There are so many dramatic, often painful stories and images pouring from Iraq. With so much carnage and human suffering it seems vaguely immoral to lament the loss and destruction of the ancient artifacts at the Iraqi National Museum, ransacked by mobs. In most wars, conquerors lay claim to the treasures of their defeated enemies. Napoleon did it, and Russians and Germans did it during World War II. It's only fair to mention that in the aftermath, Russians returned most of the seized treasures to the Communist government of Eastern Germany. However, I cannot recall any stories of Germans ransacking their own national museums after the collapse of the Nazi regime.
More than a hundred thousand artifacts were looted from the Iraqi National Museum and obviously it took hundreds of people to do it. I am sure this looting has nothing to do with survival, it has nothing to do with hunger either, but it has plenty to do with basic greed, multiplied by lawlessness. I wonder how our Arab and Moslem friends are going to explain such barbaric behavior by the citizens of a country exceedingly proud of its history.
As Karl Marx famously said, "History repeats itself - the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." After the tragic destruction of the museum in Baghdad, here comes the latest news of the demise of the grandiose museum expansion of the Whitney Museum in New York. Ironically, twenty years ago, the same museum abandoned yet another over-ambitious and ill-conceived expansion plan, designed by Michael Graves. Now, blaming the poor economy, the Whitney has shelved the latest extravaganza, this time designed by Rem Koolhaas, a poor fellow who just a few months ago lost another high profile commission with LACMA. The question is, how many more times will the Whitney try to use architectural steroids to raise its cultural profile in its competitive battle with other New York museums? It shouldn't be a surprise if we start to hear whispers of joy coming from Whitney's curators, echoing the quiet celebration that took place among the LACMA people rejoicing in the demise of LACMA's unlovable expansion plan.
What LACMA continues to excel at is hosting or organizing first-rate exhibitions. The latest is the "Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353", organized by LACMA and consisting of more than 200 artifacts: silk, ceramic, jewelry and miniature painting. They come from LACMA's own rich collection of Islamic art, as well as numerous museums and private collections around the world. Imaginatively installed, the exhibition tells a complicated story of cross-cultural fertilization in a vast territory of Eurasia, governed by the descendants of Genghis Khan. This territory included present-day Iraq, so it's difficult not to think of the atrocities and destruction of Saddam Hussein's regime while going through this intriguing exhibition. Though the name of Genghis Khan is synonymous with cruelty and tyranny, but to quote the show's curator, Linda Komaroff, "-the Mongols practices of governance, patronage- and trade produced a singular environment for artistic creation." The banal, painfully bad statues and paintings of Saddam Hussein plastered all over Iraq make it tempting to compare the cultural legacies of these two monsters of the distant and recent past. I doubt that the era of Saddam Hussein will ever become the subject of an art exhibition.
"Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353"
April 13 - July 27, 2003
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036