Bust of Dionysus/Bacchus, circa 117-138 AD
Marble; chiseled and drilled
Roman copy of a Greek original of the 4th century BC
A Roman bust of Dionysus sits within the Royal Ontario Museum among other Roman sculptural artifacts with a displayed date of circa 117-138 AD. Dionysus is the god of vegetation, wine and ecstasy within the Greek pantheon. His aspects are mirrored in Roman mythology under the god Bacchus. This marble sculpture depicts Dionysus as youthful and idealized; soft features are paired with long hair over his shoulders. Adorning his head are floral elements and a thin fabric band known as a Dionysiac fillet. This god is first mentioned upon a Linear B (the earliest known form of Greek) tablet from the 13th century BCE; followers of the cult of Dionysus amassed to perform rituals in his name for over a thousand years. To those familiar with these rituals he represented a way to “bridge the gaps between the three spheres of the world – nature, humanity, and divinity. Humanity emerges from nature and aspires to divinity”. The connection between nature, humanity and divinity is found in the identification of his followers with animals. Men took on the shape of satyrs; half beasts. Women wore the skins of animals and were sometimes depicted as suckling wild animals or eating raw flesh. This dissolution of boundaries is also expressed in the intoxicating ability of wine to break down social barriers between people. Such an object carries the weight of thousands of years of human devotion; we cannot view it without submitting our own retinal experiences to it's eternal visual network and subsequently interfacing with the millions of individual human histories entangled in it. But this does not imply we can wholly understand the object or even comprehend why it is beautiful – ultimately it is an artifact and has been removed from any sort of authentic context.
When we approach the bust of Dionysus we do not see just the physical presence of the object as a result of light being interpreted by our brain; we also see the object for how we understand it as an individual. That understanding is influenced by not only every other object we've come to perceive but also the specific social climates we have been exposed to until that point. To create an artistic movement or an environment that encourages communal constructive critique of artworks those involved must first create their work in a way that can be understood and analyzed by others. The only way this is possible is by creating works in such a fashion that adheres to a socially constructed understanding of intelligent form that the individuals are familiar with.
Norman Bryson posits in his work entitled The Gaze in the Expanded Field this interaction between our catalogue of experiences and physically present objects is called visuality, which is defined separately from vision. Vision is the result of a biological process; light wavelengths enter our eyes and in turn trigger specific signals in our brain that can tell us what is physically present. Visuality is dependent on the act of understanding and interpreting not only the physical object but how you individually contextualize of it. The construction of an individual's visuality is a cultural and societal process; it is the result of every visual dialogue that said person has ever had. When we attempt to apply our visuality to the bust in this room we feel at the centre of our vision; it is only us the viewer and the viewed. Our understanding of the object is completely based upon our own visuality at this point. The moment another object or person enters the room our vision is decentered and we must consider the inherent visuality of this new subject. Additionally, we ourselves become subjects to a new viewer.
Now that there is two individuals viewing and being viewed from several different tangents an outer discourse may occur. One may ask the other how beautiful the object is. The question of beauty is entangled in the extreme breadth of each subject's visuality and so it can be difficult to qualify. In Mark Rothko's attempt to reconcile the definition of beauty he gives three parts: “beauty conforms to the demands of the spirit”, it is “a reaction to rightness, reflected in an ideal of proportions”, or “a sign of the reception of the creative impulse”. To those that are not prone to creative impulses the first two segments apply directly to the 2nd century bust of Dionysus. The current location of this piece among other fragments of Roman sculpture in a back room at the Royal Ontario Museum removes it's cultural context and in result it struggles in it's appeal to the viewer's sense of mythos or the demands of their spirit. Although, the ideal proportions of the bust would be immediately apparent to a viewer who has come to understand that a “work of art is an unreality” as Sartre has suggested. To those with an inadequately developed sculptural visuality the piece would seem to be a strangely chiseled and drilled lump of white marble. Sartre suggests that if we merely dwell on the physicality of the object the sculpture will never become a part of our own “experiential world [which] gives way to an awareness of the man in the [marble]” What we see as Dionysus is not the same as his material substance. The only way to see Dionysus through the marble is by “the intentional act of an imagining consciousness”; he is a man, but unreal.
To Sartre “the experience of the viewer in Greek or Renaissance sculpture is the acceptance of the figure in the space which the viewer inhabits. The action of the figure occurs in the environment of the spectator and tricks him into a complicity through experience of that momentary movement”. Therefore we are ultimately limited to our own imagined conception of this sculptural object based on our visuality; but we are further restricted in our understanding because we must accept the sculpture as only existing in this new realm and not within its original context. The bust of Dionysus we give this imaginative consciousness to is not at all like the Dionysus at the time of the sculptures conception; the bust does not sit within a shrine or in a forum among other godly busts and we are not cult followers that understand the subtleties of ritual or tribute. To a second 2nd century Dionysiac follower they wouldn't see the sculpture foremost for its formal qualities, they would see it for it's divinity and power of transformation for the individual.
The modern museum patron should task themselves to question their role as a viewer and to consider the various contexts the objects displayed originally had. Although we each carry our own biases formed through our individual visuality there is no reason to fear paying patronage to the wonderful artifacts of human civilizations we are lucky to have access to at the Royal Ontario Museum. It is best to approach each object with a sense of humbleness and humility for we can never truly understand an historical object beyond it's physical presence in the here and now. Although an object may be paired with descriptive plates, similar artifacts or literary references these are merely clues or tokens and not in anyway representative of it's total being.