Wednesday, June 08, 2011

What Went Wrong With "What Went Wrong at the Getty" by Hugh Eakin | The New York Review of Books

What Went Wrong at the Getty by Hugh Eakin | The New York Review of Books

Hugh Eakin reviews the already-much-reviewed expose of the inner workings of the Getty, in a piece that, like most other discussions of antiquities looting in the New York Review of Books, bends over backward to defend art museums against charges that the museums, in the words of the authors of Chasing Aphrodite, "have fueled the destruction of far more knowledge than they have preserved." As Eakin points out, that claim is not backed up in the book by either evidence or argument. Eakin's implication is that this is poppycock.

But just because evidence and argument are not provided does not mean there is none. True, it is difficult to imagine how one could specify precisely how much knowledge has been destroyed by looters ransacking archaeological sites, since by definition this would be knowledge that will have to remain forever an unknown unknown (to paraphrase the poet of unknowingness, Don Rumsfeld); what the metrics would be for measuring how much knowledge has been preserved by museums would be difficult enough, though conceivable at least. But we do know, for example, that the area looted in Iraq alone since 2003 is several times the size of all the archaeological sites dug there licitly from 1923 to 2003; all that knowledge is gone forever. And we also know that the Mesopotamian areas most devastated correspond to categories of antiquities that are most in demand by high-end collectors who either donate to or serve on the boards of major museums.  The book's claim may be hyperbolic, but the link between museum acquisitions and the lobotomizing of our collective memory by antiquities looters is impossible to deny.

The extent to which Eakin prefers not to acknowledge what antiquities looting means becomes clear when he points out that the return of looted artifacts from the Getty to Italian museums is "a victory less for archaeology, perhaps, than for the approach endorsed by collecting museums of showing beautiful objects". He is correct that archaeologists have gained little: restitution followed by agreements to loan objects does nothing much to stop looting (Egypt and other nations ought to be demanding not just objects back but more financial help to pay for site guards etc.). But Eakin is wrong to think that the approach of showing beautiful objects, "even without knowledge of their discovery, may bring alive the ancient world to the modern public".

That's the same aesthetic attitude that, as Meyer Shapiro famously showed, enabled Heidegger, looking at van Gogh's beautiful painting of a pair of the painter's old shoes, to misinterpret these as the shoes of a German peasant woman -- a far from innocent move in the Germany of the 1930s, and even less innocent when one learns that Heidegger originally delivered this speech bringing the world of the peasant woman to light before an audience of Nazi women. Shapiro's lesson was that while a work of art may seem to bring to life a world to a viewer who is ignorant of and indifferent to knowledge, what it may in fact be doing is serving as a screen on which the viewer projects his or her fantasies on the world.  Luckily van Gogh's letters were not destroyed, so Shapiro was able to do the art historian's work to show what world van Gogh's painting really brings alive. We have much more difficulty with objects that might bring the ancient world to life, since so much has already been lost: there are no letters extant from the sculptor of the Getty "Aphrodite". The equivalent to van Gogh's letters would be whatever information archaeologists might have learned by properly excavating that statue and others.

Beauty is not truth. And we need truth, not just beauty. Museums and their apologists should recognize this.


Hugh Eakin said...

Many thanks for your comments, but I wonder if you have read my piece. You mention none of the main substantive points I make, including factual revelations about the Getty and other institutions (drawing on pages of documents and extensive conversations with the carabinieri and other Italian officials over many years) that, by any stretch of the imagination, cannot qualify as a “defense” of museums. Regarding the deplorable looting of Iraq I suggest you read [“The Devastation of Iraq’s Past,”] ( an extended discussion of the satellite and eyewitness evidence of large-scale, organized plunder immediately before and after the 2003 invasion. (It appeared, by the way, in The New York Review of Books.) I know of few other discussions of this scope short of your own book. As for the two factual observations I make that seem to trouble you, you do not dispute their accuracy: you acknowledge that “evidence and argument” are not provided in the book for the point in question, and you agree that “archeologists have gained little” by restitution. This is precisely what I meant: viewers of the Nostoi exhibition may derive pleasure from viewing beautiful objects just as viewers in California or New York did, but that will not bring back the works’ archaeological context. Any other reading of those statements would be a fanciful departure from the facts. In view of your own laudable efforts to bring together archaeologists and collecting museums, I’m surprised that you seem now to favor puzzling generalizations about “museums and their apologists” over reporting that may complicate the assumed positions of both sides.

Jason Felch said...

We've posted our on response to Hugh Eakin's review at our website:

Thanks for your thoughtful coverage of these issues.