Artist Alan Nakagawa’s “Myth Not Myth” project deconstructs misperceptions about ancient art through conversation and sculpture. Interested in what role museums may have in perpetuating such misperceptions, he explored these issues in conversation with Getty Museum staff. Here curator and archaeologist Kenneth Lapatin reflects on the nature of myth in ancient Greece and how the experiences of modern visitors affect their responses to art, antiquities, and reproductions.

Nakagawa’s sculptures are presented free to the public in the Getty Villa’s Outer Peristyle on June 11, 18, and 25, 2016.

Listen to all of the Myth Not Myth interviews on Soundcloud »

Sound artist Alan Nakagawa interviews Getty Museum curator and archaeologist Kenneth Lapatin.

Sound artist Alan Nakagawa interviews Getty Museum curator and archaeologist Kenneth Lapatin.

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“Myth Not Myth” project description

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[instrumental music interspersed throughout]

KENNETH LAPATIN: You know, the different ways we use myth: there are myths, the ancient stories about the gods and goddesses or the heroes—Achilles, the Trojan War—and then there, then there are myths meaning, more broadly, the things that we believe that aren’t true. Of course, the term “myth,” muthos in Greek, has to do with, you know, a spoken story that’s passed down, and their myths were their history. The Trojan War was thought to be real and Troy has been found and excavated and there are lots of layers of Troy and there are destructions that are probably man-made, but was there ever a Trojan horse? Probably not. But, there might have been a siege engine, you know, that was brought up to the walls. So those lines blur and for the ancients, myth was kind of spoken history. For us it’s become fiction.

One of those later myths is the idea that the objects that survive from antiquity—the artifacts—speak for themselves. And it’s certainly true—you can go down into the museum and look at a statue or vase and respond to it. And the way it makes you feel and how you think it might have functioned and what it means, that’s very real. You know, I’ve, I’ve come to learn that, in relationships and as well as in the world, what people feel is real and has to be addressed, even if it’s based on an erroneous assumption, a misunderstanding, or misinterpretation.

People bring their own experiences to objects and that deeply affects how they respond to them. And that’s valid. But as a historian, as an archeologist, I would hope that’s not enough because these objects have lives and histories and we can look at a portrait, for example, in the bronzes [Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World; July 28-November 1, 2015] show we just had at Getty Center. Very expressive bronze portrait from the 2nd century BC and we can say, “This man looks upset.” But all we have is his head without his body, so we don’t know … we’re reading a lot into his face, whereas his body, if he was nude and proud, or draped in a mantle of a magistrate, or in armor, that would change how we would read his face. And, if there’s, if he stood on a stone base with an inscription that told us his name, his age, who he was, and what he did, we might learn that rather than upset, he was a great benefactor of the city and he spent a lot of time and money worrying about his citizens, that he rebuilt a temple and he gave scholarships to poor students and he went on embassies. So he’s not upset. Maybe he’s engaged, he’s thoughtful, he’s concerned, he’s really active, and that’s why his brow is furrowed and he’s looking so serious.

Poll the public what it is to be an artist, originality would rank very highly. In antiquity I don’t think it would have ranked so highly. It would have been skill, knowing the craft, doing detailed work, doing fine work, having training, etc. And so the idea of a work being an original versus a copy—copy, replica, reproduction—for us these are all bad words coming out of the Renaissance tradition. For the ancients, when they didn’t have printing presses, they didn’t have 3-D printers, they didn’t have photography, having multiples of things didn’t make them necessarily worse.

But, when we get to sculpture and painting, we’re still fetishizing the idea of the masterwork of the genius artist and that’s the original and all the others are replicas and there’s a gulf between them. So that, I think, is a major myth of our field, but it’s one that’s in evolution because of how contemporary artists are working, I think. And also, you have things like music sampling, which, I think, is in some ways analogous to that.


KENNETH LAPATIN: We also know that there were some craftsman who operated on a near-industrial scale. We have their signatures on pots. Maybe not, you know, done by different hands. So as if their workshop had a standard signature even though multiple people were in it. And then, there are, I think as today, I think we should think of these, you know, artists … as many successful artists today, they have to be businessmen or they have to have business managers, and so there is a brand. But it’s hard to know exactly what went on because so much of what we have about the lives of artists and their practice is written centuries later. We think of antiquity, but the Romans were as far from the Greeks in some ways as we are from Michelangelo. We lump it all together, but there’s a big gap.

And in some of my works on forgery I’ve come to realize, you know, that quality is not a indicator of authenticity or age. We have a stunning gem that for years was thought to be Ancient Roman. It’s early 19th century. It’s just as stunning. It’s just not ancient.


KENNETH LAPATIN: It’s a modern work in ancient style. And often the quality of forgeries is higher than that of historical artifacts because the money involved, because the forgers are going, paying that extra effort. And for Roman portraits versus, say, Renaissance forgeries or works in emulation of Roman portraits, the Renaissance work is usually more highly finished. They want to get every curl right, whereas the Roman, who was an artisan—he was doing this for the money; he knew the piece was going to go in a niche—so he’s going to leave the back, the curls at the back of the head unfinished because no one’s going to see them, it doesn’t matter. But, for the Renaissance carver, the forger, it has to be perfect, and so it’s ironic that, you know, sometimes it’s not good enough to be original, sometimes it’s too good to be original. [ALAN LAUGHING] But that’s one of the other questions about forgeries. You have a painting that’s meant to be a Rembrandt and everybody admires it for years and years and years. And then suddenly it’s declared it’s not a Rembrandt and then, suddenly, it goes into the basement. And the philosophers say this is insane. The object has not changed. The object that you admired for its amazing brushstrokes and its vivid color and its, you know, its ability to capture the inner soul of the sitter, it’s all still there, but obviously we’re investing something in the idea of Rembrandt and the master hand that we’re not admitting because suddenly now this gets relegated to the basement and why should it? If we admired it before, why do we feel cheated now?


KENNETH LAPATIN: They want to know how that statue was used, what it meant—so, where it was found, what was next to it, had it been moved in antiquity, does it have repairs? So, we’re trying to read, as best we can, the totality of ancient culture and so we’re not just digging to grab stuff. That’s why Pompeii is 2/5 unexcavated. We have so much stuff we’re still processing and we have to conserve and we don’t understand that it would be irresponsible just to dig more of it up to get the treasure, because as someone once said, “Doing excavation is like reading the book of history and burning each page as you read it.” ‘Cause you’re removing all that stuff. And so, if you’re not taking good notes, you’re losing information.

[instrumental music interspersed throughout]

KENNETH LAPATIN: You know, the different ways we use myth: there are myths, the ancient stories about the gods and goddesses or the heroes—Achilles, the Trojan War—and then there, then there are myths meaning, more broadly, the things that w...