Friday, December 30, 2011
Now that we’re fast approaching our own self-conscious age, we look at an object that embodies the spirit of all these podcasts: the impulse to write, control, and understand history. In this case, MacGregor has found a gorgeous jade bi, almost 3000 years old, which was defaced in 1790 when a historian scribbled his podcast history all over it. The historian here was the Qianlong Emperor who ruled China for most of the eighteenth century—a period of great expansion and success for China, the envy of most contemporary western states (MacGregor details English, French, and German imitations of Chinese manifestations at the time), and presumably the model for China in our own century. MacGregor subjects the Qianlong Emperor, as historian, to what is presumably the same bar he holds up for himself and his own team; he finds what the Emperor has written on the bi inaccurate (the Emperor claims this bi, which was found in a tomb, was a holder for a bowl...it wasn’t), self-serving (the Emperor’s historical project was intended as propaganda, to show his rightful inheritance of the 3000 year-old mandate of heaven we saw so long ago with the Zhou), and incompetent (an actor reads the poem written on the bi, MacGregor has it translated, and then brings in a Chinese historian to say that it’s a crummy poem and is no better than the 20th century propaganda pieces which are so familiar, and suspect, to intelligent Chinese). Yet MacGregor still applauds his project, finding history in ancient objects and trying to tell a story which will be constructive and productive for our own time. I suppose nobody got hurt when the Qianlong Emperor scratched his poem on this old bi; that, and the calligraphy of the poem is kind of pretty.
Thursday, December 29, 2011
This crummy photograph (taken through glass in the dimly-lit Enlightenment Gallery) shows a shield, made from the bark of a tree that grows about 200 miles north of Sydney, that was flourished when Captain Cook first landed at Botany Bay (near modern Sydney) in 1770. He and his men immediately came into conflict with some natives: the natives threw spears and missed, probably on purpose, and Cook, fearing that the spear-tips were poisoned, shot at them with muskets (and missed). One of the natives dropped this shield, which they must have obtained through trade from a group to the north, and eventually it worked its way to the British Museum. So it wasn’t a particularly auspicious beginning to what became a great country: the next day, Cook and his men found a settlement, offered shiny beads to some children, and were surprised the next day to find that the natives had left and had left the beads behind. “I don’t understand, all the other natives we found in this crazy part of the world go nuts for beads!” Cook then recommended that England use the lush Botany Bay harbor for a penal colony, and Australia began. (Is there a Michener novel about this area yet?)
In any event, MacGregor’s bigger point here is about the writing of history. The history of Australia has always been written exclusively from the Enlightened, British point of view, no matter the failures of wisdom (as in Cook’s death in Hawaii) or judgement, or the downright deplorable attitudes toward indigenous people that end up in these histories. Problem is, if you can’t write, then you can’t influence the way history gets written. But if you can make a shield, or barter to get a cool shield from a neighboring group, then you have in fact created a different kind of historical record. That’s his point—a defense of his program, making a history of the world in objects, in the hopes that these objects, many of which were created by illiterates, give a rounder, fuller, newer approach to the story of what happened. Certainly if a contemporary writer (the podcast quotes the diaries of Cook and Joseph Banks extensively) missed the point because they couldn’t understand the cultures with which they were interacting, or considered aborigines disposable, animals and not men, then we can consider the history they wrote to be poorly written. Whether MacGregor’s history—which is not exactly written, but created, blogged, podcasted, spoken, printed, photographed, videoed, e-chronicled—is better remains to be seen.
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Here’s a map of the midwest south of my homeland of Michigan—Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, apparently part of Missouri—made on a deer’s hide. You can even see the holes where the musket bullet killed the deer. It’s hard to see the map, but apparently it’s sort of a stylized subway map of the river systems in that part of the world; not to scale, but good for navigation. MacGregor tells us that the cities/habitations marked on the map tend to be native American settlements, not white; for instance, St. Louis was growing at the time this map was made, but isn’t where it ought to be on the Mississippi. This map was probably copied by whites from a native-made original, according to an expert (with a British accent) who notices that this copy is a little more refined, more carefully finished, than the typical native scrawl. (That’s what the guy said!)
It dates from the period of the French and Indian War, aka the Seven Years’ War, which MacGregor dubs (in the hook to his podcast) the first World War. True, that war (1756-1763) was a global escalation of the ongoing French vs. British war that you could trace (if you wanted) back before Henry V to William the Conqueror, and probably earlier. For the first time, in the Seven Years’ War, the British and French were fighting in India, and Africa, and remote locations like Mackinaw City, Michigan. In North America they were mostly fighting about hunting and trapping rights and routes. But waiting in the wings, the WASP settlements along the Atlantic coast were chomping at the bits to spill westwards and settle this vast new land, beckoning like Ishmael’s “things remote.” The result of the Seven Years’ War, for North American history, was that a huge chunk of land, the area in this map, fell under British administration; within a generation, with the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson would oust the French from the next third of the continent, freeing that up for white Americans. And of course, neither development boded well for the people who already lived in this area.
The big problem was another major cultural misunderstanding. In the British and then American tradition, land was to be owned. You could establish rights to land, you could have deeds and title and escrow and mortgages and you could sell land, it was a commodity to be traded. The natives didn’t understand the concept: land was land, an element of the world, like water, air, and animals, imbued with the million spirits of god. MacGregor’s expert on this podcast underlines an important point about native Americans’ attitude toward land, one also made in the apocryphal “Chief Seattle” speech: “Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb and wander away beyond the stars. They are soon forgotten and never return. Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its verdant valleys, its murmuring rivers, its magnificent mountains, sequestered vales and verdant lined lakes and bays, and ever yearn in tender fond affection over the lonely hearted living, and often return from the happy hunting ground to visit, guide, console, and comfort them.” He says it’s a tribal way of thinking, to structure history as people bounded by land, as opposed to people bounded by time (which is, I deduce, an enlightened, or nation-based way of thinking.) Whichever it is, it’s one of the main political conflicts of the modern era. And it proved impossible for a remote government in London, with other problems and financial constraints, to do a good job mediating between the needs of the natives and the needs of the settlers. So guess who got shafted.
I grew up without a tribe; what group identity I’ve had, in my experience, has come from the nation, and then from very small groups (my family, my team, my cast, my orchestra, my company). Moreover, the federalized system, the post-50s superhighways and homogenized culture in which I grew up impressed me, from a very early age, with the important lesson: if you stay in one place all your life, you’re a failure. You should move to new states, explore strange new malls, watch TV in a different time zone! “I’m sick of grinders, Marge!” says Homer. “I want a hoagie, a sub, a foot-long! Please, won’t you let me live?” I did that, and in recent years have ended up with a much deeper connection to my whereabouts (Seattle, and the Pacific Northwest) than I ever had to any place I have lived. But those early lessons die hard, and I will go to my grave thinking it’s important for the human being to be portable. You should be able to live anywhere. Tribal assignments to a given location, I was taught and can’t not believe, cause suffering.
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Here’s a gorgeous helmet which would have required the feathers plucked from some 2500 birds of Hawaii, made into an amazing ceremonial helmet that was presented to Captain Cook when he first landed on the big island of Hawaii. That first landing was during the month devoted to the god of peace. When he returned later, during the month devoted to the god of war, Cook received something of an entirely different nature from the Hawaiians: the spear-thrust that killed him. Don’t ask me why they had a month devoted to the god of peace, and then a month devoted to the god of war; I’m reminded of the old Peanuts cartoon, where Linus asks at Christmastime “Why do we only feel and share thoughts of love and joy and Christmas? Why can’t we be like this all year long?” and Lucy responds, “What are you, some kind of fanatic?”
Cook has long been a great hero of mine, in terms of that Ishmael-like need for a quest: “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” Who knows what inner dissonance impels such spirits ever to map the unknown regions: men like Richard Burton (another personal hero), who was so completely at sea in London society. It’s not wisdom. Wisdom might help, if you want to make it back in one peace; you might even be in quest of wisdom, as I suspect Ishmael is, when you set out. But Cook’s ultimate failure in Hawaii indicates a lack of wisdom, in some degree; a poor choice that then backfired. In this case, apparently, some islanders had stolen a small boat from his ship, probably (in the spirit of the god of war) trying to push it, try out a little aggression, see where that got them. Cook tried to kidnap the king from the beach, to hold him for ransom until the boat was returned, but the king’s bodyguards killed him as they walked along the beach. It was an unusual but fatal miscalculation, for a man who had finished mapping the globe, filled in all the remaining white spaces, and done so (in Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific) with remarkably few hostilities and fatalities.
Yet the main takeaway is that, even if he was good at setting up amicable relationships centered on trade and barter, at bottom there was always huge misunderstanding, based on fundamental ideas so central to the miscommunicating cultures that they could barely be expressed. Example: one of MacGregor’s experts, on this podcast, was a Hawaiian intellectual who spoke of Hawaii’s eventual independence from the United States. Is there a movement afoot, for them to secede? News to me. I can see why they’d want to be their own nation, their association with this country is probably more advantageous to us than it is to them. But as a mainland American who occasionally does business in Hawaii but doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the state, it would never occur to me that there was a movement afoot to separate. Cultural misunderstanding, 21st century, alive and well.
Monday, December 26, 2011
This drum was constructed from wood of a tree in West Africa, as well as other little tightening-pieces from that part of the world; the skin stretched across it, however, is from mid-Atlantic America. Sir Hans Sloane, the founder of the British Museum, found it in Virginia in the 1720s, I think they said, and brought it back to London, where it has since had a place of honor in the museum. MacGregor has two special guests on this podcast, one a Londoner whose family origin was African-American, so like this drum they were enslaved in Africa, shipped to America, and eventually became British citizens; the other, a Princeton professor from West Africa, who points out that in thinking about this object you have a choice: you can a) get bogged down by the horror, the inhumanity, of the story, or b) find something a little more forward-looking about the peregrinations of this drum.
As such, it’s one of their most powerful podcasts. The drum was apparently used, during the dreaded ‘Middle Passage,” when they needed “to dance the slaves,” that is, to force them to come up on deck and jump around a little bit, for purposes of health and morale. Yet the dancing is a double-edged sword, because it turns into jazz, eventually: the great cry of humanity arising from this tremendous injustice and inhumanity. We’ve managed to stop that particular manifestation of inhumanity; and the nice thing is, we all have jazz and continue to enjoy this living tradition.
Friday, December 23, 2011
We had the printing press a few podcasts back, when Dürer circulated a rhinoceros he’d never seen. Here’s another woodblock-printed illustration, one which brings up issues such as printing and literacy, the Protestant reformation and the 30 Years’ War, political cartoons, and centenary celebrations. This cartoon was printed and circulated out of Leipzig in 1617, marking the 100th anniversary of the famous day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the cathedral in Wittenberg, launching the Reformation; although it circulated in northern Germany where they were celebrating this cenetenary, it was in no uncertain terms a gauntlet tossed to the Elector of Saxony (ruling from nearby Dresden, I suppose) to get ready for war—the 30 Years’ War, which began the next year in 1618, devastated Germany and all central Europe through 1648 when they finally gave up and decided to live together. This war so weakened Germany, they were no competition for France in the late 1600s, when Louis XIV emerged to lead Europe and rule the world now that Spain was declining.
But none of that is in the document itself. Instead, it’s a very busy political cartoon which has Luther writing his essay “Against Indulgences” on the church door, at left, with an enormous quill pen which is spearing the brains of the lion-pope Leo X and knocking off the silly hat of the human-pope standing near the lion. Feathers are dripping from Luther’s mighty pen, and elsewhere they’re pulling feathers out of a goose—literacy and writing are spreading like wildfire, and dopey church is powerless to stop it. You’ve also got a Luther in the middle-right, higher up, studying his Bible, and light from above (sent down by a funny-looking holy trinity) illuminates his page. Strong imagery for the power of books, word, text, written communication.
One of MacGregor’s experts goes so far as to claim that this revolution was TOO successful—that now we are mired in words, embedded and cemented in them. His other expert is a political cartoonist with a different point of view, who claims that all the usual tricks of political cartoons were already here in this document in 1618, using an image to make your enemy look stupid/weak and you look mighty and strong. In fact, that trick goes back as far as King Den’s sandal label, doesn’t it? It may be true that words can be a trap, for those who take up the verbal lifestyle. Yet it seems to me that currently we’re in a wonderful world of mixed media—that you need both words and image in most modern forms of communication. The fewer words, the better; but the right words take your picture and whirl it through multiple dimensions in a way that makes me (as a writer/blogger/communicator) very happy.
Thursday, December 22, 2011
Here’s another example, following on yesterday’s Islamic Bima, detailing an odd commingling of religion that follows an imperial conquest. When the Spanish took Mexico from the Aztecs, in the 1500s, the Catholics quickly started missionary work and conversions. Yes, they were killing and massacring them, too, and releasing diseases that would decimate their numbers; but the Catholics wanted them alive and willing converts, otherwise they felt it didn’t take. Officially, the natives worshipped devils, and it would be a great victory for Holy Mother Church and her Inquisition if they could save all those souls. And yet, the practical solution, as every successful conqueror has discovered, is to adapt the old faith that everybody knew to the new faith you’re trying to impose—thus, Christmas takes the place of the old pagan solstice holiday (convenient that Jesus was born then, no?). In Mexico, it gives you things such as the Day of the Dead, which combined native Mexican ancestor worship with the Catholic All Saints’ Day/All Souls Day business, or the map of a region near Mexico City in this podcast, which features the adorable location “Cathedral of Santa Barbara at the Place of the Toad”—they kept the altar at the place which everybody associated with worship, just changed what it was they were worshipping.
The destruction of Aztec civilization, along with so many other native American situations, is easily deplored and condemned by apologist historians. Slightly deeper analysis: in some cases it was easy for the Spanish to overthrow the Aztec power structure, because the Aztecs themselves were deeply resented imperial overlords, and lots of native groups were delighted to get rid of them—after all, no one could possibly be worse than these chocolate-sipping sadists. That may not excuse what the Spanish did to the Aztecs, but it’s a useful lesson for would-be imperialists: it’s easier to create your colonies where there’s no central authority, just a lot of warring tribes you can play against each other, or where, as in this case, there is a central authority whom everybody hates. Throw down the dark lord, take his ring, and set yourself up as the new dark lord, it’s all quite straightforward.
MacGregor concludes his podcast by pointing out that the Virgin of Guadalupe is the best example of a strictly Mexican Catholic amalgam. She appeared (in what’s now Mexico City) to a young Aztec a few years after the conquest began, and is now the second most visited Catholic shrine in the world, after Rome, I guess. Even Mexican atheists, communists, and extreme free-thinkers have a hard time not being devoted to Our Lady there.
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
I quite like this object, although I admit a great failing—I’ve never been to an Indonesian shadow-puppet performance. Presumably there are occasionally opportunities, here in Seattle, to enjoy this kind of theater, and for some reason I’ve never gotten organized. The puppet on this podcast represents Bima, the Hercules/Samson/Thor comic strongman hero of the Mahabharata, and would have been used in all-night puppet shows, projecting shadows on a white sheet. Women and children sat on the far side and watched the play of shadows; men in the audience sat on the side with the puppet and enjoyed watching its careful painting and operation. MacGregor speaks with a famous contemporary Indonesian shadow-puppeteer, who says of his trade, “it’s fun, but it’s complicated!” I bet—operating up to six puppets in a given scene, doing all the voices for the dialogue, and somehow conducting a gamelon orchestra at the same time (and occasionally singing, if that’s needed).
Historically, one of the things that’s odd about this particular situation is here’s a Hindu character, playing a big role in the culture of an Islamic country. Indonesia (this puppet comes from Java, which we last visited when they were building the great Buddhist temple at Borodbudur) became Islam during the age of the Ottoman and Mughal Empires, mostly because that made trading with these huge nations easier. But the shadow-puppet theater and the Hindu stories, mostly Mahabharata and Ramayana derivatives, were already hugely popular. So Indonesia’s new Islamic leadership encourages them to stylize the characters even further, to get away from the Islamic prohibition against depicting the human form; that’s why Bima has claws instead of hands, and why his figure is so strange. (On the next island over, Hindu/Buddhist Bali, the Bima puppets look more like human beings.) I suppose the interaction of current religion and popular, ancient story here parallels the situation when a Christian writer takes up the story of the pagan Beowulf...or when Catholic Italian opera composers do stories from Greek myths.
The other thing that’s very fun about this shadow-puppet tradition is how subversive it still is. MacGregor points out that it’s much easier to censor tv and radio, communication channels which are central and federalized, than it is popular traditions like theater on a small scale (or the internet, for that matter). So, even to this day shadow puppet plays play a role in public discourse about current events in Indonesia—and the clever politician or ruler is the person who knows exactly how much slack to give them in the theater. You want them to parody you, only a real ruler is worth mocking. But of course you want a certain kind of mocking. Bima is so loveable and fun, so popular, there’s unlikely to be much satirical bite in a parody involving him.
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
MacGregor begins his contemplation of this beautiful little painting, which wasn’t on display for some reason, with his standard questions about images, image-making, and the role of images in politics and control. Modern rulers, for instance, can effectively neuter each other in debate if they can catch their opponent in the grievous sin of FLIP-FLOPPING, which I guess means not always being 1000% sure that you’re always right about every question ever asked of you. How refreshing, then, this old Indian tradition that celebrates the religious leaders who advise rulers and nobility. In today’s west, we look with great suspicion upon any would-be ruler who seems capable of hearing advice on any topic, particularly advice from spiritual guides—whether Obama’s fiery preacher or Nancy Reagan’s astrologer.
It may be that this wasn’t such a big issue in this Indian tradition, where everybody kind of understood that these religious leaders, common features of the landscape, had attained spiritual distinction through renunciation. I think our modern western problem with rulers turning to religious leaders for advice is most of us have a hard time imagining religious leaders being anything other than a) devious Machiavellians aspiring to control, b) batshit insane, or c) both. The poor mendicant Hindu here can be trusted, if only because anyone living in this world was familiar with this poverty. It was everywhere, and even the Prince Siddartha-like (Moslem Mughal) prince depicted here knew all about it.
The Mughals established the Islamic empire in northern India at something like the same time that the Turks were establishing the Ottoman Empire some miles to the west. Racking my brains at first, to think of a contemporary western image where you have the proud, wealthy, powerful ruler going to the humble mendicant in search of advice and/or enlightenment, eventually I came to focus on King Lear.
Written we believe during the reign of King James I, King Lear doesn’t twist itself as easily into an allegory of contemporary Elizabethan politics as do (say) Macbeth or some of Shakespeare’s history plays. Based on Biblical sources, it does present an image somewhat congruent to MacGregor’s miniature, of acquisition of learning, when the king takes as his advisor the holy fool, poor mad Tom. What’s weird about this analogy is that Lear has in it so much pain and despair, even though that pursuit-of-wisdom plot may offer a hint of redemption, it seems unfair to compare it to the pretty Mughal miniature. Could the genius that created the ineffable beauty of the Taj Mahal also create the soul-searing sublimity (I don’t think the word ‘beauty’ is appropriate here) of King Lear?
Monday, December 19, 2011
We’ve followed the history of Iran from a source of wealth and raw materials to Sumer and Ur, and their inheritors Babylon and Assyria, through the satraps of the great Persian empire, to the Zoroastrians who risked it all on the Sassanian empire, to (post-Mongol) the source of and market for Chinese porcelain aesthetics. Here in the early modern period, MacGregor is pointing out the widespread, liberal religious tolerance that was part of the Shi’a Iran contemporary with lots of religious persecutions and wars in Europe.
The ruler contemporary with Elizabeth I was Shah Abbas of the Safavid dynasty, a rival to the early Ottomans, who went so far as to build the Armenians a big, beautiful Christian (Orthodox) cathedral in Isfahan, which is (I guess—never been there, may never go unless they stop imprisoning American hikers) the most prominent city after Tehran. He also built a beautiful mosque in Isfahan for Shi’a Islam, which became the state religion of the Safavids. By the end of the Safavid rule, however, intolerance had become the way of things in that part of the world—and Europe was starting to relax a little.
As for the origins of Shi’a, or “Party of Ali” Islam, I guess this split goes back to the first generation after the prophet, when Mohammed’s daughter Fatima married Ali, who became the first Imam (instead of the fourth Caliph) back at the original split in Islam, in the 600s. According to MacGregor, they’ve since been identified with lots of suffering and martyrdom—he goes to the mosque and sees representations of the Twelve Imams, martyrs all and the last is still in hiding, like King Arthur, ready to come back and lead the world to the promised land someday. The object here, a big ceremonial sword-like thing that you put on a pole and got a religious body-builder to carry through the streets as part of a religious processional to your mosque, similarly commemorates the Imams. MacGregor underlines for us the irony of using a sword, a symbol of aggression, for a religion that is focused on personal suffering and martyrdom.
Friday, December 16, 2011
Of all the bits of money in the British Museum, MacGregor admits that these pieces of eight have the most evocative name. He even plays a parrot from some Treasure Island movie saying “Pieces of eight, pieces of eight! Dead men tell no tales!” But then he gets off this romantic digression and points out that the important, world-history changing issue here is establishing a currency that would have value everywhere, all over the world, for the first time. There had been local banks, and precious valuables were always precious and valuable...but something is different in the early modern period, when silver coins, mined in Potosí (Bolivia), minted in the Spanish New World, and traded via the Phillipines (that colony named for King Philip II of Spain, Queen Elizabeth I’s enemy and Verdi’s Wotan) had the ability to trash China’s economy. Oh, and that their name—peso de ocho—eventually got shortened and became another, still familiar, currency, the peso.
You’ll notice they aren’t uniform in shape or design. I don’t think there really was much uniformity until much more recently; the six different coins here come from lots of different places: Indonesia, China, one from the Scottish coast (sank with the Spanish Armada), eventually even restamped in Australia. Once that modern, industrial, mechanized need for conformity and uniformity got established, I think we were in the nineteenth-century era of the battle between the gold and silver standards, Dorothy’s yellow brick road and Bryant’s cross of gold speech.
PS The proverbial wealth of Peru, where many of these coins were finished, is manifest in Da Ponte’s libretto for Così fan tutte, where Don Alfonso and the two sisters sing (at the end of the brilliant ‘magnet’ movement in the first act finale) “Ah, questo medico vale un Perù!” Ah, this doctor is as valuable as a Peru!
Thursday, December 15, 2011
We’re now getting into the era when several of our principals repeat; the story associated with these beautiful elephants shares similarities with the stories of several objects we now know and love. Like Dürer’s German vision of an Indian rhino, what you’ve got here is a work of Japanese art representing a creature the Japanese had never seen, an Indian elephant (you can tell the type of elephant ‘cause of the ears and tusk). It’s done in porcelain, which as you remember from the David Vases the Chinese had developed with Iranian influence; the Japanese bought the secrets of how to make porcelain from the Koreans, who had smuggled it out of China (like the lady with the silkworms in her headdress)...because the Koreans and Japanese have different national schools and aesthetics from the Chinese, the art of porcelain-making developed slightly differently in those countries, as long ago did the art of roof-tile-makery. But this object really goes multi-national because of the first multi-national corporation, the Dutch East India Company, which has exclusive trading rights to Japan in that odd era of shoguns and samurais. (Japan’s isolationist policy, which we spoke about with regard to those ceremonial bronze mirrors, didn’t really ease up until 1853, by which time the Americans were coming to it from the east. Back when the only door to Japan was on the western seaboard, it was easier to keep it closed.) The Dutch traded these Japanese porcelain elephants, made in the strictly Japanese “Kakiemon” school of porcelain-makery, to England, where people were crazy for porcelain; along with other porcelain animals, they probably ended up decorating a mantlepiece on some rich Brit’s English country house.
It’s a lot of effort to go to for this luxury of all luxuries...particularly when you find out that learning the craft of making Kakiemon pottery requires an apprenticeship of 30-40 years! MacGregor tracked down a representative of the family who’s held the secrets of Kakiemon all these centuries, talked to him (with an interpreter) on the phone from Japan, and needless to say they’d like these priceless elephants back. Even in the 17th century, the value of these pieces, in terms of trade, would have been something like $10,000. So perhaps the moral of the story is, once your basic needs are met, you go to odd lengths, creating multi-national corporations and planet-spinning trade routes and life-long apprenticeships, in pursuit of pretty things that nobody really needs.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
This double-headed serpent is one of the most beautiful objects in the British Museum. It’s the main object, in our historical trajectory, representing Aztec culture, and it’s an example of how too much symbolism can get projected onto one object. One of MacGregor’s Aztec specialists speaks about the dual nature of most Aztec gods—like Shiva and Parvati in Hinduism, you have gods of duality, gods that are both male and female, winged serpents (Quetzalcoatl) representing both earth and sky, gods who stand for both life and death, creatures with two heads like the one in this object. And MacGregor wants it to represent dualities like the Old World and the New World, murderous friendship, modern Mexico with its dual European and mestizo citizenry. Whatever, it’s a gorgeous object and the encounter of Cortés and Moctezuma is indeed a turning point.
As usual, not to exonerate the Spanish...but the Aztecs could be pretty nasty. Like the Incas and lots of other meso-American cultures, they had both good (chocolate!) and bad (human sacrifice and lots of it!) And they had many enemies. The zillions of little bits of turquoise used to make this double-headed serpent came to Mexico City (sorry, Tenochtitlan), the capital, from as far away as Texas and Honduras. Most of their conquered territories didn’t like them very much—there was that whole matter of having to send slaves off to the capitol to be sacrificed en masse—and the Spanish exploited this when they got there, to weaken Aztec rule and take the place over. It sounds like it helped that many treated the Spanish as gods, initially, and that Moctezuma basically gave Cortés the key to the city when he first got there. The other thing that helped was smallpox, which slaughtered 90% of the indigenous people right away. And yet, since there were more people there to begin with—glorious, terrifying cities full of people—enough survived to mingle with the newcomers and give us the people who are there today, many with mixed native and European ancestry.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Here’s a sculpture MacGregor uses to speak about two encounters between Europeans and Africans on African turf: the first, depicted in the sculpture, presumably around 1600, a peaceful exchange of trade and maybe ideas; and the second, in 1897, when this object was looted and taken back to England, a war in the service of empire and then, perhaps as terrible as the lives lost, trashing or denying a culture because of the insidious cultural residue of slavery.
Now, this is a neat work of art, there’s no denying that—the figures are carefully done, the symmetry is pleasing, the two European guys at the top with lots of hair and funny hats with feathers are kind of cool. So much so that, as with the Ife Sculpted Head, in 1900 the Europeans were baffled—what was this object doing in Nigeria? They were so racist at that time, so into their thing about the savage, barbarous ways of the Africans, that they couldn’t comprehend how such an object could have been created there. Although that’s a sad comment on the British scramble (against the French and Dutch and Portugese and, by the 19th century, the Belgians) for colonies in Africa, I think it’s an even sadder comment on the process of dehumanization. Presumably the Portugese traders depicted in this sculpture, the guys with the silly hats at the back, who traded the Nigerians the bronze they used to make this sculpture, presumably they weren’t so appalled and astonished by the rich culture in the court of the Oba, the king of this region of West Africa in the 16th century. But between 1600 and 1900, slavery happened...three hundred years in which white people around the world—yes, I know the Brits gave it up long before the Americans did, but the racism persisted there as long as it did here—worked their hardest, in thought and writing and teaching and culture, to dehumanize those they wanted or felt compelled by financial necessity to keep as slaves. “They” were savage, barbarous, etc., not quite human, lucky to have us to look after them and take care of them. A myth which developed simultaneously with the slave trade, as it grew into the 1800s. And myths, we’ve seen, are hard things to kill. One of the very pernicious things about the kind of dehumanizing myth we’re talking about here is that both sides may end up half-believing it, the oppressor as well as the oppressed. MacGregor’s Nigerian writer looks at this sculpture and it makes him think almost wistfully or with a kind of nostalgia for a time, before slavery became the main industry, when Nigeria (and lots of other parts of Africa) had functioning societies.
Monday, December 12, 2011
This is an impressive object, not too far from the museum’s collection of old clocks, as I remember. It’s here in our history playing the role of the galleon, which changed history, as did all great advances in marine navigation in the 1400s and 1500s, by giving Europe the drop on the rest of the world. With their big ships the Europeans started the modern age. Modes of transport have obviously evolved since, but these big vessels made possible the creation of our world.
Now, this object is obviously not a 15th century galleon. (I found bits of one, at Portsmouth Historic Dockyards, the Mary Rose of Henry VIII—really a fascinating place to visit, and it’ll be better in the next year or two when they actually open the exhibit with what’s left of the ship. When I was there, between trips to the British Museum, the Mary Rose exhibit was only stuff that had been recovered from the wreck.) It’s an automaton, halfway between a puppet and a robot, made in Germany as a conversation piece, a centerpiece for the table of some early Renaissance German duke or princeling, some Holy Roman Emperor potentate. MacGregor conjectures that it was wound up and set to ‘sail’ back and forth across a dinner table, and I think it’s like one of those Swiss clocks...at a certain point the captain, or the pope or somebody, comes out of the hold in miniature and tootles around and then heads back in. And since most of Germany is landlocked, it’s unlikely that anyone involved had ever been on a real galleon, or to the ocean, for that matter. But they understood that it was huge, that this discovery held the key to the future. It’s not clear what they felt about robots. More recently, German culture has demonstrated a complex fascination/terror with robots; it’s a big deal in the extremely Romantic work of E.T.A. Hoffmann, who was (I guess) writing science fiction in stories like “The Sandman,” the horror story which inspired the cutsey ballet Coppélia and the goofy Act 1 of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, or in the much more frank “Automata,” and I’m here, as spurious historian of German literature, to say that seductive robots are just as terrifying in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a hundred years later.
Sorry, that digression took me a long way away from our galleon and the spirit of new possibilities in transportation it celebrates. One last thought, a memory of an incomplete, unstaged play-fragment we had, years ago, at a since-discontinued festival of new plays hosted by ACT and Annex for several years: it was an extremely evocative scene, we were in the cabaret space in the ACT, not much light, no set, and only two actors: a Spanish conquistador-type, about to leave the next morning on his next trip, spending a last night at his crumbling ancestral castle at the edge of the sea, watching the sunset from a balcony set out over the very water, and the dark-haired Spanish beauty he was leaving behind—their failure to communicate the powerful emotions they were both feeling: his excitement, fear, sense of possibility and gravity at the start of the greatest adventure anyone could ever have, balanced by her need for him, vague hopes for his eventual return in success and inchoate fears about her own future. I went to a dozen plays or possible plays in about two days, but many years later that scene sticks in my head. An aspirational goal for historical drama—yes, it’s nice to represent history as accurately as possible so people learn a thing or two, yes it’s nice to entertain, yes it’s nice to reflect on current issues and events through the lens of a long time ago and far away...but you still need to grab us by the scruff of our souls and take us someplace real, on the deepest human level, to make us say “Hearing this play was an experience that changed me.”
Friday, December 9, 2011
With the Spanish off taking land in what became Latin America, and the powerful Ottoman Empire in control of the eastern Mediterranean and all ways east, other European groups start looking around for alternative routes. The Portugese are the first ones to figure out how to get around the Cape of Good Hope, how to sail from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. As we’ve seen, the Indian Ocean is a great big bathtub with lots of cultures sloshing around and trading with each other. The goal is to get there, and when they’ve set up way stations and little colonies along the way, the trade can begin.
One of the first, famous items brought back from the east to Portugal was an Indian rhinoceros. The Duke of Alburquerque (he later got a town in New Mexico named after him, I guess) oversaw the shipping of this beast, intended as a gift to the king, from India to Mozambique, around the Cape to St. Helena, up to the Azores, then in to Lisbon. It was a big hit in Europe, because of course no one there had ever seen such an animal. The Renaissance scholars of antique Europe, however, had read a description of a rhino in the Roman writer Pliny, and you can imagine how cool that must have been to get one in the flesh. Anyways, the rhino was a big celebrity in Lisbon, until eventually the king of Portugal decided to ship it on to Rome, as a gift to the pope—this the same pope, I believe, who said that Spain can have the West Indies, and Portugal can have the East. This time the ship ran into bad weather and sank, and the rhino and all aboard were drowned.
But a sketch made of the rhino in Lisbon had begun circulating. It worked its way to Nürnberg, a generation or two before Hans Sachs, and Albrecht Dürer there made the sketch of the rhino which is our object for this podcast. Dürer’s rhino is a fantasy, he’s added all sorts of features which real rhinos don’t have. But art which trades on the exotic has always been more successful the less accurate it is, and besides that Dürer had access to the printing press, which Gutenberg had recently put together for the Germans. Dürer’s woodblock rhino was reproduced 4000 times, and thus made the rounds long before that many real, planet-earth rhinos could get to Europe.
My favorite object of all the ones I didn’t see in the museum!
Thursday, December 8, 2011
Here’s yet another Empire which it’s easy not to know anything about. (As for me, I’d heard the name, and the names of their rulers and city; but those were really just dots on a map, so far as I was concerned. At least now they’re dots on the map with a neat jade cup.) It easy to despair, however, because you end up wondering just how many more of these worlds and kingdoms there are about which, after all those years of schooling, your ignorance is complete and total!
The Timurids were halfway between Genghis Khan and the Mongols and Osman and the Ottomans, ethnically, geographically, temporally, and in other ways. The important names to know are Timur, who founded the dynasty, known as “Timur the Lame,” which was Tamburlaine the Great to Kit Marlowe and Tamerlano to G. F. Handel, in case you’re following history through obscure once-famous dramas; and his grandson “Babur”, who founded the Mughal Empire that was ruling India when the British & friends got there. The Timurids were Muslim, their capitol was in Samarkand, modern Uzbekistan (all these empires in that bit of central Asia! Nobody can make one that just lasts forever), and it’s right there, like the David Vases, on the road between Iraq and China. Thus this jade cup, which has Chinese-derived dragon handles and Arabic writing. This cup belonged to Ulugh Beg, grandson of Timur, later murdered by his own son after being deposed. He was apparently a much better mathemetician and astronomer than he was a king; he founded the observatory at Samarkand, which is still in operation, and they named a sea on the moon after him. (Once you’re familiar with terrestrial geography and the histories of the various empires, that’s the next place to go study!)
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Of all the empires MacGregor surveys this first week of his “modern” chapter (Ottoman, Ming, Inca, Timurid, Portugese) the Incan Empire was apparently the biggest. Like any empire, they ruled uneasily over a lot of little rebellious groups, and when the Spanish came in and destroyed the Inca civilization, they were of course able to exploit how many people in the Inca Empire didn’t like the Incas, didn’t want to be ruled by them, etc. The Spanish weren’t there, particularly, to found an empire like the Roman or British; they were there to loot ‘em. They wanted gold, like this little gold llama figurine. The Inca had plenty of gold, they were famous for having rooms full of gold, all of which the Spanish took, melted down, destroyed, spent. So my own previous familiarity with this story all comes from having seen The Royal Hunt of the Sun, a fascinating play by the great Peter Shaffer, a few years ago when they remounted it at London’s National Theater (it had first been done there for the first time in the ‘60s, pre-Amadeus, which I think is Shaffer’s masterpiece). It’s mostly about the relationship between Pizarro and Atahualpa, and it’s true that if you’ve got two really interesting characters—like the most evil man who ever lived, who was also a real person, and a boy-prince who’s been told he’s a god all his life, and is surprised to find out that that isn’t the case—it’s not that hard to come up with some strong drama. But the story we’re waiting for somebody to tell is, I understand, the story of what happened after the Inca gold ran out, when the Spanish established their silver mine at Potosi. (As Gonick describes it in his great Cartoon History of the Universe, “It’s the Gangs of New York in the old west at high altitude on cocaine with mercury poisoning”!)
In any event, one of the fun things is of course the role the llama played in Inca culture, and still plays in South American/Andean life. Your standard barnyard animals aren’t any good at that altitude, apparently. The Incas used llamas as pack animals, and for wool, and probably milk and meat and so forth, because they do well way up there. The Spanish had horses, which go a lot faster than llamas and are more agreeable; but I guess they also tended to get sick, way up top. (What kind of horses do they have in Tibet?)
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Here’s the first piece of paper money in the Museum’s substantial collection of historical coins and bills. While I’m sure we’re all mightily interested in the Ming Dynasty, which followed the Mongol Khans, the real point here is: paper money is a great idea. It’s entirely a manifestation of trust, as all monetary systems are; the paper itself is worthless, but it stands for coins that theoretically do exist, someplace. As such, paper money is already halfway to a credit card—it means we know you’re good for it. This particular Ming Banknote goes so far, in the central panel, as to have a picture of the coins that back it up. During his podcast, MacGregor jingled a long string on which they had tied the proper amount of silver coins to pay for this bill; he said it weighed some 7 kilos (15 pounds). Sure, that’d be a nuisance to have to carry around all the time. But paper money only works in a society where everybody is used to great stability, someplace where there are enormous reserves of trust. I suppose credit cards are even more so. But we’ll get to those!
Monday, December 5, 2011
MacGregor then begins his Part Three with lots of world-bestriding empires. First up, the signature and authority of the greatest of all Ottoman emperors, taking us to the empire that really did dump us into the extremely modern world. The Persians, Alexander, and the Byzantines may have had decent empires in that part of the world, previously; but from the century leading up to their taking of Constantinople in 1453, to their final disintegration in 1918 and reinvention under Kemal Ätaturk as modern Turkey, let’s make no illusions—the Turks had a pretty effective empire. MacGregor attributes their success to knowing how to use both implements, the sword and the pen—good at war, and good at bureacracy. Bureacracy, apparently, is good for preserving systems, assuming it doesn’t get too corrupt, because it prevents a really incompetent leader from doing too much damage. An intriguing explanation—as a manager I yearn for constructing a paperless office, with a minimum of bureacracy, but maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree here.
This beautiful signature, which conferred upon some faraway bureacrat/satrap the authority of Suleiman the Magnificent, wasn’t on exhibit—probably too fragile, it’s a 450 year-old piece of paper. But it’s mighty beautiful, as you can see, bureacracy taking that mighty pen seriously as forum for art/craft, not just red tape.
We noticed that on my famous trip to Istanbul in 2001, how gorgeous all that Islamic non-representational art had gotten by the time of Suleiman, who in the 1550s built both the outrageous Blue Mosque, the fabulous Topkapi Palace, and a hamam I’ll never forget being so lucky as to visit.
On that trip, up north in a suburb called Ortaköy, I picked up a little good-luck charm in a style similar to the Suleiman Tughra, which has been hanging above my bed ever since.
Friday, December 2, 2011
I doubt the Rapa Nui culture of Easter Island makes it into too many histories, but for MacGregor they’re a good punctuation mark as he comes to his second big demarcation line. (He’s organized human history into a) pre-history, b) after writing but before modernity, c) after modernity, defined as transportation that allows you to circumnavigate your globe.) Also, this statue is just really, really cool.
It was a pyramids-of-ancient-Egypt or Stonehenge-sarsen-stone-hauling building project, which has baffled many ever since the world found out about these statues (this one was brought to London during Queen Victoria’s day). MacGregor brings on a sculptor to wax rhapsodic about how brilliantly these sculptures succeed at what he considers the main goal of sculpture, unleashing the awesome power of stone in the service of human storytelling. MacGregor is a little more interested in something I didn’t even notice, I was in such a hurry as I dashed through the museum. But it turns out that, after these sculptures were created, things turned bad for the Easter Islanders; a later generation, presumably suffering from the effects of climate change, the extinction of food sources, etc., started this whole ‘bird-man’ cult, and mediocre art to that effect is scrawled on the back of this sculpture. It doesn’t diminish the front, not necessarily, although it makes an interesting point about sculpture—a sculpture is a frozen moment, one little bit of time, as Keats tells us about the Grecian Urn, and if that’s a really great moment then there’s nowhere to go but downhill. But the history of art tells us there will be hills again, someday.
Thursday, December 1, 2011
This podcast was an exercise in futility, because we really don’t know anything about this object. It was created in central Mexico by the Huastecs, a people who were then wiped out by the Aztecs. Who were then wiped out by the Spanish. And since neither the Huastecs nor the Aztecs left us much to go on, we’re playing a pointless game of telephone, trying to figure out what some writer’s enemies’ enemies were on about when they made this odd statue. MacGregor brings in this expert on the culture and then disagrees with her about whether or not this is a statue of a goddess or a high-status woman, princess or priestess.
You get the sense, listening to the podcast, that he’d like his theory validated, that it’s a mother goddess known not just for motherhood, or fertility of the earth in the spring, but for devouring excrement. Apparently there was such a goddess among the Aztecs, and you basically went to her to confess your sexual indiscretions; symbolically she somehow ate everyone’s shit. Although, since that explanation comes from Spanish writers, it may be that they were projecting behavior, metaphoric or otherwise, from a Catholic confessional. It’s true that mother goddesses have often had this devouring, terrifying aspect, throughout history; but I don’t know much about how myth typically deals with the processing of waste. Someone recently staged a Tannhäuser at Bayreuth that was all about a green way of sustainably processing human excrement into something that would promote fertility and growth; I suppose this director had read all about this Huastec goddess. I’ll confess to being over my head here.
I was over my head in the museum, where at first I photographed another Huastec goddess sculpture that was standing nearby—not the one MacGregor was talking about. But I kind of like my 2nd Huastec sculpture, so here she is:
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Okay, this sculpture is one of my all-time favorites; it caught my eye on my first trip to the British Museum, nine years ago, and this time I wallowed in the chance to gaze at it again and drink up its beauty, its sexiness, its teeming mass of incident. There was a huge gallery filled with fascinating sculptures and artifacts connected with Hinduism and Buddhism, but this one is more than enough for me.
For MacGregor, this sculpture goes right to the heart of what’s baffling to most westerners about Hinduism: how can a religion both fundamentally advocate detachment, a belief that this world is not all there is, schools of asceticism, a seeking of release from endless reincarnation, redemption, as the ultimate goal; and at the same time also champion the senses, joys, stuff, pleasures of this world? As far as I understand it, British Evangelical Christian missionaries in the 19th century really pissed off the Indians by cultural warfare, seeking to campaign against and discourage the Hindu religion. In particular, they were fired up by the traditions of murder of infant girls (in some Northern regions, in some wealthy families, where additional girls would be a financial liability on a family); suttee, the tradition of burning a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre (if it started with Madri wife of Pandu, in the Mahabharata, Brünnhilde and Isolde do it, too); and the Thugee business, which seems to be little more than a Hollywood fantasy. I’m sure that culturally, the Victorian British were also just basically up in arms when it came to a sculpture like this one, or the Tara from Sri Lanka we saw earlier (she stands a few feet away from her friends here in the big Asia Gallery).
Because this sculpture obviously revels both in the sensual pleasure of the beautiful bodies—what I’ve always considered the heart of the art form of sculpture—and the tenderness of their loving glance. MacGregor points out that Shiva’s bull is gazing with the same rapt adoration at Parvati’s lion, which you might be able to see a little better in the photo I took in 2002:
In Christianity, artists often get sentimental over the gaze between mother and child; but all three big western monotheistic religions assume a male god, and a kind of patriarchy which often seems to verge on misogyny. Don’t think that the Hindus were free of those characteristics, either...suttee and girl-slaughter are pretty extreme examples of patriarchal misogyny. But it’s refreshing that the Hindu concept of divinity involves both male and female, and involves male and female really into each other. Using a sculpture like this as an aid to devotion (MacGregor points out that people sometimes leave little lais of flowers, or candles, or offerings by these sculptures, since just because they’re in a museum doesn’t mean they’re no longer holy) would presumably dispose you to consider the sex you enjoy in your own life a sanctifying, godlike enterprise. And who’s to say it isn’t, in today’s world?
Before leaving this statue, I’ll mention that at this writing (several months, now, after my visit to the museum) I’ve just watched the long Peter Brook Mahabharata films again. Very beautiful, and any number of things about that story are completely baffling, as ever. In terms of the patriarchy and misogyny, yes, it’s interesting how much that has in common with Lord of the Rings and The Illiad, in terms of being basically a story about boys and war. Draupadi, wife of the five Pandavas, may be a role model for Indian women through all time...I gotta confess I don’t find her very sympathetic, she’s all about personal pride and revenge. Evaluating these characters morally, I feel like lumping her in with Duryodhana, the bad guy, who’s a weird little ball of hatred, resentment, and dissatisfaction. The moms, Kunti and Gandhari, are both fascinating characters, but I wouldn’t call either one a role model. Parvati, Shiva’s consort in this statue, is often linked in the myths to more terrifying, devouring mother figures, Durga and Kali. Who’s the ideal female role model in Hinduism? It must be Sita, in the Ramayana. But I need a refresher on her story.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
The end came for the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453, when the Turks, who’d been steadily encroaching for a hundred years, finally took the city. We were there in ’01 for a wedding and went to Aya Sofya, once the main Eastern Orthodox Temple in the world, later a mosque, now mostly a tourist trap. It’s impressive and historically evocative, although from the point of view of architecture Sultan Suleiman’s magnificent Blue Mosque, just nearby, honestly made more of an impression on this tourist. Some of my photos from that trip:
My pals and I near a little pool in Topkapi Palace, home of centuries of Ottoman Sultans
My friend Julie is facing Haigha Sofia (aka Aya Sofya), with Suleiman the Magnificent (more on him soon!)'s Blue Mosque behind her.
The Blue Mosque is mighty impressive, perhaps the most beautiful building in Turkey.
Aya Sofya, which is about 1000 years older, has seen more wear and tear. It was the main Byzantine Cathedral for centuries--compare the mosaic icon here to the one in the podcast--and although the Ottoman's turned it into a mosque, in the 20th century that layer was peeled away so you can see the Christian imagery again.
But the fun part about traveling to Istanbul is going to the bazaar!
Monday, November 28, 2011
I blather about this here because this Crown of Thorns icon is certainly worthy of a film along the lines of The Red Violin. Theoretically, the Crown of Thorns they gave Jesus made its way to Constantinople, where it was a treasured relic of the Eastern Orthodox Church for many centuries. Then, when the Byzantines were in trouble because of the encroaching Turks, they pawned the relic to the Venetians, with whom they’d long been friends and enemies. France’s King Louis IX leaped at the opportunity to buy the crown from the Venetians, and so it came to France, where he had built the outrageously gorgeous Sainte-Chappelle, one of the most beautiful rooms on Planet Earth, to house it.
(The perfect king of medieval Christendom, Louis 9, later St. Louis, died on crusade; his crown of thorns is nowadays in Nôtre-Dame. During the 1200s, his period, France had the drop on England, fueling Plantagenet inferiority complex with this ‘relic gap’ because they had the crown of thorns and we didn’t!)
A thorn from the crown was given to the Duc de Berry somewhere along the way, before the Renaissance, who built this beautiful reliquary to house it. Later the entire reliquary ended up in the possession of the Hapsburgs, and it spent most of the early modern period in Vienna; a Jewish banker eventually gave it to the British crown, and that’s how the museum got it. They had it off exhibit the day I was there, so I photographed the poster explaining where it was instead.
And yet, the important thing here—unlike most of Voldemort’s Horcruxes—is that the thorns that pierced Christ’s head really have devotional power, millions of people think about them everyday. It’s like finding the holy grail, where the first few drops of the blood that’s at the center of the religion got started. Whether or not the relic is real, or has interesting adventures and peregrinations, there’s got to be something real about that much psychic energy.
Friday, November 25, 2011
This Taino throne may be extra famous because apparently Christopher Columbus was respectfully given the opportunity to crouch on a seat just like this on one of his trips to the West Indies, were the Taino lived before they were exterminated. But MacGregor, for reasons which should be consistent with the rest of his interests, doesn’t have much to say about Columbus; instead, he takes the stool here more as a memorial to one of the many cultures that disappeared with the coming of whites en masse to the western hemisphere.
I don’t know much about the Taino, except that I seem to remember Howard Zinn opening his People’s History of the United States with an incredibly depressing story about native cultures driven to extinction and genocide in those decades after 1492. MacGregor here tells us that words such as hammock, canoe, barbecue, and tobacco come into our language from this culture in particular, which does give you the impression that they were lazy people who loved relaxing in an eternal summer (sign me up!). But industry is often overrated, and after all these years I still don’t know whether an industrious culture is by definition a better culture (that’s what they wanted me to think as I was growing up).
MacGregor tells us that the Taino perceived the world as having many invisible layers, that all our dead ancestors were all around us all the time, for example. So, by crouching over this chair (which is male—the genitalia on the underside are anatomically accurate, even if the creature’s shape is a little unusual) and taking drugs, the chief communed with spirits to find the answers to difficult questions facing the tribe. When Columbus crouched here, did he ask the question “Why do I destroy everything I touch?”
Thursday, November 24, 2011
Here’s an interesting podcast which starts with etymology. Call it ‘china’ if you’re referring to the ‘fine china’ that you keep in your ‘china hutch’ because the industry became a big deal in medieval China; or call it ‘porcelain’ because Marco Polo, in first describing it to Europeans, used the Italian word porcellano=“cowrie shells” (yes, it really means ‘little piglet,’ but that was how Italians described cowrie shells) because the texture of porcelain was reminiscent of cowrie shells. What it really is, is a great example of vast intercontinental trade at work. The blue & white coloration of the finest, most traditional kind of china goes back to artistic tastes in medieval Iran. (MacGregor brings on a psychologist to say that blue & white may universally mean serenity and peace to human beings, too.) But in the 13th century when Genghis Khan’s Mongol Horde swept out of Mongolia to east and west, devastating huge parts of Eurasia and bringing a vast empire into brief being, that Islamic world of Iran/Iraq got incorporated into the east. (Historian's advice to the US Government: Genghis Khan was the last foreign power who actually won a war in Afghanistan. Unless you’re prepared to do what he did, get out now.) China became the heart of the Mongol empire, and that’s where Marco Polo met Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai, some decades later, a less bloodthirsty warlord who was apparently also a pretty good administrator. Because the Chinese were good at making porcelain—which requires firing clay at outrageously hot temperatures, so that it turns halfway to glass and thus becomes impermeable to water—and because of Kublai’s Pax Mongolica, vases like this were created in China and traded all the way to Iran. The industry kept going, and by the time the Europeans were ready to drink tea, they wanted blue & white china to drink it out of, too.
These beautiful works are known as the David Vases because they come from the collection of one Sir Percival David (Welsh, perhaps?) who has a huge room full of china tucked away on the 4th floor of the British Museum.
MacGregor began this podcast playing what sounded like a scratchy old LP of Richard Burton reading Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” and concluded by conjecturing that Coleridge was sipping his laudanum, as he daydreamed that poem, on blue & white china.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
This gorgeous sculpted head of a king of Ife, in what is now Nigeria, wasn’t unearthed until the 1920s, at which point Leo Frobenius, the German archeologist who discovered it, said it was proof that Greek culture originated on the island of Atlantis. The Atlantans must have sent some of their great artists and sculptors both to Greece, founding the great Greek culture that everyone knows and studies, and also to this part of west Africa, since, as everyone knew, the Africans themselves could never have come up with a great artistic masterpiece.
Wow. That’s all anyone can say. A scholar wrote that? I suppose it’s more a testament to the racism of the 1920s than anything else—the period that gave us the KKK, Porgy and Bess, and got the world ready for the Nazis. The US Civil War, in a funny way, increased racism, at least for a few generations, by ending slavery in name but not necessarily in practice. I think WWII did more to end it in practice, and at least get racism out in the open where everybody could see it. So...how many other great archeological or artistic finds have gone nowhere because they happened at the wrong time?
In any event, MacGregor & friends have a nice podcast on this beautiful head, which as you can see is a masterpiece of realism and human character and also strongly stylized. One expert in African sculpture who speaks here says that it’s typical for a head, which is the seat of the soul/mind/etc. in the understanding of many of these groups, to take up a quarter of a sculpture of a person. They don’t know if there was a body attached to this particular head at any point. But if you’re familiar with any African sculptures, like the masks we’ve got at the Seattle Art Museum, you’re familiar with the kind of stylization referred to here—and with stylization in art, you never know if the artist COULD do a different style and just chose not to. If you assume that isn’t the case, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the artist with a distinctive stylization is inferior, a child scrawling its own drivel rather than appreciate the masters. I suspect that’s the real story of the early 20th-century fascination with African art, among modern artists (and hateful back-reaction on the part of the racist mainstream).
For Africans, artifacts like this head are of course hugely important in trying to get a sense of history, and thence self-identification. How do you know who you are, if you don’t know where you came from and what happened there? (Or, put another way: in The Two Towers Treebeard explains that he can’t say his name to the hobbits in Old Entish, the language he uses to speak to other trees, because his name is the story of his life, everything that has ever happened to him, every squirrel that’s ever run through his leaves, and thus merely to say his name would take hundreds of years.) The Ife Kingdom where this head was created didn’t leave us any writing, so we know very little about them, historically speaking. But you don’t create a masterwork of art like this without a strong, vigorous culture. A tantalizing glimpse of something mighty interesting going on there at one point.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
The beautiful astrolabe in this podcast, which features writing mostly in Hebrew but a bit in Arabic and also in medieval Spanish, gives MacGregor the opportunity to talk about the convivenzia, that wonderful Golden Age in medieval Spain when the three kindreds—Jews, Moslems, and Christians—lived together in comparative stability. All three groups preserved their own identities. I don’t believe there was much intermarriage, for example. But they also challenged each other to be their best, no monopoly on culture, here, and as a result there was a terrific flourishing of learning and good stuff like art, medicine, sanitation, etc. John Boswell, the great historian of same-sex unions in early modern Europe, had a book on the convivenzia, and gave a guest lecturer spot on it in a history class I took in college, many a long year ago. The astrolabe here is a pretty good example of the kind of learning and science/technology produced by such a forward-looking culture. MacGregor and his experts liken it to a smartphone, such as the one that created this blog (download my pictures and look at the metadata, you’ll probably find they were all taken in June of 2011 in London!) The astrolabe helped you figure out the time, your latitude & longitude, and various other astronomical and astrological calculations, drawn from Greek learning; MacGregor quoted an adorable letter, written by the adorable Geoffrey Chaucer, to accompany the gift of an astrolabe to his ten-year old boy, Louis, which explained how the device was to be used and pointed out that it might be a bit much for an intellect that that of the tender youth. And yet these kids nowadays are so much further along with the iPhones than we old geezers are!
The convivenzia lasted until the Reconquista, the “reconquest” of Spain by Catholics led by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who drove out the Moslems and the (Sephardic) Jews, began the Inquisition, and, eventually, sent Columbus west and started the growth of the enormous Spanish Empire and the conquest of ‘New Spain.’ They did pretty well for at least a hundred years, until (say) Philip II and the Armada; after that, it seemed, they got bogged down with their colonies and European courtly politics. But MacGregor and indeed all of us must deplore their Reconquista, more than the Crusades a startling example of intolerant religion’s ability to destroy a terrific thriving culture. Could it happen here? Seems like it already is.
Monday, November 21, 2011
MacGregor now jumps across the world to the Scottish Hebrides islands, where a famous chess set (you can buy a replica from the British Museum gift shop...or watch the life-size version kick butt on Harry Potter Part One), presumably created in Norway, turned up. He’s making another point about trade and the migration of cultures: here’s a board game, invented in India, the rules set down in Persia, built and traded and played way over on the other side of the world. Admittedly, it’s a great game, and wherever human beings engage in war they understand and get excited about chess. MacGregor plays some footage of Bobby Fisher, from the ‘60s, talking about how odd it is that the struggle between the US and Russia, the entire cold war, came to hinge on one game of chess.
One of the things that’s fun to follow is how chess pieces change from region to region and culture to culture—in India, the knights rode war elephants (where ours ride horses); in Persia, instead of a queen the king puts his vizier out in front of him (the queen, presumably, is off the board in his harem somewhere). Where modern chess sets have rooks, this Norwegian/Hebredian one has berserkers, the bear-hair-shirt wearing lunatics of Norse battlefields, driven mad by the furor teutonicus and their quest to die a death that will get them a quick Valkyrie-lift to Valhalla.
Friday, November 18, 2011
Here are some pieces of broken pottery found on a beach in Tanzania. MacGregor uses them to make his point about trade, and the connections among cultures, because they’ve identified the origin of each individual piece: China (celadon pottery), Syria or Iraq, and a piece that was locally produced, here in East Africa, using imported techniques but local designs. That Indian Ocean is just a great big bathtub, and people and cultures and ideas slosh back and forth all over it. I remember feeling that way when I first spent some time in Honolulu, that it was a little like the drain at the bottom of the tub, that all the water in the Pacific, and all the muck floating in that water, eventually had to pass through this location.
That sounds uncharitable. The names of the cities along the East African coast there on the Indian Ocean are well-known: Mogadishu, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, not to mention the Swahili language that developed there. Historically these places were closely connected with India and Indonesia because the way the winds work in that ocean, you dash across and then wait six months before they push you back the way you came. While you’re there, your cultures intermingle: people get married, share recipes, teach each other how to make pots, etc. It ends up being a great melting pot, a mixing bowl, albeit the eastern version: I think of the Arabian Nights/Gozzi-inspired opera Turandot, in which the princess in Beijing has recently hosted (and killed) suitors from Persia, Kirghiz, Samarcand, and other far-flung places. They may all seem exotic to us; what’s interesting is that they may also be exotic to each other, although within reach. It’s all relative, and anyway, once you get there, don’t you think it’d just be a beach?
Thursday, November 17, 2011
MacGregor uses it because he’s interested here in trade in and around the world of the Indian Ocean, and 1200 years ago Indonesia was still a happening place. (Also, it sounds like he went there on vacation, because part of his podcast claims to have been recorded on location.) Buddhism, which got started up in northern India, of course spread around India and China and Japan, but it swept down through Sri Lanka and these places, too. There’s an irony—he remarked on it before—in advanced trade and fancy architecture making possible a glorification of a religion devoted to simplicity and nothingness.
The architecture of the temple itself is set up as a Buddhist journey; six square(ish) platforms topped by three round ones, and you journey up to the top as if you’re taking a quest in search of enlightenment. Apparently, it’s a pilgrimage site for Buddhists to this day. The whole thing is sprinkled with statues of the Buddha; the one in the British museum was brought back by Lord Raffles, who presided over the island in a brief moment of British ascendancy over the Dutch in the East Indies. Raffles apparently wanted to promote this site, and indeed all Javanese culture, back in the west as a worthy peer and alternate to ancient Greco-Roman civilizations. It seems like that work still continues. I’ll get there someday...MacGregor did.