Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Grand and Grandeur: Part II (Antiquities Made Fresh)

Picking up on the impressionistic tour of the New Greek and Roman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum from yesterday, those of you still reading will now be subjected to my terrible photo-taking skills.

Of all the wondrous characters and stories from antiquity to choose from, I'm still most passionate about the life and conquests of Alexander the Great. Perhaps it's the widely held notion that he was homosexual that most captures my interest (smashing the stereotypes), but I think it's more the singular determination and focus he exhibited. He simply would not stop until all the known world was his. It's been what?, more than 2300 years since his death, and still he captivates our imagination, this paradoxical conqueror, tutored by Aristotle and passionate about the arts and philosophy, yet a ruthless warrior and drunken murderer. He embodied much of what was right and more than a little of what was wrong about mankind 2 millennia ago. This crown comes from Alexander's time. There's no indication he wore it (and if I remember correctly it's dated to slightly after his death), but the mere fact that it's survived since then and symbolizes the aesthetics he helped spread from Europe to India made happening upon it particularly pleasant for me (for all images, click to see larger):



Of course, coming from less than aristocratic stock, I can't help when contemplating Alexander to think of all the thousands of soldiers (on both sides) who died in his battles for whom history has no name to record. Many of the pieces in the Met's collection permit for the association of wartime glory, but without a easily ready name to associate. This helmet, for example, was simply marvelous, but I can't pin a known warrior to the style (and here I must apologize for taking terrible notes during my visit...I'm a criminally bad journalist, it's in the Etruscan mezzanine where the chariot resides [late Villanovan period, I'm gonna venture...because that's what the half visible wall label says]). Let's just say that this symbolized for me the fallen unknown. Besides, it's ponderous enough on its own. It doesn't really need a narrative (sorry about the glare):



Speaking of narratives, does anyone else feel they should bring that tattered copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology you still have from high school with you while commuting to the Met, to quickly brush up on the defining accoutrement of the characters you can't remember? Invariably I'll overhear someone, usually with an Italian accent, identify some obscure god/ess from the way his/her hair is styled in their marble likeness. As if.

Hercules, is a bit easier, I'll admit. Here's the hero in his younger days (they've somewhat cruelly placed him opposite his older self in the court...
seen here):



And if I had to guess (because like there was a pop quiz or I was on Jeopardy and it was the final question or something), I'd probably say this next fellow was Bacchus (and, yes, I was right there and read the label, but...memory loss is like the first sign, no?):



Again, the work is sublime, so it's not necessary to know who it is to appreciate it, but if anyone knows for sure (and it might be simply a regional tax collector), please do share.

OK, I think that's enough. There are over 5,300 works on display in the galleries now, and I could babble on about each to your intense dismay, but I have to pack for Chicago, and you can read much more informed commentary in these recent articles on the galleries until you get there yourself (
NYTimes, Time blog, The Art Newspaper, New York Magazine).

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7 Comments:

Anonymous bambino said...

Your photo skills are just fine, so dont worry about it. But you should start thinking about all those bling bling I saw in the picture :)

I am glad you enjoyed your tour of Alexander the Great.

4/18/2007 11:31:00 AM  
Anonymous jason said...

I wonder if it's possible to be firmly opposed to the evils that centuries of imperial domination and war (especially the current American one) have reigned upon human civilization, and yet still hold such a devout fetishistic fascination with objects whose cultural significance is not only a celebration of such imperial domination, but whose original function was to aid in the operation of such imperialist domination?

If so, I suspect the reasons are one of the following two: Either (1) many Americans who hold such objects in high esteem are simply unaware of their cultural significance, and therefore enjoy them purely as visual pleasure, divorced from original cultural intention and historical significance, or (2) many individual Americans (and especially American institutions) are not quite as morally opposed to imperialism as they think.

4/18/2007 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Or 3) many Americans understand that while you can't totally separate out the cultural moral significance of the symbols of an empire (all of which, throughout history, gained such status through the selfish exploitation of other peoples [including the current American empire]), it's not entirely fair to associate all the excesses of imperialism with each surviving artifact, and in particular, each artisan pressed into service for the glory of that empire. In other words, some Americans can appreciate the objects for their visual pleasure AND educate themselves to their socio-political significance AND make the distinction between remembering their history (so as to avoid repeating it) and erasing that history (i.e., presumably by not treasuring its artifacts) to then be doomed to repeat it.

4/18/2007 12:01:00 PM  
Anonymous jason said...

Excellent response E_, but I doubt that the preservation of imperial history (so as to avoid repeating its evils by protecting them from historical erasure) requires a gazillion dollar display of such an awe inspiring magnitude. Maybe, just maybe, the Met's greater motivation is its obsession with demonstrating its own power (after all, why does it really need an $85 million Duccio?), than its desire to "educate" the masses or "preserve" history.

If these kinds of gigantic mega-museums are monuments to power, as surely they are, then the new Greek and Roman galleries are to be this current empire's crown jewels.

4/18/2007 12:39:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Excellent response, yourself, Jason.

I'm going to step out on a limb here and suggest that context ensures protection though. My primary interests in the new galleries are 1) experiencing the works in a context that illuminates (i.e., in which the works have historical and aesthetic dialogs with each other) and 2) enjoying the works for the pleasure they provide. Both, to me, are important.

Personally, I feel awe-inspiring displays are also preservation-inspiring, appreciation-inspiring, and education-inspiring. Perhaps there's a less-ostentatious way to accomplish this, but as it's a museum open to the public and as its survival depends on its appeal, I don't think it's quite as undemocratic as you seem to be suggesting it is here.

4/18/2007 01:23:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

But you should start thinking about all those bling bling I saw in the picture :)

I am thinking about it, Bambino...mostly when you're going to buy some for me! :-)

4/18/2007 02:40:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Hey Jason,

what do you think of Moby and his imperialistic music?

seriously.

I called the Met "the Museum of Conquered Peoples" when I was there. The friend I was with, a very PC sort of guy, shushed me. Our culture is only now waking up to what these places represent. (Thanks to people like Jason.) It will be interesting to see how the displays are fixed to include acknowledgement of the colonialist origins of a lot of what is on display. No wonder our culture is so in love with irony. How else to live with this information?

4/18/2007 06:43:00 PM  

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