Winckelmann’s Victims

Conference

Date: September 20-22, 2018

Location: Sint-Baafshuis, Biezekapelstraat 2, Ghent, Belgium
For the full programme, click here.

You can register by sending an email to Tim.Noens@UGent.be.

Keynote speakers

  • Liz Prettejohn (University of York): The Future of Winckelmann’s Classical Form: Walter Pater and Frederic Leighton
  • Irene Zwiep (University of Amsterdam): Winckelmann’s Converts. The Wissenschaft des Judentums and the Classical Jewish Canon
  • Mark Vessey (University of British Columbia): History, Criticism and the Crisis of the Western Classic: On the Production of a Late(r) Latin Literature

Topic

“Der einzige Weg für uns, groß, ja, wenn
es möglich ist, unnachahmlich zu werden, is
die Nachahmung der Alten.” – Johannes Winckelmann

Classics played a major and fundamental role in the cultural history of Western Europe. Few would call this into question. Since the Carolingian period, notably ‘classical’ literature has served as a constant source and model of creativity and inspiration, by which the literary identity of Europe has been negotiated and (re-)defined. The tendency to return to the classics and resuscitate them remains sensible until today, as classical themes and stories are central to multiple contemporary literary works, both in ‘popular’ and ‘high’ culture. Think for instance of Rick Riordan’s fantastic tales about Percy Jackson or Colm Tóibín’s refined novels retelling the Oresteia.

At the same time, this orientation and fascination towards the classics throughout literary history has often — implicitly or explicitly— gone hand in hand with the cultivation of a certain normativity, regarding aesthetics, content, decency, theory, … Classical works, and the ideals that were projected on them, have frequently been considered as the standard against which the quality of a literary work should be measured. Whether a text was evaluated as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depended on the extent to which it could meet the ‘classical’ requirements. Probably the most famous example of someone advocating such a classical norm was the German art critic Johannes Winckelmann (1717-1768), whose death will be commemorated in 2018. His Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums may be considered as the embodiment of the idea that the classics should be the norm for aesthetic or even any evaluation, such as, in Western Europe, it has recurrently cropped up, to a greater or lesser degree, from the Early Middle Ages until modern times.

Almost inevitably, this normativity has implied, shaped and fed prejudices and thoughts of exclusion towards literary features and aesthetic characteristics that seemed to deviate from classical ideals. Throughout literary history, examples occur of literary works, styles and genres that were generally appreciated within their time or context of origin, yet whose quality was retrospectively called into question because they were said not to be in accordance with the classical norm as it prevailed at the moment of judgement. Sometimes, this has even applied to whole periods. The persistence of similar assessments up until today is telling for the impact classical normativity still exercises. Besides, literary texts, though clearly not created to conform to the ‘classical’ standard, have been ‘classicized’ during judgement, being forced by a critic to fit into a classical framework and celebrated for its so-called imitation of antiquity. Even the Classics themselves often had and have to obey to this process of ‘classicization’. Therefore, with a sense for drama, one could say that all these works, literary forms, periods, etc. have seriously ‘suffered’ from the prejudices born from classics-based normativity, being the ‘victims’ of Winckelmann-like ideas concerning ‘classical’ standards.

This conference aims to consider classical normativity with its including prejudices and exclusions as a case- study for cultural self-fashioning by way of European literature. It seeks to explore how the normative status ascribed to the classics and the ensuing prejudices have, from the Early Middle Ages to modern times, influenced and shaped thoughts and views of the literary identity of Western Europe. Therefore, we propose the following questions:

  • What are the processes behind this normativity of the Classics? Is it possible to discern a conceptual continuum behind the time and again revival of the Classics as the norm for ‘good’ literature? Or, rather, are there clear conceptual and concrete divergences between succeeding periods of such ‘classical’ normativity?
  • What are the links (conceptual, historical, aesthetic, political, …) between the normativity of the Classics and the excluded ones, both in synchronic and diachronic terms? How does literary normativity of the Classics imply literary prejudices and exclusions?
  • How has normativity of the Classics with its prejudices and exclusions imposed an identity on European literature (and literary culture)?
  • What does this normativity of the Classics with its prejudices and exclusions mean for the conceptualization of European literary history?

Besides these conceptual questions, we also welcome case studies that may illustrate both the concrete impact of classical normativity and concrete examples of prejudice and exclusion as resulting from this normativity. We think of topics such as

  • the Classics themselves as victims of retrospective ‘classical’ normativity
  • the exclusion of literary periods that are considered non- or even contra-classical (baroque, medieval,…) and the clash with non-European literature
  • literary ‘renaissances’ and their implications
  • classical normativity and its impact on literatures obedient to political aims (fascism, populism, …)
  • literary appeal to the classics as a way of structuring and (re-)formulating society (‘higher’ liberal arts vs. ‘lower’ crafts and proficiencies, literary attitudes towards slavery, …)

Poster_Definitief