Museums: Why Should We Care?

6/3/2005 5:47:08 AM
Pyxis

For the study and understanding of mankind.

(Opinion Journal - New York) We all know art and art museums are important. But when it comes to articulating our reasons for this belief, we find it very difficult. We'd love to simply say, like our children, "Just because." When we try to be more specific, we end up with something rather abstract, such as: They are the repositories of precious objects and relics, the places where they are preserved, studied and displayed, which means that museums can be defined quite literally and succinctly, as the memory of mankind.

Yet the fact is, through your reaction to two recent events, you, the public, have already demonstrated that you understand why the tangible vestiges of our artistic past are so important. Recall the world's reaction to the Taliban's destruction of the monumental Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001. So many who had never even heard of these monuments expressed their outrage at this act of iconoclastic vandalism. Then came the looting of the museum in Baghdad in the spring of 2003. Again, even among people with only the vaguest notion of Ancient Mesopotamia, Akkad, Sumer, Assyria, there was still a sense of outrage and loss.

What the world was telling us is that on some level people realized that the cylinder seals and statuary taken from the museum were not just mute bits of matter that they would never miss, but the vital testimonies of the people who had made them thousands of years ago. As such, they were integral parts of mankind's history--our history.

The fact is, in the rooms of our museums are preserved things that are far more than just pretty pictures. These works of art, embodying and expressing with graphic force the deepest aspirations of a time and place, are direct, primary evidence for the study and understanding of mankind.

For the study and understanding of mankind. These are key words that explain a critical function of the art museum. It is the place where curators--the experts--sort out our artistic past. For if we find our identity through works of art, then we have to identify them correctly, and works of art are not easy to decipher. They don't come with installation kits, lists of ingredients, and certificates of origin. In order to determine the time and place of their genesis, we have to ask of them: Who made them, where, when and why?

The answers to these questions are anything but obvious, because very few artistic traditions are pure--that is, uninflected by outside influences. So, confronted with a work of art, we must be sure of its origin. And even when that is clear, since so much art is the result of interconnections, then the inclination of most of us to believe that our own culture is the true and dominant one is shown time and again to be arrogant and misguided. The art museum then plays a key and beneficial role in teaching us humility, in making us recognize that other, very different yet totally valid civilizations have existed and do exist right alongside our own.

Let me give you an example. In the museum we have a pyxis that was once a container for the Eucharist and stored in a church treasury. Yet it was made under the Ummayad dynasty, the Muslim rulers of North Africa and Granada until the late 15th century. It is decorated with birds and various animals set against a lush pattern of arabesques--intricate patterns of interlaced lines. Although this is a typical Islamic motif, it traces its origins to the vine and acanthus scroll ornament of the late antique classical world, and the pattern itself refers back on the other hand to early Syrian textiles.

What objects such as this give you is an idea of the degree to which the world's cultures, diverse as they are, reveal astonishing and often unexpected similarities due to interconnections that are often the result of the movement of peoples and artifacts across great spans of the globe.

Another reason art museums matter is that, unlike historical facts and events, works of art exist not only in the present, but also in the past, the past that transmitted them to us. Events, on the other hand, can be retraced but they have no presence; we can't experience them. Archives and documents refer to events but are not they. However, the work of art, as Bernard Berenson put it, is the event.

So we can read about a historical event in, say, 15th-century Mantua, but we cannot experience it. On the other hand, we can experience its art and thus in a very real way enter into Renaissance Mantua by looking at a painting by Andrea Mantegna, court painter to the Gonzagas, the rulers of Mantua; the very painting that their eyes actually rested upon.

But in attempting to answer the question "why should we care?" I'd like to suggest a final, more broadly significant lesson. It is mankind's awe-inspiring ability, time and again, to surpass itself. What this means is that no matter how bleak the times we may live in, we cannot wholly despair of the human condition.

Let me illustrate this by citing just a few of the museum's masterpieces from around the world: An astonishing Egyptian portrait of a royal figure, dating to the second millennium B.C.; an idealized portrait in ivory, from the court of Benin in 16th-century Nigeria; the exquisite Madonna and Child by the great Sienese master Duccio that we recently acquired; a splendid portrait of an ecclesiastic by Jean Fouquet, one of the finest 15th-century drawings in America; the 17th-century portrait of Juan de Pareja, by Velázquez, one the most convincing physical presences in all of painting; and Jackson Pollock's "Autumn Rhythm" of 1950, a work both brutal and elegant.

My question is: Who made these things? The answer: We did, our species did. Isn't that reason enough to maintain our faith in humankind? Especially when you consider that wars, massacres and nature's indiscriminate destructive forces have occurred throughout recorded history, and always will, and that through it all, men and women of genius have managed to give us their vision of the moment, at the highest level of inspiration. What we learn is that no matter the degree of chaos and adversity surrounding him, man has shown his capability to excel, to surpass. That is the ultimate assurance of renewal and survival. And it is one of the great lessons of the art museum.

Mr. de Montebello is director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is adapted by the editors from a lecture he gave at the museum in April, for which he relied on scholarship from many sources.