Sometimes I'm embarrassed about being a humanist. I study ancient art, and it's always more impressive to introduce myself as an archaeologist than as an art historian.
In my mind, "history" trumps "art" in my conception of "art history." Not that they are mutually exclusive, but I tend to gravitate towards learning about people in the past and other parts of the world, rather than notions of aesthetics and masterpieces. I always just worked more on the social science end, rather than the humanist end of the spectrum.
I wrote my dissertation on Assyrian art and focused on many of the pieces now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in "Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum" (through January 4, 2009). When I heard about the exhibit, I was excited that more of the wider public would learn more about Assyria, the last great pre-Islamic empire that arose from Mesopotamia, the region now known as Iraq. Viewers would come to understand why archaeologists have been working hard to save the sites threatened by war and looting by people made hungry by war.
Except the local curator and the show's designer freely admit that they are not specialists in Assyria or Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) at all. They did not choose to present these objects as invaluable historical treasures. They decided to mount the exhibit as fine art.
I've worked in museums, and I have always pushed for more information in the galleries. More maps, more building plans, more photographs of excavations so that viewers could understand how these objects were unearthed and how they may have been originally used. There is one map, no plans and no photographs of excavations at the MFA exhibit.
Why is it, then, that I loved the show?
Well, for one thing, the curator, Larry Berman, and the designer, Tomomi Itakura, have made these objects look more beautiful than I have ever seen them. The low lighting in the galleries lets the spots above each bas-relief illuminate all the detail and artistry involved in their creation.
I think of these reliefs as slabs of stone that lined the reception halls to a king's throne room. I can point out all the iconography that detail the history of each conquest depicted and the overt propaganda that shows dozens of dead enemy but never an Assyrian so much as wounded. But the MFA's presentation made me look differently. I saw formal rules established and broken, as triumphant Assyrians pierced through register lines. I saw harsh straight edges contrasted with wonderful elegant curves. I saw clean open spaces and tightly packed areas of high detail.
I saw the slabs as a humanist. The MFA exhibit does not give a new viewer the tools to imagine how the slabs stood 2600 years ago, but they present the reliefs in a way that allows a viewer to imagine the artist creating it, and to imagine the intended audience viewing it.
No doubt the fierce ideology of the battle narratives would have cowed foreign dignitaries who had come to negotiate terms of surrender to the Assyrian king. However, so would the sheer beauty of the carving. The crowd I was with gasped at the first sight of the reliefs — even before they could decipher the content, the form awed them. I wouldnt be surprised if the poor Elamite ambassador who saw them in 620 BC had the same reaction. And he would have been that much more horrified when he recognized the decapitated head of his king illustrated so carefully on the walls.
Instead of seeing these objects as parts of a historical puzzle, I have seen them as works of art. The result being, I appreciate them more, and I feel better equipped to understand their history.