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A painted terracotta cinerary urn, 150–100 BCE, from Chiusi, at the British Museum. Photo: Sarah Bond for Hyperallergic.

Classicist Receives Death Threats from Alt-Right over Art Historical Essay

Sarah E. Bond, a scholar who specializes in Roman history and works as an assistant professor in the classics department at the University of Iowa, has received death threats and is being targeted by the alt-right for publishing an article on polychromy in the ancient world. “They viewed the piece as ‘liberal professor says that all white statues are racist,’” Bond told Lauren Cavalli of artforum.com. “And that is clearly not what the piece is about.”

Titled “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color,” the piece discusses race and whiteness as social constructs. According to Bond, the Greeks and Romans of antiquity did not classify people as “white,” and many of the classical marble sculptures, sarcophagi, and stelae from the Mediterranean were originally painted—frequently in gold, red, green, black, white, and brown. As the pigments deteriorated over time, art historians, including Johann Joachim Winckelmann—an eighteenth-century scholar considered by many to be the father of the art historical discipline—perpetuated the idea that the white marble statues of ancient peoples represent an ideal beauty, a notion that still fuels white supremacists today.

Bond argues that we need to start seeing the ancient world in color. If Identity Europa, a nationalist and fascist group that uses images of classical statuary to advance their agenda, knew that the statues they are associating their brand with were most likely painted to represent a variety of skin tones, then its members might stop disseminating flawed art historical ideas. She also says that acknowledging the multiracial citizenry of the Greek and Roman empires could lead to greater diversity in the field of classics.

“We are mostly a white field and I want my students of all colors and races to be able to come in to the classroom and to see a reflection of how diverse the Mediterranean world is,” Bond told Cavalli. “One of the ways to make the classics inviting to people is to have themselves reflected in the art that we look at.”

Bond had originally published shorter articles about polychromy on Forbes, for a weekly column that she writes, and on her own personal blog. Having read the posts, Hrag Vartanian, the editor of Hyperallergic, approached Bond about expanding on her ideas for a longer piece that would be featured on the arts-focused website. Bond said that shortly after the essay went live last week, conservative media platforms including Campus Watch, The Blaze, and the National Review published articles that included quotes from her piece, taken out of context, under headlines such as “College Professor Says White Marble Statue Promotes Racism.”

“What they want to believe is that there is a liberal professor that is so sensitive to race issues that she will make race issues out of anything,” Bond said. “They want to make me an example of the hyper-liberalization of the academy.”

Bond began receiving dozens of hateful emails and tweets threatening violence, calling her derogatory names, and saying she ought to be fired. Some assailants made anti-Semitic remarks after learning that she partially identifies as ethnically Jewish. She became a target for internet trolls almost overnight. Joe Pags Pagliarulo, a conservative radio talk show host, even mentioned the article while on air, inciting people to harass the professor even more. “Hyperallergic fielded most of the harassment, but it’s hard. I thought I was speaking to a group of artists.” Bond added, “I don’t believe that a lot of the people that wrote to me are white supremacists, I believe a lot of them never read the original article, the primary source, and that is really what I want them to do.”

Bond was forced to inform her administration about the backlash. After the university’s communications department, the chair of the classics department, and the dean became involved, they consulted with a threat assessment team. “The university has always been supportive and stood by me,” Bond said. “They have been wonderful.” She hopes the whole situation will blow over before classes start again in late August—she is worried about her students. “I welcome liberals and conservatives into my classroom, just as I would welcome every person of ethnicity. The classroom is about having a forum without judgment.”

As a public historian, Bond has written numerous articles for different media platforms over the years, many of which have touched on politics and race. She recalled writing an op-ed about iconoclasm in Egypt in 2011 for the New York Times, for which she did not receive any emails negatively commenting on her work. While she did not believe the Hyperallergic piece was divisive, Bond said, “The United States is extremely polarized right now. There is a binary that is getting applied to everything. The trolls think I’m applying that binary, but all I wanted to talk about was art, the manipulation of art for various reasons, how beautiful color is on statues, and how we should embrace it just like we should embrace people of color all over the country.”

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