Scholars vary in how and to what extent they engage with the public. Sarah Bond, an assistant professor of classics at the University of Iowa, works at the high end of the engagement spectrum, via a blog, other use of social media, a column in Forbes and more. She’s described her efforts as a way of making antiquities accessible to all, but recent threats she’s received demonstrate the potential perils of that outreach.
Earlier this month, Bond published an article in the online arts publication Hyperallergic saying that research shows ancient Western artifacts were painted in different colors but have, over time, faded to their base light marble color — giving the false impression that white skin was the classical ideal.
“Modern technology has revealed an irrefutable, if unpopular, truth: many of the statues, reliefs and sarcophagi created in the ancient Western world were in fact painted,” she wrote. “Marble was a precious material for Greco-Roman artisans, but it was considered a canvas, not the finished product for sculpture. It was carefully selected and then often painted in gold, red, green, black, white and brown, among other colors.”
While today’s scholars have accepted this as fact, she said, the general public is another story. Part of the problem is that most museums and art history textbooks continue to contain “a predominantly neon white display of skin tone when it comes to classical statues and sarcophagi.”
The “assemblage of neon whiteness serves to create a false idea of homogeneity — everyone was very white! — across the Mediterranean region,” she continued. “The Romans, in fact, did not define people as ‘white’; where, then, did this notion of race come from? … The equation of white marble with beauty is not an inherent truth of the universe.”
Bond suggests this misunderstanding has perpetuated or been used to support racism over time, saying that “how it continues to influence white supremacist ideas today [is] often ignored.” Groups such as Identity Europa, for example, use classical statuary “as a symbol of white male superiority,” she added. “It may have taken just one classical statue to influence the false construction of race, but it will take many of us to tear it down.”
It’s hardly a shocking idea, and it’s one other scholars have raised before. But some conservative and farther-right websites picked up the Hyperallergic piece, drawing to it negative attention. Campus Reform, for example reported that the Iowa professor recently said “appreciation of ‘white marble’ used in classical artwork contributes to ‘white supremacist ideas today.’”
Scoffing at Bond’s suggestion that better museum signage, 3-D reconstructions alongside originals and computerized light projections can help contextualize antiquities, National Review said, “That should, presumably, work to diminish all of that racism.”
Campus Reform included some lengthy quotes from Bond’s piece and contacted her for comment. She complied, saying that “Greeks and Romans actually added color to their art and thus white marble was often the canvas rather than the finished product.” The “exalting of white (and unpainted) marble was then an 18th century construct of beauty rather than representative of the classical view,” she added in an email to the website. But the coverage there and elsewhere, plus an additional mention by conservative talk radio host Joe Pags, was enough to prompt online threats of violence and calls for her termination, she says. There was additional heckling and harassment, including anti-Semitic references (Bond is of Jewish descent).
“What they want to believe is that there is a liberal professor that is so sensitive to race issues that she will make race issues out of anything,” Bond told ArtForum. “They want to make me an example of the hyperliberalization of the academy.”
Bond also wrote a blog post in April saying she’d faced harassment for a column in Forbes similar to her Hyperallergic essay.
“I knew when I started taking notes on the subject of polychromy many months ago that this column would likely cause a stir within the field, among colleagues and online,” she said. “I had thought that I was prepared for the internet trolls. After all, I have crossed many proverbial bridges on Twitter –– where they usually lurk. However, the hatred and invective I received from this post was more than anything I have ever received to date.”
Through a university spokesperson, Bond declined additional interview requests but said Iowa “has stood by me and supported me through all of the online harassment.”
The American Association of University Professors has expressed concern about increasing reports of online harassment and intimidation of scholars, and encouraged institutions to do more to support targeted faculty members. Specifically, AAUP “urges administrations, governing boards and faculties, individually and collectively, to speak out clearly and forcefully to defend academic freedom and to condemn targeted harassment and intimidation of faculty members.” It also recommends that “administrations and elected faculty bodies work jointly to establish institutional regulations that prohibit the surreptitious recording of classroom discourse or of private meetings between students and faculty members.”
Tressie McMillan Cottom, an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University who, like Bond, sees public engagement as central to her work, wrote in a 2015 blog post that if institutions want their scholars to perform such outreach, they have to be ready to accept the “burden” it brings in a hyperactive media landscape. Her words may be even more relevant today.
“In this moment we should call for institutions to state explicitly what they owe those who venture into public waters,” McMillan Cottom wrote. “Because public scholarship means pissing people off. You think it does not or that it can be done without doing that. You are wrong. As audiences collapse, everything is a point of controversy. And as pre-existing powerful actors and institutions band together to force context collapse, everything can be dressed in the uniform of outrage: petitions, emails, phone calls, rhetorical gut punches, think pieces, etc.”
It doesn’t take much to make a controversy, she said, suggesting that institutions have a “first line of defense” against email and phone onslaughts, a protocol for dealing with threats against scholars, and a strong, joint faculty-administrative awareness of what social media means to public scholarship, among other recommendations.
Denise McCoskey, a professor of classics and black world studies at Miami University who has been cited by Bond for her work on race in the ancient Western world, said she thought Bond’s essay essentially asks why, “when we know better, do we want to continue diminishing our understanding of the ancient world by covering over all its differences? Why do we want the ancient world to reflect ‘us’ — a particular group of ‘us’ for sure — back so perfectly rather than use it to interrogate more fundamentally who we are, what we think and why?”
McCoskey said she’s never been targeted for her own work touching on similar issues, but said her students do react “quite dramatically” to the notion that the ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t see the race in black and white. That reaction is one of “excitement,” she said, and an opportunity to see something perceived as fundamental in a new way, but “that very proposition is much more threatening and distressing to other audiences in today’s climate.”
Perhaps most distressing about Bond’s case, she said, is that “it seems quite clear that the people who have had the most violent reaction to her essay are the ones who have not actually read it,” relying instead on “distorted and misleading summaries.”