The Corner

Aztecs

There’s a new exhibition dedicated to the art of the Aztecs at London’s Royal Academy. It is, by all accounts, a fascinating and powerful show, and I am looking forward to seeing it, but, as a recent review by Martin Gayford in the London Spectator (November 23rd – no link available to the review) makes clear, a number of the objects on display raise some disturbing issues:

“Much more disquieting are those pieces that reveal a sinister knowledge of the appearance of the inside of human bodies. The pleasantly bobbly garments of the Xipe Totec figures [a god honored by priests wearing the skins of their sacrificial victims]…turn out to be a chillingly accurate representation of flayed skin, with its subcutaneous fat attached. The same decorative surface is given to a box for the preservation of the skins, with a tightly fitting lid to keep in the stench.”

Mr. Gayford recalls running into the artist David Hockney at the show. Together they looked at images of Xipe Totec. “It took us,” Hockney reportedly observed, “over 300 years to see the beauty in this art”.

And yes, he’s right, Aztec art can be beautiful, sometimes astonishingly so. At the same time some of it, at least, also represents an aestheticization of evil. In appreciating it, are we, in essence, celebrating cruelty. Are three hundred years enough to wash away the blood that drenched these artifacts, at times quite literally so?

This raises another, troubling, question. How will future generations (in another 300 years, say) look at some of the art associated with the last century’s totalitarian regimes?

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