The Body Beautiful

In the September/October issue of Books & Culture, I reviewed The Greek Body by art historians Ian Jenkins and Victoria Turner. Here’s the introduction:

Dorphoros by Polycleitus

It’s not hyperbole to say that the ancient Greeks invented the body, at least in art. Sculpting the body was not only an artistic preoccupation but also a moral and social duty. The body didn’t belong to the person so much as the polis. Socrates is a curiosity because, even as he admired hard bodies at the gymnasium for their capacity to imitate the forms of Beauty (kalos) and Goodness (agathos) and regarded obesity as a sign of withdrawal from the public square, he had become fat himself—raising suspicions about his loyalty to Athens and his piety toward the gods. As a bearer of meaning, a plump, scrawny, or ugly body communicated moral defect, effeminacy, political apathy, or divine punishment—perhaps all of the above. A buffed and beautiful body communicated virtuous excellence (arête), masculinity, engagement in public affairs, and divine favor.

Sculptors visualized the contrast of values. A marble statuette from the Hellenistic Greek or Roman period depicts Socrates as possessing “the balding, snub-nosed, chubby-cheeked, pug-faced, and pot-bellied face and body of a satyr, the debauched follower of Dionysos, the god of wine,” as art historians Ian Jenkins and Victoria Turner observe in The Greek Body. The 4th-century doryphoros or “spear bearer,” a masterpiece of bronze worker Polycleitus, typifies the idealization of the male body that Socrates praised, if not ogled. It’s not the clothes that make the man but his naked body. The doryphoros struts the kind of body that’s the envy of every man, the kind featured on the cover of Men’s Fitness magazine: a six-pack stomach and etched pectorals, an iliac crest on the torso, firm buttocks, powerful thighs, and sharply defined calves. His beardless face signifies youthful vigor and his small penis sexual restraint. Above all, the doryphoros satisfies the canon of beauty developed by Polycleitus. Influenced by the Greek cosmologists and physicians who emphasized a balance of opposites, sculptors tried to achieve perfect harmony. Jenkins and Turner claim the doryphoros “relied for its effect upon an arrangement of limbs and muscles into a biochemical system of weight bearing and weight free, engaged and disengaged, stretched and contracted, tense and relaxed, raised and lowered parts.”

Click here to read the whole review.

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