Monday, 13 August 2012

Cleveland Museum of Art Buys Painting on a Mayan Pot

At the same time as its announcement of its purchase of a fine ancient Roman bust for its galleries, the Cleveland Museum of Art has announced it has also purchased (also for an undisclosed sum) an ancient Mayan ceramic vessel (the article says "glazed', is it?) also bought 'in accordance with American art museum guidelines'. The text suggests one feature of the new object is that it illuminates 'violent or lurid aspects of the ancient world' (perhaps a recreation of the ancient world in line with an attempt to make sense of the violence endemic in gun-packing US society?): "The Mayan cylinder, which dates to the “late classic period” of 600-900, represents a victorious lord reviewing prisoners after a battle, plus a ritual that may be related to payment of tribute, or bloodletting". The article gives the object's collecting history (but not its provenance). Note that what seems most likely to be a dealer's stock is referred to here as his "collection":
The museum said that the Mayan [vessel] was in the collection of art dealer Edward H. Merrin in New York by 1973, when the first article about the work was published. The museum also said that dated photographs place the vessel in New York City in March of 1969. Since the early 1970s, at least a dozen print and electronic publications have described the work, the museum said. 
The Cleveland Museum of Art therefore says it believes the collecting history shows that "the work" (“Vessel with Battle Scene”) is "free of any taint".* It is worth reflecting on what those words "taint" and "the work" might mean.

This pot is an archaeological object. It was taken from a hole in the ground by somebody before "the 1970s" from a deposit that was most likely ritual or funerary - that is, highly endowed with all sorts of archaeological and behavioural information. Hoiking it out to sell it irrevocably destroys virtually ALL of that information, which is a tragedy for all of us who care whether it happened two years ago, ten or fifty years ago. Because this thing has pictures on it, American Art Museum directors (and "ancient art" dealers) see it as art - unlike the cooking pots, utilitarian tools and non-descript domestic equipment of the same culture which is discarded by looters as collectors don't want to collect it (or at best, the prices they'd fetch would not cover transport costs). Collectors don't do archaeology. In general they want nice, pretty things to put in a case to "help them understand culture" (that's Culture with a capital 'c'). What this work is no longer "tainted" with (thirty years on from when it is first known to have surfaced) is of being a decontextualised archaeological object. At thirty years remove it's no use an archaeologist asking "well, where exactly did it come from?". After three or four years out of the ground, given enough coercion all down the chain (and if those involved had some kind of documentation or good reliable memories coupled with loosened tongues), perhaps it would be possible to follow certain looted objects back, even to the side of the looter's hole. After thirty, the chances of doing that are very much reduced or negligent. That is what is meant by this object being "clean". Nobody can touch anyone for it. The object can be treated as an isolated "art work" free of the "taint" of being a decontextualised piece of archaeological evidence. Enjoyment without guilt?

Steven Litt, 'Cleveland Museum of Art buys important ancient Roman and Mayan antiquities', 12.08.12

*  Of course being in the "collection" of Edward H. Merrin in 1973 does not mean it was out of the ground before 1970. David Gill reminds us of the history of the "Merrin Zeus" which also had been displayed at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Photo: Cleveland Museum of Art

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