Tuesday, June 28, 2011

World Heritage List Inscription for Syrian Villages: A PR Coup for a Murderous Regime

UNESCO's World Heritage Committee approves inscription of 40 ancient villages in northern Syria on the World Heritage List, along with a number of other sites. The villages are no doubt well worth visiting, but the timing is somewhat unfortunate, as it affords the tyrannical and repressive Syrian government the opportunity to present itself as enlightened and progressive:
Shakkour [Syria's Permanent Representative to UNESCO] said the decision affirms that Syria, which has more than 5000 ancient sites and the seventh of which to be listed on the World Heritage List, has been enjoying a civilized position that everyone must testify.
The registration of the village, Shakkour noted, is part of a "Syrian cultural vision project". How will such a vision be squared with the Syrian political nightmare project in which the Assad regime is now engaged?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Arts leaders speak up -- is Rahm listening?

Lots of good ideas here, and more should come out of the woodwork if the process of generating a cultural plan for Chicago is not hijacked, as is often the case, by those who have the deeper pockets or connections and who mistake their own interest in the arts as representing the general interest (or who simply ignore other interests than their own):

Saturday, June 11, 2011

An Exchange with Hugh Eakin

Hugh Eakin has responded to my previous post with a comment that I thought deserved to be shared along with my response to it below.
Eakin writes:
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,”] (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2008/aug/14/the-devastation-of-iraqs-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. 
 My response:

Dear Hugh,
Just for the record, I want to say that there is no better reporter on these issues than you, and that, as is true of all your pieces, your article on the Getty does contain a lot of valuable information, information that adds to our understanding of what the Getty's mishandling of the True case cost it. You are also right to note, as I do not, that in your piece you present valuable new and substantive evidence about the bad behavior of museums more generally. Had I been writing a full description of your article I would have made that clear. I have enormous respect for you and your work.

But my post wasn't aiming to rehearse the facts presented in your review, nor was I trying to suggest that you were in any way inaccurate about the facts you did present.  Rather, I was taking issue with the rhetorical framing of your factual observations within what you call in the article an "interpretation". As any interpretation must, yours departs from the facts towards a claim about what the facts mean.  So, when you note that the authors provide "neither evidence nor argument" proving that far more knowledge is destroyed by looting than is preserved by the museum-collected artifact, you do so for a reason: you want to show that, as you say in the immediately preceding sentence, the book is wrongly "cynical" about "the notion that art museums might have some legitimate reason for collecting art from the ancient past." I do not think it is "fanciful" to conclude that you believe museums do have a legitimate reason for collecting art from the ancient past, legitimate because even if some knowledge may have been destroyed in the process, there is always going to be more to learn, and because art can bring the world alive regardless of what we know or don't know. As you put it in your final sentences:

Even now, scholars are trying to determine the identity of the cult statue after which the authors name their book (several think it is not Aphrodite); and archaeologists continue to seek the place where it was found. In the meantime, Italy can enjoy the same exquisite artworks of unknown origin that had previously graced American display cases: a victory less for archaeology, perhaps, than for the approach endorsed by collecting museums of showing beautiful objects that, even without knowledge of their discovery, may bring alive the ancient world to the modern public.

That's a very soothing interpretation, much more so than one that would have ended with something like "But that enjoyment will do nothing to bring back the works' irrecoverable archaeological context, or to ensure that what we think of as the living ancient world is more than just a fantasy", or simply with the truncated phrase "a victory less for archaeology, perhaps, than for the approach endorsed by collecting museums of showing beautiful objects." I wish I could be as sanguine as you are that it is just a matter of time before scholars determine the identity of the cult statue and determine where it was found, but there is a good possibility we may never get answers to those questions, or to a host of others related to untold thousands of artifacts whose findspots and identities would help us understand the meaning of this particular cult statue.

In any case, my point in quoting you here is simply to explain why I took you to be defending, at least indirectly, the deeper philosophical position that Keats is laying out in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" in support of the priority of a museal aesthetics as "all ye need to know": beauty teases us out of thought, and a vision that seems to "bring alive the ancient world" can substitute for the missing truth about the world.

Keats did not confront the possibility we have to confront: that beauty might not just substitute for but kill truth, that the passion for the beautiful might be slaked at the expense of knowledge. (The Romantics were worried about murdering to dissect, not murdering to admire.) The public, as well as collectors and museums, all share the passion for the beautiful; we all also share – or should share – a passion for, or at least an equal respect for, the true. We should not settle for the situation we are still in now, even with museums adopting a clean-hands policy, in which archaeological sites continue to be destroyed for the sake of the beautiful. Museums, collectors, and governments ought to recognize that they do not need to settle for the beautiful alone, as is the case with restituted artifacts. Policies can be devised that would focus not on restitution alone but on paying for more guards. The Getty, for instance, could have been told it had to set up a fund for site protection -- or perhaps pay for permanent guards at Aidone, something Malcolm Bell could have used back in the 1970s! -- rather than simply give back the hot pots to Italy; more generally, sales of beautiful antiquities could be taxed and the proceeds used to help pay for guards and the like. But we can't even have that conversation if we don't care if we don't know.

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.