Monday, October 17, 2011
36. Warren Cup (Judea, AD 5-15)
MacGregor uses this amazing embossed silver cup to introduce a series of objects telling stories of pleasure and recreation from two thousand years ago, and I suspect he starts with this one knowing it’ll grab people’s attention. I gotta confess I thought it was a little weird, in the museum, to have this explicit work of—let’s call it “erotic art”—front and center, with lots of kids milling about; but that just goes to show you how conservatively I’ve been socialized. Nah, it’s just a cup. The holy grail.
Presumably this belonged to a well-to-do Roman living in the Judea of King Herod, when Jesus was very small. MacGregor hypothesizes that the owner liked to host all-male dinner parties along the lines of Plato’s Symposium, and had this cup made (or purchased) for passing around at such gatherings. The cup itself is carefully encoded—one side shows a more idealized coupling, with two quasi-Greek adolescents in an odd, Kama Sutra-esque pose (above); the other a more realistic image of an older guy (you can tell ‘cause he’s got a beard) with a younger guy settling down on top of him with help from a sling or curtain.
If you look closely at the more realistic picture, you see a third guy peering around the door; MacGregor posits both an idealized/romantic interpretation, that that’s a peeping Tom there to heighten the erotic charge of the image, and the more realistic interpretation, that that’s a slave nervously answering a bell-call.
Anyway, the history of the cup is fascinating—at one point in the 20th century an offended US customs official in Boston even refused to allow it into the country. MacGregor points out that it was probably always controversial, since even in ancient Rome (or Roman Judea) it’s not like there were yearly pride parades. The artist must have used the trope of “Greek love,” all these ancient Greek haircuts and these overtones of the Symposium, to give the Roman user a charge of the exotic to go with the erotic.
One of MacGregor’s colleagues testifies on the podcast that she thinks this cup is one of the most beautiful objects in the museum, and that she intends to bring her daughter there and show it to her when it comes time to have ‘the talk’ and she wants her kid to understand homosexuality. Again, I suspect that’s in the podcast politically, to make a strong statement and head any outraged homophobes off at the pass. For myself, while I suspect we Americans are currently giving kids lots of terribly mixed-up and confusing messages about love and sex and gays and straights, something in me still feels that it’s better to keep kids away from porn. Not sure whether I’d want my dependants to encounter this object. Although, thinking it through as I write this, the important part is less whether they encounter it or not—assuming they’re going to be citizens of the world, they’ll encounter it eventually. More important is probably the attitude with which I give (or deny) them permission to acknowledge or participate in what this object represents. (I’ll never forget, as a teenager, noticing my father’s appraisal—and dismissal—of a not-particularly great piece of erotic art we encountered somewhere; I remember that he acknowledged it, wasn’t very impressed by it, and moved on. Nothing special.) After all, that’s what’s important to a kid—who WE are, as a family, not who THEY were (the people who made the object).