Monday, February 19, 2007

Art: Ancient art as politcal advertising

A great art review of "Glass, Gilding and Grand Design: Art of Sasanian Iran" at the Asia Society by Holland Cotter of the NY Times. Excerpt:
"So, in cosmic terms, which are always basically earthly terms with spin, these images of domination through combat are political art, or more precisely, political advertising. What is the difference, after all, between a carved relief of an ancient king-of-king’s victory in a hunt and a press photograph of a modern leader declaring victory in a war?
Aesthetics is one difference, a big one. Most of the objects in the show — organized by Fran├žoise Demange, chief curator of Asian antiquities at the Louvre, with Prudence O. Harper, curator emerita of ancient Near Eastern art at the Met, and Michael Chagnon, a curatorial consultant — are superbly beautiful in formal terms, beautiful enough to smooth over the reality that control through violence is a primary theme.
When we see comparable violence played out on television news, we are appalled; some people have ethical qualms about its omnipresence, in fictional form, in films. But in high art, we tend to put our scruples on hold and give it a pass, because of beauty, or rarity, or distance in time, or because we don’t know what we’re seeing, or because we just don’t want to acknowledge what is really there.
A large part of art’s allure is its ambiguity; you can take it as you wish, make of it what you will. This exhibition, with its luminous cruelties, is a reminder of that. But the ancient Sasanians were surely clear about what they were seeing in their imperial art. And in some sense the viewers who understand art as political advertising most directly today are iconoclasts, the suppressors and destroyers of art. They may be the only people for whom art actually does speak for itself, but for whom beauty truly is not enough.
So by all means see the rare and fabulous work at Asia Society, for the intense pleasure it gives and for the windows its opens onto history, present and past. But also see it for the hard questions it poses about the profoundly uninnocent nature of art — in particular imperial art, wherever it comes from — and the moral responsibility we should ask of it."