A Few Hybrid Notes on What Used to be Called Hybridity (What Do Folks Call It These Days? I Am So Out of the Academic Loop)
Jerry Cullum, asserting whatever Creative Commons rights seem relevant, as usual
I have just ordered a copy of the catalogue of the new exhibition from New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics, which I learned about from Hyperallergic’s essay by Allison Meier, “Afterlives of Mesopotamian Artifacts, from Flapper Fashion to de Kooning.”
As usual, the books are piling up faster than I can find time to look at them, since I still haven’t done more than page through the highlights of my copy of Jennifer Y. Chi’s earlier ISAW volume Edge of Empires: Pagans, Jews and Christians at Roman Dura-Europos. Dura-Europos has been an interest of mine ever since graduate school, when E. R. Goodenough’s Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period made much (if not too much) of the wall murals in the Dura synagogue. This garrison town was a unique site of contestation between Roman, Parthian, and Persian empires, a crossroads where cultures blended and co-existed even as the political boundaries shifted; today its excavated streets are endangered by the shifting boundaries of the contemporary wars in Syria.
This is one strand of the stuff that interests me in this department—that which Homi Bhabha used to call hybridity. (Whatever happened to Homi Bhabha, anyway? Twenty years ago you couldn’t open an art magazine without reading references to his books, usually citations of the same one or two paragraphs, as is the wont of the art world.)
Given half a chance, cultures seem to borrow extravagantly from one another, even as they are endlessly being reined in by ideologues of a cultural purity that is frequently largely mythic; whether the culture doing the borrowing is economically and politically dominant or subordinated (God help us, not the military-colonial metaphor “subaltern”!) doesn’t seem to matter as far as the simple dynamics of hybridization are concerned. It matters a great deal as far as the self-perception of the hybridizer is concerned, but that’s another story.
The story told in From Ancient to Modern is a specific case study of hybridity, the typically whacked-out response of European and American popular culture to objects excavated in Mesopotamia. The exhibition also traces the influence of the Mesopotamian discoveries on modernist and contemporary art, a line of influence that is usually subsumed under other art historical rubrics—so we have something new to discuss in that regard. However, that line of influence needs to be set in context.
The enthusiasm for newly discovered Sumerian artifacts followed upon the King-Tut-inspired manifestation of Egyptomania, a much older cultural phenomenon in America and Europe that is interestingly traced in various books with that word in their titles, including Scott Trafton’s Egypt Land: Race and Nineteenth-Century American Egyptomania. Trafton’s book follows only one thread of global Egyptomania, the uses of Egypt in the ethnic dynamics of nineteenth-century American society; some of the other Egyptomania books track the phenomenon’s influences on the birth of eighteenth-century Freemasonry in Europe (and what happened to it later in the United States), the many styles of fashion and design that borrowed from Egyptian antiquity, and too many other traces of the ancient in the modern to summarize comfortably.
Egyptomania long predates Napoleon’s expedition that gave Europe the Rosetta Stone and a generation of Egypt-themed mantelpieces and dinnerware; the Renaissance, for example, made much of it thanks to the prestige of the Hermetic documents and the supposed wisdom encoded in hieroglyphics. But archaeology changed the terms of discussion, and it did it again and again. One could argue that the re-erection in the Vatican of the Egyptian obelisk that once adorned Nero’s Circus is a terminus a quo for mythic dreams based on material culture, but to confirm that would require better knowledge than I have of the history of the obelisk that Theodosius erected in Constantinople. The extraction of mostly imaginary mysteries from exotic objects long predates the different discovery of the phenomenon in the Gothicism of eighteenth-century England, although the cultural penumbra associated with it were more often a matter of sensing the presence of deep symbolism rather than experiencing the pleasurable shudder associated with it in the wake of the Age of Reason.
I digress. Not really, however: the point is that objects brought by trade or by imperial conquest had consequences in the cultures into which the objects were imported, whether the objects were African sculptures in the flea markets of Paris, Japanese prints used as wrapping paper for the ceramics shipped to a Europe as mad for japonerie as an earlier Europe had been for chinoiserie, or furniture of the Pharaohs, golden artifacts of Troy and Mycenae, and statuary from ancient Sumer brought back by successive generations of archaeologists. All of this found its way into design, painting, and sculpture, but differently depending on the influence and whether the artist was Vincent Van Gogh, Gustav Klimt, or Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Henry Moore.
And that spins us back to hybridity, about which John Boardman’s two-decade-old The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity is still an excellently provocative starting point for reflection. Tracing the migration of motifs from locations as close to the Greco-Roman source as Ptolemaic Egypt to places as distant as the farthest Central Asian outposts of the Silk Road, Boardman’s survey demonstrates the wondrous destinies of objects when they are detached from their originating culture, or are sent on the road accompanying their culture, whether the road is traversed by merchants or by missionaries or by armies.
That in turn brings me back to Dura-Europos and to Mesopotamian artifacts, but also to the present-day destinies of cross-cultural hybridization. Is antiquity in its archaeological incarnations ceasing to be culturally influential? The flotsam and jetsam of Asian and African cultures that show up in tattoo art and graphic novels, and the frenetic exoticism found in various video games, either replicate fragments of still-living cultures or reproduce the flavor and texture of entire bygone societies; as far as I can see, they don’t borrow motifs from museums. In the cultures for which the artifacts in museums are part of their own direct heritage, there seems to be relatively little creative influence of such objects on contemporary culture; when they are noticed at all, they are used as emblems of national pride or rejected as symbols of an outworn or unacceptably decadent past.
It would require more online research than I have time or inclination to pursue to confirm this impression, but I am wondering what the impact of the digital revolution has been in this regard. I think there are cases in contemporary art around the entire planet in which the legacy of antiquity is incorporated alongside the lessons of biology and the influence of everything from...well, one might as well say everything, for I am thinking of artists from Alexander McQueen to Björk to Matthew Barney to Pipilotti Rist, and many, many others. The lines of influence are multiple and distorted, of course; the costume and set design departments of the Star Wars sequels and prequels are a case in point, since the artists in charge plundered the resources of half a dozen ancient cultures to come up with the styles of a galaxy long ago and far, far away—a tendency that has long been regnant in the movies, and in science fiction at least since Forbidden Planet purloined midcentury modernism and electronic music to evoke a world of the distant future.
It would be wonderful if I had time and mental energy and publication venue to produce a genuine piece of scholarship on this whole topic, but I don’t, so I’m just putting this out there in hopes that somebody will fill in the missing pieces. Anyone curious about the books I have cited off the top of my head—and way too many others, for typing in just one search term yielded six or eight seriously interesting titles of which I hadn’t been aware—can easily pull up the bibliographic information and ways to acquire the books in question.