Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Searching for the money tree — part seven

"Scrutant l'horizon"
Hans Jean Arp
photo: Wikifrits

"We had a dim premonition that power-mad gangsters would one day use art itself as a way of deadening men's minds." Hans Jean Arp

Walking with my daughter through the museum gallery, I encountered, quite by surprise, a marble sculpture by Hans Jean Arp. I ran my hand over its smooth organic form. Sculpture is such a tactile experience. A museum attendant with a concerned look on her face rushed over to us and told us that we were not allowed to touch it and recited the oils on our skin dogma. I thought that this would be the perfect moment to leave the museum. I wonder what Arp, himself, would have said to this woman. What would have been a perfect Dadaist or Surrealist response? My encounter with sculpture would have pleased the artist. His later abstract creation work included multi-part pieces which the viewer was invited to touch and rearrange. He had sculptures set up in gardens where people could discover them as a surprise, and where no attendants could destroy the moment.

There was a life-size bronze sculpture of a Labrador retriever by Sir Edwin Landseer a couple of blocks from the museum in Calgary's only indoor garden. It was patinated all over save for its nose which was worn to a bright shine from the hands of thousands of children who came over to pet it, knowing that it would not bite. Life was everywhere in that garden: from tropical plants to fish and turtles in its pools. People often held their wedding ceremonies there, or at at least used the gardens for their wedding photographs. Children played in the playground or petted Landseer's dog. The place was relevant.

Had I seen the Arp sculpture in a museum or a mausoleum? Its attendant had certainly interrupted the Muses that day. Of course, you should not get a fingerprint on a sword blade or a proof coin and I always shudder when photocopying a nineteenth century book with its acid laden and brittle paper crumbling away even more as I turn the pages. The patination on the Landseer bronze was simulated, it was not the material finding equilibrium with its surroundings, but something added to make it look more classical (as we now see ancient bronzes). It was an affectation, an homage to a past long dead. The children, rightfully, ignored all of that frippery. Ferlinghetti's words come to me: "They were putting up the statue of Saint Francis... where no birds sang."

We have five senses, but all of them save for sight were being suppressed that day in the museum. The attendant played the role of the temple guard, she was there to make sure that the inner sanctum of the Mysteries was not penetrated by the uninitiated. Not all museums are that way: the Louvre, where art was always encouraged to live on and advance has a sign in one gallery: "S’il vous plait pour touchers les ouvres".

The sense of touch is very interesting, especially when it comes to how our memories work for that sense. Collectors might use all of their senses (even taste, sometimes) to learn more about the things in their collection. I was once offered an Armorican billon coin by a dealer who said it that it had a very high silver content. I could have tasted it, but decided to smell it, instead. I told the dealer that a previous owner had given it a strong bath in citric acid and the surface had been enriched by the acid eating away at the copper. It probably had no more silver inside than one that was not as bright and silver on its surface.

You see the temple attendants on TV wearing surgical gloves when they hold the ancient coin. I wonder if they know, consciously, that they are separating the past from the people. Do they also wear those gloves when the cameras are not present? I used to work in the same museum that I saw the Arp, but in the military department. There were no surgical gloves anywhere to be seen in the non-public area where I helped to catalogue the collection. There is a quote in Yannis Hamilakis' The Nation and its Ruins (p. 146) from the great Greek archaeologist, Manolis Andronikas:
"The time of archaeological research is the 'inhabited' time, that time that is not recorded with astronomic precision, but with cultural completion...The tactile and visible image of historical time is composed of countless relics of human creation...In other words, the archaeologist sees and touches the content of history; this means that he perceives in a sensory manner the metaphysical truth of historical time..."
So when you hear or read the phrase "cultural property" understand the lie: it really means "national property". Its intention is to "keep you in your place", and it shows in the writings and even the body language of those who frequently promote it. That power is given a religious veneer, today, as being imperialistic does not work as well as it used to.

Power and money are almost inseparable: the grand architecture of the museum is like the Medieval cathedral, splendid against the poverty and dirt of the town that surrounds it. Albert Speer's grand architecture and open spaces dwarfed the people below; it reinforced their subservience to the Nazi state and deadened their minds.

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