The ‘Parthenon of Books’, an installation by artist Marta Minujín, exhibited at the Documenta 14 art festival in Kassel in Germany, is visually striking. Transparent, aerial, and ephemeral it appeals to the senses, while its symbolism as a monument to censored books burned by the Nazis aims to denounce political oppression. As an artistic intervention in a public space, it succeeds in catching the public’s attention and relay its message.
The Parthenon was indeed the finest example of ancient architecture, but its choice as a tangible symbol against political oppression is problematic in so many ways:
- It sustains romantic 19th c. and 20th c. notions of the Greco-Roman past as the canon for grand-scale public monumental architectural projects.
- It perpetuates elitist associations of books (and thus, of libraries and archives) with grandiose, imposing buildings that at their inception were not meant to welcome diverse publics, but to instill awe, exclude and promote mainstream narratives.
- The Parthenon was built for religious purposes, as a temple to goddess Athena. Again, it was not meant to welcome people–in fact, people could not enter the sanctuary, and public worship was conducted at the perimeter. It was simply meant to glorify the state.
- In her statement, the artist justifies the choice of Parthenon as reflecting “the aesthetic and political ideals of the world’s first democracy”–the fact is though that we transpose contemporary understandings of democracy to ancient times. Although indeed Athenian democracy was the first time people participated directly in legislative and executive matters, still it was not at all what we think of democracy today. As a system of governance, it was limited to adult male citizens (directly descended from citizen parents) and excluded women, any foreign-born residents, slaves and freed slaves.
- Finally, the Parthenon was an oppressive symbol of the hegemony of the city-state of Athens over its allies. It was built with money usurped from tributes that ally states paid to the treasury of the Delian League, an alliance formed by Greek city-states, headed by Athens, to fight the Persian Empire. Gradually, the Delian League turned all but in name into an Athenian empire. In 454 BC, Pericles transferred the League’s treasury to Athens–and afterwards a series of grandiose public projects were started in the city, among them the Parthenon (which for a time did also serve as a treasury of the Delian League).
As a Greek, I do find the silhouette of the Parthenon against the Athenian sky simply a majestic, sublime image of eternal beauty. I raise however the points above in order to draw attention to the implications of using glorified, often unchallenged, and banal symbols from the past for addressing contemporary issues. Beyond that, the ‘Parthenon of Books’ is brilliant in its conception and serves as a reminder to a dark past that one prays will never repeat itself. Artistically, I am sure that it achieves its purpose to move one’s heart and mind, and inspire us to think.