Thursday, November 13, 2008

a meditation in three parts, three

So? Doesn’t this kind of enthusiastic overflow leave out entirely too many issues?

I deliberately omitted Oceanic, Native American and African art from consideration (and elided art beyond the seventeenth century in general) because the best Pacific Island holdings are in private collections, significant Japanese collections are not always on public display, and the region’s Native American sculpture is on site at Etowah and Ocmulgee as well as at Fernbank…all side topics from my main points regarding looking at the accomplishments of our planet’s population.

And the holdings of African art also deserve a level of discussion that would have taken us into entirely different realms of discourse. There are hybrid objects from the colonial encounter that are in the collection of the Carlos that raise a host of fascinating issues as well as being stunning aesthetic objects in and of themselves. (And we do know that the African cultures that created them have concepts about art that would translate well as “aesthetics,” lest any should sniff at the importation of alien analytical categories.)

Walter Benjamin wrote rightly that every document of civilization is simultaneously a document of barbarism, but the point is that it is still a document of civilization. Both the Tut and First Emperor shows give us interesting glimpses into the realms of misery required to create these incredible artistic accomplishments that were never meant even to impress other human beings, but to keep up appearances for the ruler in his afterlife. In Egypt, the intermediary bureaucrats could afford similar if smaller immortalities, and the royal building supervisor has a level of portraiture in his entombment that matches that of some of his social betters. The artisans laboring on the Emperor of Qin’s tomb complex at least got inscribed pottery grave markers, unlike the anonymous masses hewing wood and drawing water.

The misery and the anonymity does not diminish the creative accomplishment, which was not meant to pleasure the masses but has ended up doing so anyway.

And anyone who has ever signed a sufficiently humiliating work-for-hire contract knows all about anonymity; I looked all over the press folder for the Tutankhamun show for the name of the designer, and while the designer of the overall logo and look is probably named somewhere in the kit, it doesn’t really occur to us to single out her or him, any more than we look most of the time to see who did the photo shoot for the weekly advertising insert for Target or Walmart, wherein every once in a while some of the set-ups seem surprisingly beyond the call of aesthetic duty.

That we don’t know the gender of most of the world’s artists (though now we know much more than we once did) or how much they were compensated (though now we also know much more than we once did) does not negate the accomplishments of their imaginations working, so much of the time, against the odds.

It behooves us to fall in love with the objects they have left for us.

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