Feature

Gem Nauseum

Why the Flyer’s art writer won’t be among the glitter-eyed throngs at “Jewels of the Romanovs.”

by Cory Dugan

I’m afraid I won’t be visiting the “Jewels of the Romanovs” exhibition. Call it a solo boycott if you wish. Although, by all early accounts of record attendance, the folks at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art probably won’t miss me. (Some of them wouldn’t miss me if I never darkened the doors again, but that’s another story.)
But, you know, I’m pretty sure I won’t be missing anything either. Nothing that matters.
What would I see? The fruit of human intellect and creativity? An expression of profound or original insight? Could I anticipate being challenged by new ideas or educated in the contemporary ramifications of historical thought and aesthetics?
Or would I just gape at some of the purtiest and fanciest little baubles you ever did lay your eyes on?
While it’s tempting to dismiss “Jewels of the Romanovs” with the easy gibe, there is a rationale behind such exhibitions. Exhibitions like “Jewels” – and Wonders and the historical precedents of King Tut and the Vatican Treasures and the British Treasure Houses – have nothing to do with art or even history. They are about – surprise! – money. And money alone.
On one level, they are about money in the form of box-office receipts. The agenda of the Brooks in exhibiting “Jewels of the Romanovs” is obvious. This is less an exhibition than a fund-raiser, much in the same fashion as The Orpheum’s presentation of Phantom of the Opera – empty spectacle, big investment, and hopefully bigger returns. An endeavor such as “Jewels” is a little risky, what with exhibition costs, insurance, and – as we learned in D.C. – those testy Russians. But who can blame an arts organization in this day and time for taking a chance? Money’s tight, the government purse strings are being gradually frayed through by the dull right blade of the congressional scissors, and the corporate Medicis are being solicited from every quarter.
Which leaves the unattractive alternative of actually attracting the public. And what better way to woo us away from Baywatch than to wow us with a live version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous? The only bait as alluring as sex is wealth.
Making a risky buck is one thing; but pandering is quite another. The true sin of exhibits like “Jewels of the Romanovs” is that they are little more than pornography for the product-obsessed, crass manipulations of consumerist greed and envy. We are not so much drawn to the beauty of the objects as to their imagined worth. Look at that big honker sapphire, whatcha think that baby’d cost?
These exhibits pretend to be historical, but they are history rewritten as spectacle – preferably as a parade of gaudy trifles (although, as seen in the recent Titanic exhibit, it can also be a cortege of the mundane made melodramatic). The Romanov exhibit, for example, surrounds its jewels with a few ecclesiastical objects in an attempt to temper its hedonistic appeal with higher motives. But the pendants and icons and altar books are not humble church goods; they too are, of course, gilt and adorned with gemstones.
The exhibit, after all, is not titled “The Religion of the Romanovs.” The principal faith celebrated here is an ideology of cultural property divinely granted to the idle inbred. The royal family may indeed have harbored pious believers, and they have certainly been romanticized (I’m waiting for that Anastasia tie-in) in the wake of anti-communism. But the harsh fact is they ruled despotically over a nation of millions of enslaved serfs for 300 years, overseeing pogroms and religious persecutions and the brutal suppression of laborers. (The so-called emancipation of the serfs by Alexander II in 1861 wasn’t exactly the enlightened or benevolent act it’s made to seem. The serfs traded servitude for lifelong debt and half the land they previously cultivated.)
From the Romanovs to Ramesses, there is a disturbing link in local blockbuster exhibits – treasures accumulated through autocratic rule. (Apologists can call it patronage, but patronage is no favor when used as a tool of social control. The jewels have also been excused by explaining that they actually belonged to the state, that they weren’t really the personal property of the Romanovs. But, wait – the Romanovs were the state. The state was their personal property.)
Wonders used to claim that its profits went to housing, but we haven’t heard much about that in recent years, especially in the aftermath of an apparently successful “Titanic.” Museums like the Brooks usually excuse themselves by claiming that this ill-gotten gain will provide real art for the future. Kind of like Pat Halloran saying that Phantom will eventually be good for local theatre.
Trickle-down doesn’t work in economics and there’s no reason to think it’ll work in the arts. Plus, hey, the Brooks doesn’t have much of a track record in recent years to lend credence to the argument – is “Jewels” going to finance more duck decoys?
I would never set myself up to define something as elusive as art. But if I tried, it would involve something higher than simple objects, much higher than shallow spectacle; its worth would be valued in something other than monetary terms.
But, back here on earth, and speaking in monetary terms, I’ll be taking my $15 (does no one else find that admission price obscene?) and contributing it to some worthy organization.
Are the Bolsheviks still around?
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