When something is described as a classic, we expect it to be, most of all, capable of endless re-invention. I was reminded of this by the incredible story about an Oxford professor of classics allegedly selling papryi for hard cash (more). The classic I am thinking of is a theme rather than a single work. Specifically, it’s that thing about nouveau-riche Americans obsessively trying to buy status, something that American art has been mining for inspiration for a century and a half now.
You can well imagine the cringe evangelical retail tycoon Steve Green must feel looking at, say, that creationist freakshow with the plastic dinosaurs. Me, with my money, and people assume I’m like that bunch of rubes because I share their faith! What would be good for that…well, a proper institution dedicated to real scholarship. With my name over the door, in Washington, like the Smithsonian, the granddaddy of them all. The architectural choices are well known, and the collection is primarily a matter of money. Here’s an opportunity to distinguish myself from purveyors of crass kitsch. It wouldn’t be the first or the ten thousandth time Oxford University has been in the business of selling status to parvenus, either. The allegedly stolen papryi disappeared from – where else? – the Sackler Library. Yes, that’s Sackler as in Purdue Pharmaceuticals.
It’s a crucial element of the theme that the re-invention can never be perfect. The mask slips, the shared secret gets disclosed or destroys its holders in the effort to conceal it. And despite all the expense and effort at high seriousness, we get Green stewing mummies on his stove and brandishing fake finds in front of a packed audience of goggling students, dipping the Sappho fragments in the brew. He can’t help himself.
The really interesting flipside, though, is that for a good 70 years now, nothing has been more authentically American in European eyes than, well, just that. The reality of American power and pre-eminence means that real cultural respect has accrued to precisely the stuff Green is trying to escape. What did our for-reals classics don do with his ill-gotten gains? He bought and offered to restore one of those weird fake castles wealthy Americans used to put up in an effort to buy class, in a sort of mirrorworld counterpoint to the main theme. And of course he was right; he was the client and Green was the patron.