I Object: Ian Hislop's Search For Dissent
Ian Hislop and Tom Hockenhull
Thames & Hudson/British Museum
224pp, 201 colour and black & white illustrations
Hardback, £25

Among the holdings of the British Museum is a clay brick, stamped in cuneiform with the name of Nebuchadnezzar II (circa 605–562 BC), second king of the Neo-Babylonian dynasty, and remembered today as the builder of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Not that Nebuchadnezzar actually did the gardening. We do, however, know the name of at least one of his workmen. Before the clay on this brick dried, one of the men scratched onto its obverse face in rough Aramaic capitals the name 'Zabina'.

Perhaps Zabina thought it would be funny if he autographed the brick before it was placed in a palace wall; a joke for the brickmakers, or the builders. Perhaps he was impelled by the absent-minded urge to leave a mark on the great world that still animates the inner Kilroy in all of us. Perhaps, like Byron autographing a pillar of the temple at Sounion, he was consciously making a mark and choosing its location. And perhaps, unlike Byron, Zabina was conscious of his relative powerlessness. Placing his small name next to that of Nebuchadnezzar II was a small act of dissent against the way of the world, and the probability that, while his labours were likely to preserve the king's name for eternity, they were unlikely to do the same for his own name.

Dissent is a perennial impulse, and the objects of dissent are manifold. I Object (an exhibition at the British Museum until 20 January 2019) displays the history of dissent, from ancient to modern, from Aramaic graffiti to social media. The curators, Tom Hockenhull, the curator of Modern Money at the British Museum, and Ian Hislop, the habitually impertinent editor of Private Eye magazine, have gathered more than 180 objects, all created to question, mock and attack what the Romans called the status quo, or at least to leave a personal mark on it.

Apart from political propaganda, whose motives are tediously clear, the motives of the objectors are often obscure, even in major works like the Strangford Shield, a Roman marble copy of the lost shield of the gold-and-ivory statue of Athena that stood in the cella, the inner chamber of the Parthenon. We can imagine why Pheidias, as Plutarch claims, included himself with his patron Pericles in the shield's relief depicting the Amazonamachy, the battle of Greeks and Amazons. We can imagine why Pheidias tactfully depicted Pericles with an arm raised, to hide his face. But what possessed Pheidias to add himself to the myth, depicting himself beside him as what Plutarch describes as a 'bald old man lifting up a stone'. Betrayed by an employee, a latterday Zabina, Pheidias ended up in prison, and possibly died there.

This, at least, is how Plutarch tells it. There were rumours that Pheidias had embezzled some of the gold that was supposed to have adorned the statue. But if Plutarch is right, then Pheidias' subtle demand that we recognise his Sisyphean labours resembles that of Zabina in Babylon more than it resembles, say, the cartoonist who, sensibly remaining anonymous, depicted George III squatting with his breeches around his knees, red-faced with exertion as he strains to fertilise his own fields, in a cartoon, of 1794–96, captioned Farmer Looby Manuring the Land. That cartoon is only one of the arresting and thought-provoking images in the companion volume to the exhibition. Hislop and Hockenhull's rich and fascinating account of the nose-thumbing, raspberry-blowing impulse is a book to dip into and to return to again and again, possibly while assuming the posture of Farmer Looby in
the smallest library of the house.

Dominic Green

 

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