“The power of imagery of the ephebe in modern culture comes from the apparent separation of these young men from sexuality, creating a palatable form of masculinity that is ‘safe’ for the young women who make up much of their fan base.”



Depictions of the ephebe, a youth caught in the transition from puberty to Greek civic manhood, dominated images of Greek culture and desire throughout the periods now known as the Archaic and Classical and remain the defining images of Greek art in Western understanding. In Ancient Greece, youth and beauty were key elements in the value of kalokagathia – that to look good was literally to be good (Hurwit, 2007). Obvious parallels to this can be found in contemporary celebrity culture – the worshiping of figures based on a cultivated outward image of wholesomeness and beauty. This dynamic is crystallised in those most modern ephebes; boybands.

The images produced of these pop groups are some of the most deliberately manicured and cultivated of our time and owe much to the precedents set for Western male beauty by their Greek forebears. This is seen particularly in figures of the High Classical period (home of the infamous Aphrodite nude) and in the work of Praxiteles, which placed an emphasis on lithe youthful figures, with lighter musculature than the athletic victory statues of the 5th century BC. The soft modelling lines and distinctive S-curve posture of his work can be compared with Harry Styles’ 2016 photoshoot for ‘Another Man’ magazine (Vandeperre, A/W16); these images share the same gentle effeminacy, playing deliberately upon the age and ambiguous gendering of their subjects to create a desirable representation in art. Like Praxiteles’ ‘Leaning Faun’, these images play a kind of joke on the viewer – providing an object of intense sexual desire by denying a straightforward image of masculinity and playing on elements of gay culture, both then and now. Another example of this type is Troye Sivan’s photoshoot with Billboard (Galdo, 2015) where his eyes and lashes are strongly picked out as they were on bronze statues of Greek youths which were given inset crystal eyes and separate metal eyelashes, still surviving on the Riace bronzes.

Scholars often discuss the ‘cult of beauty’ (Winwood, 2016) in Greece, even describing it as a Youth and Beauty culture, centred around those values which are shown most keenly in the kouros type of the Archaic period of the 7th and 6th centuries BC. As funerary monuments, these nude youths were incredibly important cultural monuments, heroizing the dead not with a straightforward portrait, but with a sema (sign) of their most desirable qualities, those most worth remembering. The focus on pure beauty can be seen best preserved in the Kroisos kouros, with finely curled hair, full lips, and athletic body, ‘immortalised as they would have appeared in the palaestra’ (Ridgway, 1993). The question in response to this is: can we view modern society as a Youth and Beauty culture on this same level? I wouldn’t categorize it as such, as it is not in the Greek sense so tied with nobility and the complex relationship of the Greek civic body with the elite classes after their experiences with oligarchy and democracy. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that modern culture is still influenced by the art of this culture and that the particular masculinity of the ephebe and its appeal are still exploited in the marketing of young male artists, but now to appeal predominantly to young women rather than to the male gaze of the Greek citizen body which were the audience for these public and votive sculptures of young men. The aims and effects of this ephebe-type in both cultures must be examined more closely.

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Illustration by Kay Wilson

In the development of Greek sculpture, models of archaic manhood such as the muscular nudes of Kleobis and Biton in Delphi – bearing more resemblance to Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson than any member of noughties boy bands – gave way in the 5th century B.C. to a more lithe and androgynous form that shaped the western ideal of male beauty. One defining feature of the ephebe, both then and now, is their separation from any potent sexuality. In archaic and classical sculpture this is manifest particularly in the treatment of the genitalia; male statues are given shrunken phalluses as symbols of their self-control and restraint in sexual matters, with many of the kouros type also showing evidence of male grooming in the shaping of their pubic hair (seen most clearly on the Isches and Kritios kouroi). This clean cut and controlled image of the masculine youth sees many of its values reflected in the publicity materials of 21st century boy bands, as with the Vamps posing in matching white tees against a highly filtered background of an English country village, their faces barely out of puberty. This pattern, also seen in the marketing of One Direction in the early noughties, is limiting any indicators of male sexuality in favour of appeal to a young female fan base. Here, the same usage of iconography of the ephebe diverges in its intended effect. In Classical Greece, the ephebe was an object of homosexual desire; the sculptors, majority of patrons, and civic audience were male, male beauty was made for male consumption, whereas the boybands of contemporary culture are marketed to girls in adolescence.

The difference in the gaze these images are produced for is not the only variation between ancient and modern uses of the ephebe; in Greek sculpture the ephebe was overwhelmingly depicted in the nude, with the ‘costume’ (Berger, 1972) of nudity having very different connotations in these images and in celebrity nude photoshoots of the modern era. While today a nude photoshoot is almost always considered erotic, and within the context of boybands often seems deliberately so, with a classic example being Take That’s ‘Do What U Like’ video (Take That, 1991) and more recently The Wanted’s feature with Cosmopolitan (Wanted, 2011). In the latter, the posing and imagery is clearly provocative, with strategically placed tea towels and newspapers and the men standing in pseudo-chaste poses (more like the Cnidian Aphrodite than any male subject in sculpture) that draw more attention to their undressed state than projecting an impression of modesty. This overt eroticism stands in stark contrast to the elevating effect of classical nudity, widely used to heroize male warriors or to create a divine connection. In Archaic and Classical sculpture, men are shown naked in the costume of a hero or a god, elevating them above the mortal plane and showing their carefully cultivated athleticism and beauty. The modes of representation must also be considered; sculptures were incredibly high status objects, costing a significant sum, reported in the case of Diogeiton to be enough to feed a family of four for five years (Morris 1994), while boybands, and thus their marketing material, are often considered ‘low culture’.

Additionally, the modern ephebe faces a problem that none of the Greek sculptures mentioned above will ever do; that of aging. One Direction, the previously perennial boy band proved this problem with the repetitive Daily Mail articles on their new tattoos and explorations in recreational drugs, and their girlfriend’s pregnancy scares. Thus, these youths began to move away from the wholesome curated image of the ephebe and into a more complicated image of manhood. Can we still class Zayn and Harry as ephebes? There is much about them that seems to maintain an inner softness characteristic of such a definition; Harry proves that his image remains unthreatening in its masculinity with his recent explosion in popularity with queer women, as demonstrated in the tweets of Ruby Tandoh and her circle. To categorise Zayn as an ephebe is complicated by the additional problem of how modern culture frames race; white masculinity is far more easily depicted as ‘pure’ and unthreatening in contemporary iconography, whereas Men of Colour are often associated with more dangerous and threatening stereotypes of masculine behaviour due to the ingrained racial profiling of modern media. Nonetheless, both men seem to maintain a kind of innocence despite their age and various body art, a key element of the ephebe’s charm, and often (though Harry more often) play with homoerotic imagery in their art and self-presentation in a way characteristic of the Greek image of the youth.

The power of imagery of the ephebe in modern culture comes from the apparent separation of these young men from sexuality, creating a palatable form of masculinity that is ‘safe’ for the young women who make up much of their fan base. In this way, an inherently Greek ‘type’ finds relevance and popularity in contemporary culture, with the iconography and ethical qualities of the ephebe present throughout the boyband culture of the noughties and more recent years. The irony is that the ephebe in Greece, while an elevated image, above sexuality and the model of male self-control, was an object of the male gaze and, particularly in the work of Praxiteles as discussed above, was fundamentally homoerotic. This type, now innate within Western culture, thus has become shaped within modern heteronormative culture for entirely different motivations than those original sculptures. The qualities of youth and beauty remain widely desirable, and make up much of the appeal of the ephebe, but now the dynamic has changed from an approving older male gaze regarding a beautiful youth, to young women projecting upwards on these older ephebes. The youth of the ephebe allows young girls to relate to the men marketed to them, and their beauty makes them the source of almost universal envy and desire.



Works Cited

Hurwit. 2007. “The Human Figure in Early Greek Sculpture and Vase Painting.” In The Cambridge

Companion to Archaic Greece, by Shapiro, 274. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vandeperre. A/W16. “Oh Boy! Harry Styles.” Another Man. London.

Galdo, Julia. 2015. Troye Sivan: The Billboard Shoot. United States, 19th November.

Winwood. 2016. “The Cult of Beauty in Ancient Greece and Modern Media.” Battler Columns, April.5. Ridgway, 1993.

Ridgway, 1993.

Berger. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Do What U Like. Directed by Barratt and Smith. Performed by Take That, 1991.

The Wanted, interview by Goddard. 2011. Cosmo talks dating with The Wanted (15th December).

Morris. 1994. “Everyman’s Grave.” In Athenian Identity and Civic Ideology, by Boegehold and Scafuro, 74. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Claire Heseltine’s article débuted in the first edition of our zine, TAH VOL.1. To read the full zine, for free, click here.

Posted by:TabloidArtHistory