Why the Flyers art writer wont be among the glitter-eyed throngs
at Jewels of the Romanovs.
by Cory Dugan
m afraid I wont 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 wont miss me. (Some of them wouldnt miss me if
I never darkened the doors again, but thats another story.)
But, you know, Im pretty sure I wont 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 its 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 Orpheums 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? Moneys 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 babyd
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 (Im 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 wasnt exactly the enlightened or benevolent act its
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 werent really the personal property of the Romanovs.
But, wait the Romanovs were the state. The state was their personal
Wonders used to claim that its profits went to housing, but we
havent 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 doesnt work in economics and theres no reason to
think itll work in the arts. Plus, hey, the Brooks doesnt 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, Ill
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? n
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