China is Like a Hundred Years Old

Were you aware that non-Europeans have made art? I was not, until my recent visit to the Charlotte C. Weber Galleries of The Arts of Ancient China (insider tip for elite museum-goers only: when visiting the Met, enter through the door labeled “Groups and Tours” to the south of the main entrance. It’s much less crowded than its more impressive counterpart at the façade’s center).

The Weber galleries impress in their breadth and scope. The artifacts are from Neolithic and Bronze Age China, and they range from ornamented wine vessels from the Shang Dynasty to clay figurines crafted by nomads living North of the Great Wall.
To the rube (me), the wow factor here comes from the sheer age of these objects—some of the carved jade ornaments predate the Roman Empire by two thousand years. Walking through this place, I think of the flawed but attractive idea of the telescoping nature of technological progress. For obvious reasons, it’s limiting to think of “progress” as directional. But if we’re forced to graph it, we can imagine technological innovation like a hockey stick, its handle flush with the ground and the blade shooting up at the graph’s very end. So it took however many thousands of years to get from horse riding to the internal-combustion engine, but it only took a few decades to get from the engine to space-travel. You know the drill.
Anyway, I think about all that deterministic poppycock because you have on display in the Weber galleries some two thousand years of Chinese art, and to my (rube) eye, it all looks of a piece, like the passage of time had no effect inside the Great Wall (this was probably desirable in a culture that prioritized harmony as an intrinsic good). There’s clearly some innovation there—the decoration on the bronze vessels, in particular, gets more ornate over time—but basically, it all looks like Old Pretty Things to me.


I guess what I’m trying to say here is: I don’t know anything about Chinese art. Or  history (on review: is my argument really that China made no technological advances for three thousand years? I guess it is. If only I could edit this “blog-posting,” but everyone knows that the Internet is a permanent and unalterable record. Woe!) Also, I’m ignorant about determinism. And I’m not totally sure that the end part of a hockey stick is called a blade (foot?)

But contained in the Weber galleries is a beautiful collection of belt buckles and daggers, tiny figurines, rhythmically engraved stone, and cast metal. Wall text sheds some light on the mysteries for the patient. For the rest of us, the aesthetic impact of five thousand year-old axes is enough.


The Charlotte C. Weber Galleries

Highlights: Ceremonial bronze wine vessel with its lid cast in the form of a slug/giraffe creature; really old axes that still look dangerous as shit.

Memorable quote: “Another common type of weapon from the steppe was the ax with a tubular socket first conceived of in the West and later introduced to North China through Central Asia.” From the wall text.

Next week: Arms AND armor.

We Will Destroy the Museums

On February 20, 1909, a manic Italian theorist named F. T. Marinetti published The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism in the French newspaper Le Figaro. It began:

We had stayed up all night, my friends and I, under hanging mosque lamps with domes of filigreed brass, domes starred like our spirits, shining like them with the prisoned radiance of electric hearts.

Marinetti and his impish cohorts shrugged off the weight of history. They  embraced intertia in dynamic sculpture and tumbling, energetic prose, and in their affection for the automobile. The Futurists celebrated novelty, revolt, brashness, and above all, the machine, the Machine. It was Nietzsche gone wild, violent and nationalistic, fervidly misogynistic. It was an art movement whose adherents rejected museums, a mode of thought that presaged Buck Rogers and the atomic bomb and the The Factory and the transistor radio and the plastic century. Among the Futurist Manifesto’s calls to arms are this one:

We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.

For Marinetti & Co., technology was an intrinsic good. But their movement, which put such a premium on energy and youth, aged quickly and wilted by the beginning of the First World War. The prominent futurist artist Umberto Boccioni was killed in 1916; Marienetti formed a Futurist political party that later merged with Mussolini’s. Marinetti, who had written that war was “the world’s only heigyne” volunteered–and was summarily rejected for–active duty in the Fascist army when he was in his sixties.

In honor of this misguided movement’s centenary, we bring a you a photograph of Umberto Boccioni’s sculpture that typifies Futurism’s visual aesthetic.

Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space,” 1913.

The Lila Acheson Wallace Wing: Room One

Highlights: Picasso and Braque squaring off with Cubist still lifes; Boccioni being a maniac.

Memorable quote:

Museum-goer lectures his Girlfriend on the importance of Picasso’s bronze 1909 sculpture, Woman’s Head:

“I love the muscularity of it. It’s like a woman’s trapped in there. Like there’s stuff just slathered on her head.”

Museum-goer motions slathering stuff on the sculpture; A Guard watches nervously; Girlfriend is nonplussed.

“Know what I mean?”

Girlfriend walks off.

Next Week: Neolithic China

Boccioni's "Self Portrait," 1905
Boccioni's "Self Portrait," 1905

Just slathered on there.
Just slathered on there.