Chasing Aphrodite: Ethical Musings on Marion True

Malcolm Bell makes a very incisive critique of the recently published expose’, Chasing Aphrodite. The book, written by LATimes journalist Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, investigates the Getty Villa and it’s acquisition policy under Marion True. Bell, an archaeologist and professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and co-director at the American dig in Morgantina, straddles the patrimony debate, representing archaeologists and museums. His review does not touch on the quality of Felch and Frammolino’s reporting but primarily takes umbrage with their portrayal of True’s actions, motivations and probity in the acquisition of looted objects. I am looking forward to reading ‘Chasing Aphrodite’ but am certainly predisposed to sympathize with True after hearing many positive personal anecdotes from colleagues and reading this review.

Context is essential to understanding an object and museums have created policies in the last decade to ensure they collect objects with good provenance. As a classicist I sometimes wonder if this will be the death knell of a period, once the foundation of a museum’s collection, whose centrality has been waning in past decades. Museums were established as repositories of culture, designed to scientifically catalogue humankind through the objects it produces. At the turn of the century when museum building was at it’s apex, Greek and Rome were conceived as the foundation of western civilization. As views have changes, museums have adapted, and classical collections have been sidelined with smaller galleries and fewer curators.

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From the Art of the Steal to the Art of the Move

The Wall Street Journal recently did a series on the moving of the Barnes collections, shifting the conversation away from the much discussed controversy onto the complicated logistic of moving a collection of that magnitude. It makes for an interesting read. The image of highly guarded caravans moving across Philadelphia with decoys and GPS tracking devices harkens back to a wilder age when travel with any valuables was a risky business.

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‘Build a Better World’ Initiative at the Skirball Cultural Center

Social media and technology have catalyzed community organizations and encouraged non-profit institutions to revisit their missions. In 2007, the Skirball Cultural Center launched the ‘Build a Better World’ initiative.  This ambitious campaign creates an institution-wide framework for building synergistic partnerships which align with the museum’s mission.  The initiative is serving the community by providing the museum with the framework to create partnerships, programming and exhibitions which have public value and promote community engagement

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Contextualization of Art

Tom Feudenheim raises the compelling question of context in how one views antiquity or any art from the past.  His article centers on the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius which stands in the Campidoglio.  This is a question which is raised when you view any art in a museum, especially pieces created specifically for religious spaces.

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Leptis Magna at Risk: History Repeats

CNN reported today that UNESCO heritage site, Leptis Magna, may be at risk if NATO forces receive evidence that Moammar Gadhafi is hiding military equipment amongst the ruins.  Rebel forces claim that Gadhafi is using the site, which is located halfway between Tripoli and Misrata.

Commander Mike Bracken, a spokesman for NATO, said it “would be a concern for us that Gadhafi and pro-Gadhafi forces would choose to contravene international law in hiding themselves in such a location.”

These current events particularly resonated for me having just read ‘Monuments Men’ the account of allied forces to preserve world heritage during World War II.  North Africa was the beginning of the Allied campaign and a learning experience in the propaganda potential of cultural heritage.  In January 1943 the battle between British and Axis powers had been raging across the North African desert for three years.  It wasn’t until October 1942 that the tides turned towards the British with the defeat of Italian-German forces at the Second Battle of El Alamein.  The British finally broke through the Axis lines and began to push towards Tripoli.

“By January 1943, they had reached Leptis Magna, a sprawling Roman ruin only sixty-four miles east of Tripoli.  It was here that Lieutenant Colonel sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler, Royal Artillery, British North African Army, beheld the majesty of Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus’s imperial city: the imposing gate of the basilica, the hundreds of columns that marked the old marketplace, the enormous sloping amphitheater, with the blue waters of the Mediterranean sparkling in the background.  At the height of its power at the turn of the third century AD — when Emperor Severus had showered money on his hometown in an attempt to make it the cultural and economic capital of Africa — Leptis Maga had been a port, but in the last seventeen hundred years the harbor had silted up and become a hardpan of clay, a dull and empty world.  Here, Mortimer Wheeler thought, is power. And a reminder of our mortality. (Robert Edsel, Monuments Men, p.33)”

The British had lost the ruins two years  before in 1941 to the Italians led by the German general Erwin Rommel.  Italians had published the propaganda pamphlet Che cosa hanno fatto gli Inglesi in Cirenaica — What the English have done in Cyrenaica. The propaganda piece showed imaged of defaced walls at the Cyrene Museum, smashed statues, and damaged artifacts which the Italians claimed that happened at the hands of British and Australian soldiers.  The British discovered these claims were false when they recaptured Cyrene, four hundred miles east of Leptis Maga.  Although the claims had been false the British had spent the past two years defending themselves with little proof the contradict the claims.  It was Mortimer Wheeler, a trained archaeologist and director of the London Museum, learning from the mistakes of Cyrene, who ensured that Leptis Magna was preserved.

Fortune willing, Leptis Magna will survive another war to see another day.

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The Artist’s Workshop

Damien Hirst, 'For the Love of God'

“Artist and Assistants: The Art Assembly Line” WSJ 3 June 2011

After beginning to teach at MOCA a few months ago I have had to confront my own prejudices and delve into the indifference I often feel towards contemporary art.  My students occasionally react to the art in the museum with bafflement or hostility, asking me how these things can be considered art.  I readily come to the defense of Rothko, Pollock, Franz Kline, Frank Stella, Sam Francis, pointing to their deep understanding as artist of composition, media and value in their pieces.  I come to the defense not only of painters but sculptors like Alberto Giacometti, David Smith, Louise Nevelson and John Chamberlain who spent their careers mastering their craft and designing their sculptures.

I hit a wall however with Takashi Murakami, Damien Hirst and other conceptual artist who rely heavily on assistants to do the bulk of their work.  On a fundamental level I understand there is little distinction between the artist workshops of the Renaissance, but what I do object to is the lack of mastery by the ‘artists’ who are overseeing the work.   It is true Michelangelo had numerous assistant, but art historians can identify his brushstroke as a graphologist can identify an individuals handwriting.   Renaissance artists not only came up with the concept for an artwork but usually painted the most important parts, namely the figures while their assistants merely filled the background.  Contemporary artists, like Alexander Gorlizki who was interviewed for the WSJ article, scoff at the effort which would go into achieving such mastery.  Gorlizki admits outright, “I prefer not to be involved in actually painting. It liberates me not being encumbered by the technical proficiency.” I am afraid I am not yet open-minded enough to accept Mr. Gorlizki as an artist.  Picasso’s paintings are so groundbreaking and respected in part because he was such a superior draughtsman.  He broke the rules so successfully because he knew them.

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Art Market : Bull market leaves some sales still depressed

Spring auctions at Christie’s showed the art market making a healthy recovery, particularly with artworks like Vlaminck’s ”Suburban Landscape” which exceeded estimates selling for $22 million.  Some artist however, particularly contemporary artists like Francesco Clemente, find their pieces to be under performing.  A recent NYTimes article, “Does Money Grow on Art Market Trees? Not for Everyone”, explores the psychology of art markets and what determines how contemporary artists are valued.

As Marc Glimcher, president of Pace Gallery puts it, many criteria determine value; “How many galleries are trying to get a Murakami show from Murakami’s main dealers? How many museum or gallery shows of X artist are there per year? How many different continents do they show on per year?” Auction houses, which publish their sales, are the most accessible source of information for valuing art but these other factors are equally critical in determining a work’s current and future value.

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