Ancient Mayan Treasures Still Provoke Troubling Questions

Can a work of art be independent of the time and culture in which it was created? Can it thrive on the characteristics inherent in its shaping—on aesthetic merit alone?

In today’s theory-addled art world, no avant-gardist curio comes off the assembly line without a ream (or three) of explicatory text. We live in an era in which the mere notion of visual art—that is to say, objects crafted specifically to engage the eye—is suspect. The received wisdom tells us that it’s impossible for art to claim any autonomy.

Holland Cotter of The New York Times recently stated, “Art was, and remains, a product of its culture and time.” Artistic invention, in other words, is subservient to forces outside of it. Standing alone, a painting, drawing, sculpture or installation limps gamely along seeking a context without which it is meaningless. Art, in this view, is an inert and hapless thing.

Mr. Cotter’s assertion appeared in his review of Treasures of Sacred Maya Kings, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the article, Mr. Cotter gives a rough synopsis of Thinking with Things: Toward a New Vision of Art, by Esther Pasztory, an art historian and former mentor to Mr. Cotter.

Ms. Pasztory’s recently published “extended theoretical essay” is a “pan-cultural definition of what art is and what it is for.” Mr. Cotter offers it as a key to understanding the art of the Maya. Art’s “transcendent and timeless” character isn’t predicated on visual appeal, we learn, but on “use-value.” Art provides “tools for thinking about, coping with, probing the world.”

Well, yes, but read further to learn that “Thought, not aesthetic taste, was art’s essence.” Later the point is brought home: “Concept was what counted.” Following the logic of Ms. Pasztory and Mr. Cotter, concept continues to be the primary factor in art.

Which means, I suppose, that the consummate skill and invention that went into crafting Mayan relics like the aptly nicknamed “Dazzler Vase” (A.D. 450-500) or the terrifying Eagle Transformation Figure (1000-600 B.C.), counts for bubkes.

Concept is king, right? Seen in this light, we can draw a straight line between anonymous Mayan artisans of long ago and the Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, whose One and Three Chairs (1965) is a staple of MoMA’s permanent collection and among the dullest works of art known to humankind.

How depressing—and what an insult. However distant, foreign or severe Mayan art may be to contemporary eyes, its aesthetic dimension can’t be discounted. The order, meticulousness and all-consuming intensity of each of the myriad objects displayed in Treasures of Sacred Maya Kings is indisputable—whether it be a plate, a piece of jewelry, a stele or the lid of a pot featuring the God Itzamna perched on the back of a peccary.

You wonder, in fact, how the artist responsible for the intricate carving of Cache Urn with Deity Head (A.D. 250-450) would respond to the disregard for form set forth by Ms. Pasztory and Mr. Cotter. Certainly he would have known the consequences should his art not pass the stringent criteria set by the Mayan ruling elite: torture and probably death.

It is well known that ancient Mayan culture was uncompromisingly brutal. The Maya were subject to a mythology that strong-armed human will to the dictates of an unforgiving array of supernatural forces. The gods offered not redemption, but retribution for failing to meet their demands. The Mayan people, particularly those who had no claim to political or religious power, knew well enough not to mess with the order of things. Even then there were no guarantees.

The ancient Maya created a sophisticated society predicated upon slavery, mutilation, human sacrifice and probably cannibalism. Without these daily terrors—or, as the Met diplomatically puts it, “ritual performances”—the arrival of a new morn was in doubt. An incalculable loss of human life led to impressive achievements in art, architecture, mathematics and urban planning. Should our knowledge of a culture’s practices color—or diminish—an appreciation for its art?

The Maya are not alone among peoples who ruled with a blatant disregard for human life. No culture is blameless when it comes to acts of atrocity. The 20th century witnessed barbarity on an unprecedented scale perpetrated by cultures of no mean accomplishment. But would the Met or any of our other great institutions dare to mount an exhibition titled Treasures of the Third Reich?

That’s an extreme example, and one close enough in time to elicit strong psychological, social and political consequences. Yet the question remains: By aestheticizing what is essentially religious propaganda intended to foster a culture of fear, do we encourage ethical ambivalence?

This is where the contextualist theorizing of Ms. Pasztory and Mr. Cotter bears some credence, though perhaps not in the way they intended. The astonishing beauty created by the Maya is inseparable from the cruelty espoused by their culture. If we reject the art on moral grounds, we doubt its ability to transcend the constraints of time and circumstance. If we accept it without philosophical qualm, we risk ignoring our common humanity.

This exhibition is certainly recommended for the treasures it contains, but also for the troubling questions those treasures raise. It will provoke an unsettled response—as it should. The Met’s presentation makes a polite hash of history for purposes that are grounded less in art than in political expediency. The contemporary mindset can’t admit that, ultimately, aesthetics aren’t a source for moral values. Squeezing art into a conceptualist straitjacket is a denial of its inherent complexity. Banishing Mayan art to its “culture and time” is a cheat: It robs us of the full aesthetic experience, however disquieting it may be. Art provides many things; easy answers aren’t among them.

Treasures of Sacred Maya Kings is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, until Sept. 10.