But these are almost always shrouded in geopolitics, and often rooted in modern historical injustices.

I have not seen pictures of the statues but I am guessing that that which may have caused offence had probably been chopped off, possibly by earlier generations of offence-takers, or just clumsy handling (like the statue of an athlete, pictured). The drama over the dismembered ephebes on the other hand is more elemental. The lifestyle of the ancient Greeks, replete with demons, blood-lust, pornography and hideous acts of revenge, as well as the simple glorification of the human body, continues to haunt our imaginations. That is some testament to its power.

I also admired the reaction of Tsavaras, which I would like to think was explosive, but was more probably cloaked in diplomatic niceties. He simply demanded that these ancient works be paid nothing more than proper respect. That is all that any art work, mythological, religious or secular, deserves. Screens and drapes are not for the modern museum.

. . .

Say what you will about the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum,” says an online comment on To Vima’s story, “at least the British and [the museum’s] millions of visitors respect ancient Greek civilisation.” The British Museum, it should be noted, is showing in its Pompeii exhibition a statue of a god fornicating in the missionary position with a goat. It is shocking, but so is a lot of the past. A museum that never shocks is failing in its duty.

Which brings us to Qatar, and its admirable aspiration to become a global centre for culture. Its museums are breathtaking, as is the amount of money it is willing to spend on things to put inside them. Its presence in the art market is aggressive, but western countries should be wary of hypocritical criticism: they themselves were that way once.

But it needs to make up its mind about a thing or two. About what causes genuine offence and why. There’s nudity, and there’s nudity. This was no mischievous producer trying to put on a samizdat production of Hair in an underground space. The famous nude scene in that musical, like much liberationist culture of the 1960s, was bound up with rebellion and desire for political change. It is simple to see why it still does not appeal to conservative, non-democratic societies.

This case was different. There is no understanding of ancient Greek culture and its invention of sporting competition without recognising its worship of the human form. You just cannot have a serious exhibition on the ancient Olympics without addressing the theme of nudity.

Qatar made unsuccessful bids for both the 2016 and 2020 Games, and will no doubt make another one in the years to come. If it is serious about respecting the tradition of the event, let alone becoming a global centre for genuine cultural inquiry, it needs to get over its inhibitions. Whatever it has turned into today, sporting competition was once intended as a celebration of purity. Its innocent origins should be respected. It is the fig leaves and the Lycra outfits that should be banned.

peter.aspden@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

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