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Ancient Image, Modern Eyes - Report

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An exciting day of interactive workshops, discussions and activities on the theme of Classical Antiquity as it appears in modern media and advertising

Beginning with the Renaissance and happening as recently as Ariana Grande’s video for the hit song God is a Woman, the ancient – and most often the Classical – world has been a constant source of inspiration for the visual media we create. Whether we reference it allusively or borrow from it directly, the Classical World has never gone out of fashion when it comes to art, advertising and design – and shows no sign of doing so.

Why does modernity seemingly have such an obsession with all things ancient and mythical? In what ways has classical imagery been used to be persuasive, beautiful, aspirational or evocative? How might our continued reliance on this imagery serve to enshrine negative or derogatory ideas concerning race, gender and aesthetics?

Welcome

On Wednesday 6th March 2019, the Dept. of Classics and Ancient History and the Warwick Classics Network welcomed over sixty pupils and teachers from President Kennedy School in Coventry, The Kingsley School in Leamington, and the Sir Christopher Hatton Academy in Wellingborough, Northants, to the University's Westwood campus for the event 'Ancient Images, Modern Eyes.' The pupils who attended were from Y9-Y12 and included those studying Classics, Art and GCSE English.

The project was the idea of our Warwick Classics postgraduate student Kathryn Thompson, who organised the event and funded it with the money she was awarded by the WATE (Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence) which recognised her contribution to undergraduate teaching and work with the Sutton Trust Summer School.

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Kathryn Thompson

The day began with an introduction by the Head of Dept., Prof. Zahra Newby, who welcomed the students and teachers, and introduced them to the work of the Classics Dept. and the Warwick Classics Network. Zahra highlighted the importance to the classicists here at Warwick in making our work accessible to the wider public, and of the tradition of inclusivity here at Warwick, our department being the first to accept students without a classical background. That said, Zahra also highlighted the efforts which the Dept. and the WCN are making to help schools in the region and beyond to introduce some classics to their curriculum. This event, in fact, offered just this opportunity, and with the teaching resources developed from the day, we hope that many more schools will be able to find some room for classics in a busy school curriculum.

After Prof. Newby's introduction, three of our Warwick postgraduate academics led interactive workshops as detailed below.

Kathryn Thompson on Reinvention, Rejection & Subversion: The ‘Fantasy’ of Antiquity in Modern Visual Culture & Modernity’s Perception of the Ancient Past

In Kathryn’s session, participants were invited to take a closer look at the actual processes according to which Antiquity has been transformed into a trope or device for signalling certain social or artistic messages in visual media, in order to explore the potential effect this has on what modern society thinks about Antiquity itself. In this way, the session investigated how the ancient world is both conspicuously and inconspicuously altered, repurposed, reimagined or subverted in order to achieve a particular objective – whether that be to advertise a product and its supposed benefits, to create a character for a pop-star, or to make a socio-political comment on modern culture and its ideals.

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Rather than approaching the subject-matter thematically, therefore – such as through the lenses of ‘gender’ or ‘race’ – Kathryn encouraged students to ask: HOW is antiquity being used here, WHY do you think this is, and WHAT EFFECT does this have on how a viewer might conceive of ‘Antiquity’ itself, as well as its relationship to the challenges facing modern society? Students discussed how Antiquity is repeatedly used as visual tool for: sexualisation; conveying tradition or sophistication; idealisation; exoticism; and conveying familiarity through being portrayed as an analogue for modernity. Accordingly, participants came to recognise the many conflicting impressions of ‘Antiquity’ which inhabit modern visual culture, as well as the often-problematic differences in how ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt are utilised. Ultimately, this session was not about policing the historical ‘accuracy’ of different depictions of the ancient world, but questioning modernity’s habitual use of Antiquity as a means of authorising its own ideals and agendas and, in turn, the role this has on how the study of ancient history is perceived and valued by the wider public.

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Nick Brown on Gender and Sexuality

Nick's session dealt with how ideas and images from the classical world have been used by modern advertisers and pop-stars to convey messages about their gendered bodies. The session challenged the students to think about the ideals that the classical world has been used to construct in the modern world. Specifically, the students were presented with images from modern media to identify the ways in which the modern world uses a skewed image of Classical Greek sculpture to construct a paragon of the male physique.

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In contrast to the use of classical sculpture for constructing modern masculinity, the second half of the session looked at the characterisation of modern women as classical monsters, such as Medusa. Finally, a discussion of the bodies absent from these types of media (such as disabled, non-binary, and bodies of colour) and their presence in both ancient and modern art was discussed for the way that they have been marginalised and used to create a counter-narrative within society. By deconstructing these images through the lenses of art history and modern theories such as feminism, students were able to assess the political role that both modern and classical imagery play in today's society of diversity and inclusion.

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Dr Joanna Kemp on Antiquity and Race

Joanna’s session explored how images of the ancient world have been used to express ideas of race and identity throughout history and in the modern age. The students examined 2017 Twitter reactions to claims that the Roman world was culturally and ethnically diverse, and then considered why people seemed unwilling to believe this. This involved exploring historic ‘whitewashing’ of the Classical world by Hollywood, in the form of Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra in 1963, as well as modern advertising campaigns using ideas of the marbles brought back during The Grand Tour, to create an impression of a monotone world. Discussions then moved onto reactions to such ideas with an investigation of how Beyoncé, Rhianna and Pharrell Williams play on modern impressions of Ancient Egypt to make statements about their own identities.

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The students created presentations in groups about the statements that Beyoncé and Jay-Z were making in their Apesh*t video, and how they used artworks displayed in the Louvre to remark on who is present in such works and who is missing, as well as how these can be used to comment on modern society. The class then discussed how successful such representations are and considered alternative ways in which the ancient world could be used to create ideas about race and identity in today’s societies.

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Overall Aim

The aim of these sessions was not only to introduce classics and the ancient world to those who might otherwise not have much interest or exposure to these things, but to reveal the continuing use of classical images and themes in modern media, and to use these to discuss issues of race, identity, and sexuality.

Over the course of this event, the sessions explored:

  • a variety of media which has utilised imagery from, or reminiscent of, the ancient world and the purpose or intentions behind the usage of such imagery;
  • what the modern use of images designed to look ancient or classical says about our relationship with our ancient past;
  • the ways in which images and ideas from classical antiquity are in fact reconfigured or manipulated – both consciously and unconsciously – for modern media purposes, and the effect this has on our perception/understanding of classical antiquity itself;
  • the ways in which the depiction of classical antiquity participates in wider issues surrounding the portrayal of race and ethnicity;
  • the part the depiction of classical antiquity in media and advertising has played in both establishing and reinforcing long-held ideas concerning gender and sexuality;
  • the ways in which evoking classical antiquity has been used as a tool for sexualisation and to reinforce certain aesthetic/bodily ideals;
  • the ways in which, in recent years, classical antiquity has in fact been increasingly invoked in order to repurpose/reclaim imagery which previously signalled the disenfranchisement of certain groups, or to spotlight issues concerning social diversity and thus provoke conversation as to how to better achieve diverse representation in modern visual culture;
  • the very benefit of looking at both the ancient world and modern media through this lens.

Following the success of these sessions and the enthusiastic response from both pupils and teachers, we are creating resources and teaching materials based on these sessions. While these will be of interest to teachers of classics and ancient history, above all, we hope that these resources will be used by teachers of English, Art and Media Studies, who will be able to use classical examples to discuss challenging topics such as social injustice, sexuality, race and identity.

‘Brilliant! I am now going to ensure, when teaching social injustice, that examples and conversations around classics take place.’ - Emily Darke, Associate Teacher of English, President Kennedy School.

Indeed, this event provided a stimulating vehicle for putting into practice some of the wider aims of the various GCSE Media syllabi, helping to inform students’ critical understanding of the role of the media on its contemporary society. It achieved this by:

  • providing students with an engaging opportunity to develop enquiry, critical thinking and creative skills through consideration of issues that are important, real and relevant to them and to the world in which they live;
  • providing students with a unique context in which to consider aspects of style, presentation, values, audience and representation and to employ their understanding of relevant media codes and conventions;
  • providing students with an innovative framework within which to exercise fundamental principles of semiotic analysis, including denotation and connotation;
  • encouraging students to consider how a medium engages the interest of its audience, and to make judgements as to who a target audience might be;
  • allowing students to consider how the form itself influences the nature of the product as well as how audiences interpret and respond to different media forms and even become producers themselves;
  • enabling students to appreciate the ways in which the media re-presents (rather than simply presents) the world and constructs versions of reality, and the ways aspects of reality may be represented differently depending on the purposes of the producers;
  • enriching students’ awareness of current debates and audience issues, including several aspects of bias and representation;
  • encouraging students to consider the different functions and uses of stereotypes, including an understanding of how stereotypes become established and how they may vary over time;
  • encouraging students to consider how and why particular social groups may be underrepresented or misrepresented, as well as the social, cultural and political significance of particular representations in terms of the themes or issues that they address, and how different representations reflect the social, historical and cultural contexts in which they were produced.

VR Headsets

During lunch break, Dr Paul Grigsby introduced the pupils to ancient Athens via our VR headsets. These always provide a readily accessible and exciting introduction to the ancient world. These headsets are proving very useful in bringing the ancient world to life, especially in pupils who have had little access to classics. These headsets have been used by the WCN in other local schools. Recently, our Athens VR has been used at Solihull Sixth Form open day (Saturday 13th October). In addition, from 21-31st January, WCN loaned the Headsets to Spalding School in Lincolnshire, where they were used to inspire potential Classicists at the Open Day on 21st Jan, and also used in lessons (Yrs 8,9,10,11 and 6th Form). If you are interested in experiencing these headsets yourselves, please contact Dr Paul Grigsby Paul dot Grigsby at Warwick dot ac dot uk.

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Creative Responses

This event culminated in participants designing their own advertising campaign inspired by an aspect of ancient society. The day allowed young people to engage with Classics and Ancient History in a way that was purposeful and strongly relevant to them – not just as students, but also as consumers of modern media, and as members of a diverse modern society.

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You may also be interested in our Teachers' Booklet. Please also feel free to use our teaching resources.