Cantona is the Parthenon
Reflections on Jackson Pollock, AEK Athens, football and the nature of art
I sat in the common room of my dormitory, poised to begin my typical Saturday night as a university undergraduate. My best friend, my soon-to-be adversary, was staring me down from across the well-worn wooden table, and a Scrabble board lay between us. But suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something I don’t see every day in California. Walking into the common room was a student, no older than 20, wearing the iconic black-and-yellow-striped shirt of the Greek club AEK Athens. As an American, I know to pounce on every opportunity to talk football that is presented to me, so I decided that Scrabble could wait. I approached the guy in the AEK shirt and complimented him on it. We exchanged some good-natured banter about the top European clubs and then I asked him how he got his jersey. He replied that he was from Athens and had grown up going to matches with his large family of die-hard AEK faithfuls.
I was floored: so that meant he had been to the Spyros Louis Athens Olympic Stadium, the venerable cathedral of athletics where the Olympic flame blazed in the summer of 2004, the hallowed arena where AEK now play their home fixtures? Of course, he responded; he’d been to the stadium too many times to count. He loved the atmosphere there, the sea of black and yellow. Sure, he admitted, the stadium was a little too big for AEK’s fanbase, but the supporters who did show up were louder and better than anyone else you could find in the Super League. And he, for one, had made his very fondest childhood memories at the Olympic Stadium.
My mind was racing, conjuring up images of the elegant, sweeping, white metal arches that soared into the Athenian sky above the stadium’s sloped roof. There was so much I wanted to ask him, but I surprised myself with the question that actually ended up coming out of my mouth.
“Have you been to the Parthenon?”
Yeah, he’d been to the Parthenon. Three times, maybe four. He didn’t really understand why everyone thought that place was so special, though. You can get some pretty neat views of the city, but it’s honestly kind of a pain to walk all the way to the top of that hill. Oh, and they don’t even let you bring any food up there — how’s that for overrated?
It was one of those clichés, like the New Yorker who’s never been to the Statue of Liberty or the San Franciscan who doesn’t see what’s such a big deal about the Golden Gate Bridge, but it gave me pause. Now, full disclosure: I’m entirely smitten with the Parthenon, with drinking in the beauty and the drama and the shortcomings of that magnificent prayer in stone from the Athenians of the fifth century BCE. I’ve taken it for granted that the building, which delivers a fresh gut-punch of sublimity and wonder every single time I so much as see another photograph of it from a different angle, means something. But, as my new Athenian friend had just proven, the Parthenon obviously doesn’t elicit this kind of response from everyone. Today, it is not the glistening Pentelic beacon of the school of Hellas that Pericles hoped it would be for his fellow Athenians; it does not shout out from on high to all the denizens of modern-day Athens and make them fall in love with their city. So I asked the Athenian fan — earnestly, not antagonistically — another question: what does football do for you that the Parthenon doesn’t? Why is it worth it to climb the stadium stairs to your seat at an AEK match but not the hill of the Acropolis to the still-standing temple of Athena Parthenos? How can the negative space beneath the metal ribs of the thrillingly minimal support structure of the Athens Olympic Stadium be more captivating than the negative space of the Parthenon’s side-most intercolumniations, which Ictinus and his co-architect Callicrates compressed by two feet to counteract our optical tendency to succumb to the irradiation illusion?
His answer (in real life, I only asked the first question, but prose allows me to be slightly more emphatic) was as though lifted straight from the narrator’s conversation with the shepherd in Zorba the Greek. Football, according to my AEK-loving friend, is alive. The Parthenon is just a ruin.
I can see where he was coming from. In fact, I really do agree with the first half of his point. I myself find beauty in the game of football simply because it is so alive: to watch football is to watch decision-making in real time. My younger brother Jacob happens to be a very good footballer (at least by US-American standards — he plays at the NCAA Division 1 level), and I derive so much pleasure from watching him play because it is my window into what it means for him to think and be alive. When I see Jacob receive a pass, control the ball, take a touch forward, and knock the ball to a teammate, I am seeing him process a complex situation, solve a problem (say, which teammate he should pass to), and execute an action — all within seconds and under the pressure of an oncoming defender. I am reminded, in watching Jacob, of the art historian James Herbert’s meditation on the work of art as an emergent structure, a multidirectional flow of causality “both realised through the interactions of massively multiple parts (brushstrokes on a canvas, neurons in the brain) and manifested in the form of complex emergent identities (artistic subjectivity, a single work of art)”. On the football field, Jacob distils and lays bare his thought process and his life in a seconds-long interaction with a hand-sewn synthetic leather ball. But this interaction — perhaps one of Herbert’s “complex emergent identities” — is itself composed of “the interactions of massively multiple parts”, of synaptic firings, of micro-decisions and improvisations. The barely perceptible twitch of Jacob’s neck as he glances over his shoulder to gauge his distance from the defender behind him, the slight subconscious swivelling of his hips as he squares his body to the ball — these subtleties that occur and are watched in real time are what allow a spectator at a football match (myself, my Greek friend) to make contact with life. How can these infinitesimal shreds of lived experience possibly manifest themselves atop the ancient and aged Acropolis?
It is not insignificant that the art historical parallel which has always been easiest for me to make with the game of football is abstract expressionism and specifically, Harold Rosenberg’s notion of action painting. In his seminal 1952 essay on ‘The American Action Painters’, Rosenberg remarks on the rise of the conception of the canvas as not simply a space to express an object or scene but rather “an arena in which to act”. Rosenberg’s action painter par excellence is Willem de Kooning, but for me and many others it is Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings that most readily embody the spirit of action painting. Pollock saw his canvases as, quite literally, arenas in which to act. He stood and stomped and strode all over them on his studio floor in Springs, New York, and he applied pigment like a heroic sportsman, with athletic and ever-powerful bodily motions. Pollock’s pictures, in a lot of ways, are like football matches. When I look at the shimmering spiderwebs of black, the wispy cirrus clouds of green, the flickering pops of orange and red and yellow on his breathtaking 1947 work Lucifer, I feel like I am seeing an accretion of split-second, high-stakes decisions. To pass the ball in front of the outside midfielder and send him darting down the line, or to play it ever so slightly to his back foot and force him to move into to a more possession-oriented position? To fling the green straight across the canvas with a snapping jolt, or to sweep it out in a wide meandering arc?
How could the Parthenon possibly embody this real-time, extemporaneous decision-making? After all, it’s been crumbling atop the Acropolis for millennia, gathering dust and a reddish patina, battered by the firestorm of General Morosini’s siege, hacked to pieces by Lord Elgin and his contemporaries. The Parthenon is a corpse, shrivelled and baking in the Greek sun, pecked throughout the ages by the vultures of time, war, and implacable avarice. It has been dismembered, some of its parts rotting in London and others in the new Acropolis Museum at the foot of the hill. Present-day Dr Frankensteins have tried to revive it by means of the artificial prostheses and the omnipresent cranes and scaffolds that buttress and entangle the temple today. But the Parthenon is dead. Inert. Entombed in plain sight.
That is, until you crane your neck upward and look beyond the Parthenon’s outer colonnade. Not to see the temple’s inner frieze, which has been expatriated mostly to the British Museum, but to notice the architectural features just below it. Beneath the (now-removed) band of marble reserved for the frieze, you can still spot Doric guttae and regulae, skeuomorphic references to an age when Doric temples were made of wood rather than marble. The presence of these simulated pegs and planks would generally be complemented by a Doric frieze of metopes and triglyphs (like it is on the entablature of the Parthenon’s façades), yet the Parthenon’s inner frieze is actually composed in the Ionic style of continuous narrative. To some, this order-mixing simply represents a syncretic approach to Western and Eastern Greek architectural elements à la the Doric and Ionic columns of the Propylaea. The classical archaeologist Barbara Barletta, in fact, has written a technical analysis of the Parthenon frieze as characteristic of the “Ionicisation of Attic architecture”. But I think the more exciting alternative is to view this Ionic frieze, juxtaposed against the Doric guttae and regulae, as a more spontaneous decision, as Ictinus throwing out his blueprints for a perfect Doric frieze and deciding to do a little improvising instead. Joan Connelly, in her landmark book The Parthenon Enigma, argues that Doric “preparations [were] already in place when, for whatever reason, a change was ordered calling for an Ionic frieze”. Suddenly, under this new light, the Parthenon has become less fixed, less rigid and inflexible, less paralysed by rigor mortis. Within the guttae and regulae, hardly noticeable to the straining eyes of mortals more than 40 feet below, is a trembling quiver of life. It is the flick of Pollock’s wrist as he decides to drip his paint a bit more lithely than usual. It is the torque of my brother’s ankle as he chooses to chop at the ball with the outside of his foot.
But maybe none of this would even be persuasive to that AEK fan in the dormitory common room. The inescapable fact is that I simply did not see Ictinus in 443 BCE thinking, staring at the unfinished Parthenon, conferring with Callicrates and their fellow artists and artisans and architects, and deciding to change the planned Doric frieze to an Ionic one. By the same token, I did not see Pollock in his studio in 1947, athletic and balletic in his movements, discovering, slinging paint with grace and passion, making the thousands of decisions that needed to be made to paint a picture. With Ictinus and with Pollock, I did not see the agon that my Greek friend sees when he pays a visit to the Athens Olympic Stadium; instead, I am only able to behold the result — Ictinus’ Parthenon, Pollock’s Lucifer.
And in further refuting my argument, the AEK supporter might be quick to point out that I am even a degree more removed from Ictinus’s agon than from Pollock’s. No trace remains of Ictinus’s decision except its end product; for Pollock, at least there are photographs and videos, like the ones that Hans Namuth shot. I can watch footage of Pollock painting — albeit outdoors, in a contrived and maybe even choreographed manner — in Namuth’s short film Jackson Pollock 51. I can perceive Pollock’s conflict and his thought process through his hunched back, his left hand gripping the bucket of industrial paint, his crab-like legs shuffling alongside the canvas. In a more natural photograph of Pollock at work in his studio, I can begin to understand the workings of his intensely focused mind by looking at his closed mouth and his furrowed brow and the weight on his front leg, bending him forward almost into a modern rendition of the heroic diagonal. I cannot do any of this with Ictinus. That is to suggest, then, that the Parthenon is just flat-out dead.
Unless, of course, it isn’t. And at last I have found my best reasoning for why the Parthenon is alive, and I’ve found it, fittingly, through football. Like any lover of the sport, I have my own personal shortlist of its beautiful moments — from Robin van Persie diving to head the ball over a helpless Iker Casillas in the 2014 World Cup to Éric Abidal recovering from liver cancer and hoisting the Champions League trophy with his teammates at Wembley in 2011. But, for quite some time, I have been transfixed by and continually brought back to one rather obscure moment in football history, a moment that occurred on 18 August 1998, when I was three months old and therefore — understandably, I think — not yet a football fan.
In a match that I technically lived through but certainly do not remember first-hand (if you have a spare 28 seconds, please do yourself a favour and watch this video. Manchester United’s Eric Cantona chases down a wayward pass near the goal-line. Wearing United’s classic red jersey with the stiff white collar popped (his signature fashion statement), Cantona jostles for position with a defender and wins the ball before it bounces out of play. He controls the ball, shortens his stride, and squares himself to the defender. In a stroke of improvisatory brilliance, Cantona pushes the ball briefly toward his opponent before snapping his foot forward elastically and taking a large touch into the penalty box. Cantona approaches the next defender at pace, but then decelerates, wavers, his whole body awash in a glorious moment of tremulous hesitation as he searches for a way to somehow weave between his nearest opponent and the other defender rapidly closing the distance. He charts a snaking path through these two and he rounds the oncoming goalkeeper. He is now inside the six-yard box, tantalisingly close to burying the ball in the back of the net, but a persistent defender holds his ground on the goal line. In a final flourish of creativity, Cantona comes to a standstill and scoops the ball upward with his right foot, sending it on a looping arc into the goal. He stands there, nonchalant, his once-strained body now relaxed; then he turns his back — and his famous number seven on the back of his shirt — on the scene.
I happened upon this incredible sequence a few years ago while scrolling through YouTube playlists of great goals. At first, I was merely captivated by the extemporaneous artistry of one of the undisputed virtuosi of 1990s European football. I watched this video clip on repeat — just like I watched Hans Namuth’s Jackson Pollock 51 on repeat when I first encountered that wondrous film. But with Cantona, I got the sense that something was eluding me about those 13 seconds between his first touch on the ball and his clever flicked finish. No matter how many times I studied the slightly awkward and unbalanced rhythm of Cantona’s pumping arms as he blows by that first defender, no matter how many times I watched and re-watched the coiled tension of Cantona’s thick body release into an acquiescent calm as the ball arcs toward the goal, I could not help but feel that I was missing something.
I scoured the internet for the backstory to this spectacular goal; buried amidst pages of compilations of Cantona’s best moments and articles about the Frenchman’s notoriously fiery temper, I finally found it. In garish green, yellow and pink text on a burgundy-coloured webpage evocative of the fledgling days of the World Wide Web, an apparent Manchester United fan with the nom de plume of “Our Salford Lass” has written an online diary post entitled “A tearful goodbye”. In this piece, Our Salford Lass provides her eyewitness account of the day of 18 August 1998 — the day she went to Old Trafford and saw Cantona score his brilliant goal. As it turns out, this match was no ordinary fixture. Rather, it was an exhibition, a “tribute match” for the 32-year-old Cantona, who was taking the field one final time before his retirement. This testimonial pitted Cantona and his longtime Manchester United teammates against a “European XI” of friends and rivals that he had made in his years as a professional footballer. But this match served a dual purpose, as it was also held to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the tragic Munich air disaster of 1958. Our Salford Lass’s “tearful goodbye” was thus twofold: a goodbye to Cantona’s inventive dynamism on the field, and an even more heart-wrenching goodbye to the 23 who had met their fate on the Munich runway 40 years prior.
This context helped explain the absence, the sense of something missing, that I felt when first watching Cantona’s goal. Cantona, as he weaves toward the goal through echelons of flat-footed defenders (probably rendered more flat-footed by the fact that this is not a competitive league or cup fixture), is also weaving toward the end of his life as a professional footballer. Indeed, his finessed lob shot, which puts United up 7–4 over the European XI, is the last goal he will ever score. Perhaps, his dramatic run across the face of the goal is as protracted as it is — Cantona clearly forgoes multiple glaring opportunities to shoot — because he is trying to stretch his final moments as a footballer as far as they will go. But in Cantona’s split-second hesitation as he composes himself in front of a defender, there is a flash of recognition that soon it will all be over; in his release of bodily tension as he sends the ball from his foot one last time, there is a peaceful resignation to finality. When Cantona turns his back on the goal, pumps his fist, and strikes a pose of muted celebration, he has already become a dead man. He is no longer an actor, a creative genius, a pusher of the envelope of sport. He is entombed by his own accomplishments, buried by the weight of his illustrious career. He is the Parthenon, crowning the green grass of Old Trafford like the temple of Athena crowns the sun-kissed limestone of the Acropolis.
But in those 13 seconds in which Cantona is closing in on that white metal frame of the goal, he is so incredibly alive. And he is living not just for himself, but also for the 23 victims of the 1958 Munich air disaster. Our Salford Lass, in the final line of her reflection on Cantona’s final appearance, writes that “in showing our appreciation of Eric Cantona, we were showing our appreciation of every great player who has ever pulled on a United shirt. I loved it and will never forget it.” Eric Cantona turned his 13-second approach to the goal into a memorial that will never be forgotten, inspiring the type of love for Manchester United that Pericles intended his Acropolis building program to inspire for Athens. In 13 seconds, Cantona commemorated those 23 victims, and especially those eight players who had so often graced the grounds of Old Trafford before skidding to their deaths during take-off on a slush-covered runway at the Munich-Riem Airport. In 13 seconds, he allowed those whose lives were tragically cut short to live forever.
In this respect too, Eric Cantona is the Parthenon. He displays a Melvillian reverence for the archetype — his red shirt billowing in the Manchester night is cut from the same cloth of the jerseys of the eight United players who went down in Munich – by surpassing it with a dizzying 13-second show of unparalleled skill. The Parthenon memorialises in the same way: a Doric temple to outshine all others, respectfully constructed upon the foundations of the old temple of Athena Parthenos desecrated by the Persians in 480 or 479 BCE. The 192 Athenians slain at Marathon, the 1360 Greeks who died on the field at Plataea, all of the brave Hellenic soldiers slaughtered in their primes by the armies of Darius and Xerxes are finally able to find eternal life and remembrance atop the Acropolis. Maybe the march of time and the bombs of Morosini and the pilfering hands of Elgin and Lusieri are not vultures circling a dead body, but rather enemy warriors trying in vain to cut down our heroes in battle. Indeed, those killed once by the Persians, those who live in spirit like a fifth-century Pentelic phoenix risen from the ashes of sixth-century foundations, are far too resilient to be killed again by lesser enemies. The Parthenon is alive, and it is alive with the resounding emotional flurry of a phalanx of charging hoplites. It lives, as Le Corbusier writes, with “brutality, intensity, the utmost sweetness, delicacy, and great strength”. It lives like those final 13 seconds of Cantona’s career, played on repeat for 2500 years, beamed up to that point in the sky 5850 feet above the Acropolis on which the imaginary extended slopes of the almost imperceptibly tapered corner columns converge, and broadcast not just to Hellas but to the entire world.
I didn’t actually say any of this to my new Athenian friend in the AEK shirt. I didn’t talk to him about my brother or Jackson Pollock, about Doric guttae or Ionic friezes, about Eric Cantona on that August night in Manchester. Instead, I turned the conversation back to AEK: “So, you guys gonna win the league this year?”
He said that he was nervous, that the title race seemed like it would come down to the wire. But he said it with such wide eyes, such pallor in his face, such an antsy wriggling of his entire body that I knew that his nervousness was personal. Not a vague feeling for 11 footballers he’d never met, not a trivial affinity for professional athletes who happened to wear a black-and-yellow jersey like his, but something that was inextricably linked to who he was as a human being. In his moment of nervousness, I saw him with his family, on one of his countless trips as a child to the Olympic Stadium, pushing through a throng of raucous supporters to reach his seat, beaming cheek-to-cheek as AEK took the field. In his moment of nervousness, I saw his memories activated, brought to life by a present-day reminder.
So maybe, in the moment of nervousness of a young Athenian football fan who doesn’t really care about those old ruins up on the Acropolis, I also saw the Parthenon itself.