He Who Demands the Most Praise – An Observation from the Ashmolean

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

In Virginia’s Woolf’s “Waxworks at the Abbey,” she writes about the effigies in Westminster Abbey, and she gives the utmost praise to Queen Elizabeth. Being the good feminist Virginia Woolf is, she makes the subtle subversive move of placing the woman in a higher place of power than the man. In this short piece, she discusses Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Wellington, and many other monuments that “solicit attention.” However, it is the queen that dominates the room – “as she once dominated England.” My favorite quote from the piece is when she says “There are many other hands holding other scepters and orbs,” but she says they all seem “insignificant” in comparison with the Queen.

In the Ashmolean, I felt a similar vibe when I went into the room concerning the topic of image-bearing. It cataloged how various people from various time periods have served as archetypes for certain characteristics in humans. The one that demanded the most attention was the sculpture of Augustus Caesar. He is said to typify both youth and vigor to the Romans. No one is sure if he really looked like the sculpture makes him out to be. It is quite an impressive sculpture. It is the biggest and the brightest, and you can nothing but stare it in honor. All the other images in the room might have had some type of power, can conveyed some type of image, but it is he who demanded the most praise. They all seemed insignificant to him. The museum is quite intentional on who they want you to pay attention to.

I would like now to further explicate a theme I hinted at earlier in this piece: “No one is really sure if he really looked like the sculpture makes him out to be.” What he really looked like does not matter, but what he represents does. This is something all cultures do in order to represent themselves in a way that they are proud of. The image of Augustus is not really attempting to portray Augustus accurately; it is trying to portray Roman history in a honorable way, regardless of the inaccuracies. Augustus is only a means to that end. As stated before, all cultures do this. Whether it is a tiny image on a coin, or a macroscopic sculpture of one of the most decorated men in the Western world, it is always about what the image represents for the people, and to the world at-large. Augustus could have been a little ugly runt, but that really does not matter. What matters is that he was a stable figure for the Romans to look to feel proud of their selves. This is what I’m finding out history is all about anyway: how winners want to be portrayed. Losers rarely get any say, and it rarely has any real interest in objective reality. Why does Caesar demand the most praise in the room? Well, Rome was one of the greatest empires in the world, and it has had a great impact on culture today. To put in one word: power, or influence.

I hope I do not sound too cynical. To be honest, postcolonial studies can make one become pretty bitter towards history in general. It is no coincidence that a Roman statue gets the most praise. Like Virginia Woolf, I have a problem with this. My quibble is a bit different though. I agree with her feminist argument, but I also dislike the Eurocentric vibe I get when I go to many museums. He should not demand the most praise, maybe equal praise, but not the most. I am sure there are many Native American and African and many other cultures’ rulers who did great things, too. And I know nothing about them. That is the whole point of this problem. Museums, and history books and so forth, do not talk about them much so it is hard to learn about them. It is too imbalanced, and Europe should try a little harder to undo some of the evils it has perpetuated for so long.

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