Mayan Treasures at the Met: Passing Strange Communications From the Beyond
By HOLLAND COTTER
Published: June 16, 2006
"TREASURES OF SACRED MAYA KINGS," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gets a big gold "A" for truth in advertising, at least as far as its treasures go. They are plentiful, rare and splendid, and I'll start by pointing out two.
A carved wooden figure of a kneeling shaman, arms extended, time-scoured face entranced, is one of the greatest sculptures currently on view in the museum. Donatello and Tilman Riemenschneider would have loved it. And wait till you see the painted ceramic vessel known as the Dazzler Vase. With its red and green patterns like jade on fire, you'll know in a flash how it got its name.
Not everything here sends up "masterpiece" flares. Monumental stone sculpture of the kind closely identified with ancient Mesoamerica is largely absent. Much of the work stands at some remove from what many viewers would call beautiful. Certain items — a jadeite model of a pointed tool used for ritual self-mutilation — are just strange.
Once you introduce the strange and the unbeautiful to a treasures show, you create some confusion; you upset expectations, ruffle the aesthetic pleasure principle. The confusion increases if the show gives clear signs of wanting to go beyond the beauty pageant, to tell a story and puzzle out a history, as this one wants to do.
Lords of Creation is available at the Goldwater Library:see Watsonline record
It is useful to know that when the exhibition had its debut at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it was called "Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship." Was the New York name change an effort to give what sounded like an anthropological think-piece greater appeal? The word "treasure" in a show is a time-tested crowd-puller. It promises an easy, passive art experience, as diverting and undemanding as window-shopping.
But the Maya show feels far less like a stroll past Bergdorf's than like a visit to an archaeological dig. Some 150 objects, whole and fragmentary, fancy and plain, are spread through the galleries. Many are unfamiliar: they are recent finds from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize, traveling for the first time.
It's evident that they add up to something, though it's not clear, at least at the beginning of the show, what that something might be. You have to do some work, some sorting, sifting and piecing together to get your bearings.
Thinking With Things is available at the Goldwater Library:see Watsonline record
The wall labels are a help. So is the catalog edited by the show's curators, Virginia M. Fields and Dorie Reents-Budet, with its wealth of up-to-date information. But the most valuable guide may be one that has no direct connection to the show, "Thinking With Things: Toward a New Vision of Art" (University of Texas), a 2005 book by the art historian Esther Pasztory.
Ms. Pasztory is a Mesoamerican specialist who has written, among other things, a fine book on Aztec art. But "Thinking With Things" is different. It is an extended theoretical essay, which attempts to create, with the tools of art history and anthropology, nothing less than a pan-cultural definition of what art is and what it is for.
I worked as a graduate assistant to Ms. Pasztory years ago when the book was germinating. And although it changed shape over time, its basic proposal remains intact: Many of the things we now call art — the very concept was largely a product of 18th-century Europe — were originally significant not primarily for their visual appeal but for their use as tools for thinking about, coping with, probing the world. Thought, not aesthetic taste, was art's essence.
It is this use-value that has made art a universal phenomenon. Far from being transcendent and timeless, art was, and remains, a product of its culture and time.
These proposals are not in themselves radical, but the breadth and intensity with which Ms. Pasztory applies them are. And when her view is brought to bear on the Maya show, a quirky treasures compendium becomes something else: a speculative study, through objects, of how political power developed in that culture and what it said about the Mayan's approach to the world.
"Treasures of Sacred Maya Kings" remains at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), through Sept. 10.