I tend to follow Art World news like it’s The Bold and the Beautiful. I get off on the gossip and intrigue, on the meteoric rise and spectacular crash of artists as they make their way through galleries and art fairs, only to be spat out like used Kleenex. It’s a savage world, built on delicacies and theories and aloof elitism. I stepped briefly into it while living in New York, the art world of art worlds made famous in every movie ever (Great Expectations has a particularly unrealistic take on it) and it took me about five minutes to figure out that, much like in Pakistan, the “global art world” consists of some 50 people, all of whom know one another and none of whom are likely to invite you to a party should you nudge them.
This week my news feeds were set aflame with the announcement that the most overrated artist of the world, that pallbearer of bad taste, that emperor with no clothes, the expensive Damien Hirst, has professionally divorced Larry Gagosian, owner of the eponymous mega-gallery. If you know nothing about the art world, know this: Larry Gagosian is it. If the art world was Star Wars, he’d be Darth Vader but with more money and a better wardrobe. He is the protege of Leo Castelli, the guy who discovered Andy Warhol. There are Gagosian galleries in almost every major world capital. They’re less galleries and more museums – in their scope, resources and operational budget.
Given the respective star powers of both Hirst and Gagosian, you can imagine what shockwaves the divorce created. It was like Brangelina broke up (heaven forbid, praise the Technicolor Family of Beauty). That said, most people reading this probably don’t know who Hirst is, or indeed Gagosian. That’s okay. Contemporary art is so large, so multinational, so changeable, so crammed and so very full of complicated verbal BS that’s its hard, if not impossible, to tell who is important. Or more accurately, who will remain important. That’s partly why I don’t like reading most contemporary art criticism. It’ll always try to convince you “the work” you’re reading about is the next best thing since croissants discovered chocolate, when it’s hardly ever true. Most essays read like press releases, lifting paintings and photographs and sculptures and even (god help me) Happenings to a stratosphere of Amazingness they can hardly ever live up to.
It was while reading up on the art news of the week that I came across another interesting little story that shocked me to bits. Apparently the Starving Buddha (the single most important object in the Lahore Museum and the emaciated cover model of many a glam tourist postcard) was up for sale for millions of dollars at Christies last year. This was especially surprising, considering that the Fasting Bhudda was, when last I saw him, still looking bulimic behind a glass case in the museum.
The sculpture was part of a much larger sale of Gandharan art, almost sixty objects in total that ranged in value from a few thousand to a few million US dollars. And all the objects come from Pakistan.
A little background: in 1976 the intelligent countries of the world passed a law saying that after that year, it would be illegal to take archeological finds away from their country of origin. Anything acquired out of the ground after that year would have to be returned; things that happened before that are still in court. It’s a fairly arbitrary pick, but there it is. The statue in question was bought fairly secretly in 1981, begging the question: who sold it?
We won’t know. Smuggling antiquities is an old and lucrative game, and like other vices, it does well in Pakistan. Did you know art and antiquities constitute the third biggest black market after arms and drugs? We of course are the perfect place for predators. We have a rich archeological history with absolutely no way or will to protect it. Or even to discover it. Did you know that a French team came here to excavate a stupa they found on the KK highway that led them to a massive monastic complex inside? The French. Not us. We didn’t even know it existed. We still probably don’t.
We also probably don’t (and don’t want to) know the extent of our heritage that has made its way to foreign collections. For a brief idea, visit Baltimore. In a small but famous museum there you will see the Ford wing of Gandharan art. The Fords are a childless couple who collect snuff boxes and Gandharan art and serve things like gazpacho for lunch. They gave the bulk of their collection to this museum for posterity. Lovely as the thought is, I felt physically ill walking around a mass of statuary knowing that 80% of the things I was seeing had a dubious provenance, if dubious meant fictitious. That must be what the Greeks feel like every time they see a classical wing in a museum.
The difference is that we are not producing enough new conservators or museum curators to deal with things even if we have them. There is little interaction between the NCA, a school funneling out art professionals, and the museum, despite the fact that they share a wall. Instead of fostering a love of culture, the museum and indeed all our cultural departments have become tacky temples to bureaucratic mismanagement. I mean, they used acrylic paint to restore the Wazir Khan Mosque frescoes. That’s like using crayons to fix the Mona Lisa.
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This appeared here.