Last week I was in Nashville to present at a conference at Vanderbilt. It was my first visit to Nashville, so I did some sightseeing and the like, and found myself at The Parthenon. So, the city of Nashville created a replica, to scale, of the original Parthenon in 1897 as part of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Of all the times in history I’d like to go back and visit, the turn of the century, pre-WWI Gilded Age is high atop my list, in large part because of the “world’s fair” culture, of which this Centennial Exposition was a part (maybe it’s just because I watched “Meet Me in St. Louis” one too many times as a child). Anyway…so Nashville created a replica of the Parthenon, at least, a replica of how it was thought to look, back in the glory days of ancient Greece before it was reduced to a pile of marble and an assortment of crumbling Doric columns.
I’ve been to the original Parthenon, high atop a hill in Athens, as well. And I have to say: I left the Parthenon in Nashville feeling like I actually had had a more accurate experience of the Parthenon there.
I struggle with the question of the status of reproduction and restoration in art, architecture, and the like. What is it that makes an original an original? When I went to the acropolis in Greece, I couldn’t help but feel like I wasn’t getting a true understanding of the acropolis at all. The Parthenon and the surrounding buildings, once wondrous testaments to feats of engineering and aesthetic beauty, were nothing more than a pile of rocks. Sacrilege, I know. But, art and architecture lover that I am, that is nonetheless the experience I had there. Going into the Parthenon in Nashville, however, I really felt the wonder of the building, with its clean and ordered exterior and soaring interior…complete with a hilariously gaudy statue of Athena. Debates about the way the statue would have looked are inconclusive (and, of course, there’s the lingering question of the coloration of Greek statuary and architecture dating back to the Hittorff debates in the 19th century), but there is good evidence that there was a massive gold statue of Athena inside the Parthenon. And I have to say, the one they produced in the Nashville Parthenon looks like it could be of a piece with Koons’s 1988 sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles. But maybe the massive Athena statue really was that gaudy?
Even if it wasn’t, I had an affective experience in the Nashville Parthenon that was entirely lacking to me when I visited the actual Parthenon in the acropolis of Athens. And the absence of that emotional reaction to the real thing made me wonder, is this the real thing? Sure, these are the literal blocks of stone of the original Parthenon. But they are bleached white over centuries, they’ve been damaged and weather beaten, leaving–at least for me– no impression of what the original Parthenon would have been like. That impression is precisely what I got from the Nashville Parthenon, with its beautiful colored stones and absurdly gigantic Athena statue and finished, polished grandeur. Does it matter that it’s not the “original”? Was the experience I had of the Parthenon more “original” when I saw the reproduction than when I saw the original itself?