Antioch at the BMA, or, Two Experiences of Art
On a visit to the Baltimore Museum of Art last week I found myself musing on the contradictory meanings of "Art" and on the different kinds of experiences one can have in a museum devoted to this abstraction. The main purpose of my visit was to see an exhibit of artifacts from ancient Antioch. This exhibit, which will be in Baltimore until the end of the year, invites us to experience art as a gateway to a place and a society far away in space and time from our own. Some of the objects were beautiful, especially some of the animal mosaics and one magnificent bronze human head, but many other pieces were clearly chosen because they evoke a lost world. One case displayed lead "curse scrolls" on which had been scratched prayers and invocations for the ruin of certain race horses or the defeat of human enemies. Other objects include fragments of tombstones bearing good wishes or hopes for the dead, a gladiator's helmet, and small, roughly made statues of the gods that would have been kept in the home. The largest room displayed mosaics on the floor, arranged as they were in the dining room of one of the most lavish houses excavated on the site, obviously with the intent of taking our imaginations back to the eastern Roman Empire and the lives of its wealthy citizens.
I love to take these imaginary journeys. I stared for several minutes at one tombstone that depicted a rich Syrian woman in her most elaborate costume. For me her jewels, her hair, and the folds of her robes summoned images of a fantastic and far-away place, and her staring eyes invited me to step through her tomb and into that world. In the next room a mosaic of sea creatures brought into my mind a vision of a great and ancient port city seen from a fishing boat in its harbor, and then the sights and sounds of a fish market, and then a noble banquet at which the drinking of wine and the eating of octopus mingled with debates on the merits of orators and the policies of claimants to the imperial throne.
And so I spent many joyful minutes among the ruins of ancient Antioch. I would have to say that the exhibit was not really all that great--it needed more objects, or perhaps a more extensive effort to reconstruct the rooms those mosaics came from. The biggest obstacle to my happiness, though, was an art history class and the smarmy, gray-bearded professor who led it. He loved the sound of his own voice too much and seemed to have other, even less salutary objectives in mind. The class was made up mostly of middle-aged and elderly women, and if their professor wasn't angling to bed some of them I'm a monk. "Florence, Florence," he said in a superior but distinctly seductive tone, "look first, then read." His whole exposition had this sort of wolfish manner, and I avoided him and his prey as much as possible.
My favorite objects from Antioch were actually not part of the exhibit but of the museum's permanent collection. On the walls around the atrium hang a number of mosaics including four depicting a predator posing calmly with an herbivore: a leopard with a goat, a lion with a bull, a tiger with a cow, and a lioness with a sheep. These "Animal Friendship" mosaics were so lovely and peaceful that I immediately wanted one of them in some form for my office wall; but, of course, there were no reproductions of them for sale. It seems to be a policy of museums around the world that they will never sell reproductions of the things I like best.
A few dozen yards from the Antioch exhibit, through a couple of glass doors, is a different sort of exhibit assembled with very different intent. The museum's "Contemporary Art Wing" consists of several very large, very stark rooms in which are hung works by most of America's famous painters of the 1950s and 1960s: Rothko, Motherwell, Johns, Pollack, Warhol, Rauschenberg. The canvases are huge, the images puzzling. Many of them seemed to have a message of some kind, or at least a purpose, but that purpose escaped me. Warhol's "Camouflage" is an immense swatch of camouflage fabric, Rothko's contribution just two blocks of red paint in slightly different shades. Consider Robert Ryman's "Untitled 95", a sort of textured white ground with a gray number 95 near one corner. Was this supposed to say something to me? What was I supposed to think? Was the point of the blankness that I could think whatever I wanted? Or Rauschenberg's "Canyon," a collage featuring various sorts of painted paper and a stuffed eagle. Was there a point? An idea? I breezed past the usual blocks and lines of color, which never move me, but my companion called my attention to a big scribble she said looked like it had been done by my four-year-old son on an off day. And why was all this stuff so big?
One of the images on display here did speak to me: Morris Louis's "Dallet Beth," an immense fountain of muddy darkness, was about the most depressing thing I've ever seen. My companion found a couple of the other works interesting, especially a scintillating canvas by Alma Thomas titled "Evening Glow." But by and large I was not moved to any sort of emotion or reflection. Except, occasionally, scorn: of her composition, "three banana skins, three orange skins, one grapefruit, needle, thread," Zoe Leonard said, "I was tired of wasting things, throwing things out all the time." If an orange skin has ever been more thoroughly wasted than these, which Leonard sewed back together and stuck on a museum shelf, I can't think of how. Think compost, Zoe.
I imagined that these modern works were also intended to carry me outside myself, or at least beyond my everyday sort of experience, just as the Antioch exhibit was. But in what direction? To where? Rothko, I know, was interested in achieving some kind of direct access to the unconscious, and I do believe that he painted with serious intent. But I've never been able to glean anything about his subconscious from his work, and it certainly doesn't stir mine. My reaction to Donald Judd's plain plywood box ("Untitled 1976") was, "What on earth was the curator thinking when he installed this joke?" Or, more broadly, "What is wrong with American culture that critics and curators have so little taste?"
While I occasionally see a modernist work that sets my imagination soaring, most of the time they leave me very much where I was. They don't stretch my mind, but only reaffirm my prejudices. I strongly suspect that these artists have every bit as much as talent as the artisans who assembled Antioch's mosaics, and their failure to reach me always makes me ask, is there something wrong with my culture, or is it just me?
October 26, 2001
A pedantic note on interpreting evidence in context: One of the signs in the Antioch exhibit is an unfortunate representative of a large class of scholarly errors rooted in not noticing where something came from or what it is for. The sign informs us that Dionysus is the god most often represented in mosaics, "demonstrating his status as the most popular god." But it demonstrates nothing of the kind, because most of the elaborate mosaics were installed in dining rooms. Dionysus may have been the reigning deity of the dinner party, but this tells us nothing one way or the other about his prominence in other areas of life. GET IT STRAIGHT.
Art is magic delivered from the lie of being truth.