If motion and emotion were the only yardsticks to measure art by, then a painting of “Dogs playing poker“ would be superior to the Mona Lisa
Ocotber 7, 2005
Jonathan Jones’ review of the Ancient Persian exhibit at the British Museum is a bit bizarre, to say the least. How is it that an art critic goes to look at some (very) ancient Persian relics at a museum, and comes out lecturing about modern “Western political theory”?
I think what he is saying is quite interesting to Persians. If you understand his central point, which has little to do with art, archeology, or history, you’ll start to see why Persia has been treated like the Rodney Dangerfield of world civilizations: no respect. His main point is to reassert Persia’s role in Western civilization as the original “evil empire”.
You may not see this point readily because he not only explains West’s inane disdain for Persia; he also exercises it in the same piece. Therefore, you may think he does not like the art, or that he is new to the field. Not so. Believe me, he didn’t even have to go to this show to write that review. “Where's the passion in Persian art?” he asks.
If he had found a DVD player among ancient Persian relics, he would ask, “Where is the surround”? “Where’s the motion and emotion?” he asks. If motion and emotion were the only yardsticks to measure art by, then a painting of “Dogs playing poker“ would be superior to the Mona Lisa, and Debbie Does Dallas would be a bigger cinematic masterpiece than Citizen Kane. So, forget what he thinks of the exhibit. That’s not his point.
His central point, in effect, is that the West cannot allow itself to appreciate Persia because doing so would undermine their own image of themselves. This comes across in passages like: “the Persians had the misfortune to be the others, the enemies - in short, the Orientals”, and, “All Western political theory is implicitly defined against the ghost of Persia”.
Part of the Western political theory he alludes to here, if I’m not mistaken, is the one that divided the world into Occident vs. Orient. Occidental refers to White, Christian, Western European peoples, in general, and to the British in particular. Oriental refers to all other peoples, in general, and to the people of the Middle East and Indian sub-continent, in particular.
A certain sense of superiority has been an underlying current in Western civilization to varying degrees, as the author correctly points out, from the time of the Greeks, through Romans and later the British Empire. But, he fails to note that it was really classified and articulated in its present form, as a political theory, in the 18th and 19th century England. The Great British Empire- and it was truly great was woefully short on pedigree and pretense as it grew into a world empire. (Earlier this summer, the same Jonathan Jones wrote another article tracing “The birth of British art” all the way back to the 13th Century!). So, they made some up.
First they wove this yarn in which they cast themselves as heirs to the Greeks, the first “European civilization”, then they mixed-in some Christianity, added some Queen & Country, and, Presto! They then had a righteous political theory that made them feel timeless and ascendant over other peoples and cultures. This is where ancient Persia enters their argument. As part of seeing their good selves as Greeks, they had to look at ancient Persia as evil. In other words, Persia is scorned because of Britain’s crush on Alexander!
In practice, it worked well for a while because they actually bought their own concoctions (as Jonathan Jones does to this day). They went off in all directions, believing that they were “civilizing the savage”. All the while, they were just carrying out the work of the empire by enriching themselves. Soon, power and greed dulled their brilliance, and they sank to new lows.
In the words of Mark Twain: “Taking someone else’s land is nothing new in the world, but this modern imperialism cloaks itself in a hypocritical self-righteousness that is particularly galling... In many countries we have chained the savage and starved him to death. In more than one country, we have hunted the savage, and his little children and their mother, with dogs and guns through the woods and swamps for an afternoon’s sport. In many countries we have taken the savage’s land from him, and made him our slave, and lashed him everyday, and broken his pride, and made death his only friend ... There are many humorous things in the world, among them, the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages”.
The end for the British Empire came in one of history’s most delicious ironies. A single, unarmed, frail, old, Oriental in loincloth pulled the cloak back to point out who the real savage was. As is usually the case in these situations, the British themselves were the last ones to see the ugliness. Not all of them, but most of them did and do to this day.
I wouldn’t care for his review so much if I believed his kind of archaic view of humanity was in the past. Nor would Jonathan Jones be so frustrated to see Persia recognized in any way if he believed there were no chance of putting the old “theory” back into practice. America, who originally defined itself as the non-imperialist branch of Western civilization, has backtracked some since the end of World War II. Now they find themselves fighting natives in the Holy Land, forcing “civilization” onto savages with allies like Britain and Spain.
Jones’ Western political theory has, in practice, robbed countless peoples of their rightful assets, caused the deaths of millions of innocents on their own lands, and, most importantly, wasted numerous opportunities for humanity to bring peoples and cultures closer for obvious common goods.
Meanwhile, we can only hope (and work) for a paradigm shift, and look forward to a time when Jonathan Jones’ of the world would not be reviewing museum shows, but be on display in one.