Dumbing Down Art and Culture for Americans?

Does art and culture and history need to be dumbed down for American consumption? I have some suspicions each time I watch the paltry national and international news coverage on television. But having lived in New York for so many years, one of the premier cultural capitals of the world, I could just as easily have argued otherwise. Well, until this past weekend. Last Sunday, I visited the Terracotta Warriors exhibition at the Bowers Museum in Orange County, California. And now I am pondering this question more then ever.

Let me preface this blog entry, by saying that I was beside myself with excitement, when I realized that this exhibition was going to make its way to California. It was for me, I thought, an opportunity to get a rare glimpse of history, to learn more about my mother's culture, to see first hand what is commonly known as the eighth wonder of the world. The magnitude of this exhibition was highlighted by the president of the Bowers Museum, Peter Keller when he said, "This upcoming United States' tour of the First Emperor's Terracotta Army is of historic proportions. No previous exhibit from China has ever been allowed to include more then 20 'level one' objects. We are bringing 52 'level one' objects." (In China, a panel of experts have a system which rates arts and antiquities in relation to their importance to China. Those with the greatest significance to China are graded level one and the number of those objects that can be out of the country at one time are highly restricted).**

Upon entering the actual exhibition itself, each visitor at the Bowers Museum is given portable player with an audio guide that specifically addresses each figure or item on display. All we had to do was punch in the corresponding number into the player and listen. Since the tickets were rather pricey, the audio tour was free.

It is this audio tour that has triggered my current speculation. Where shall I begin? Well, I did learn a few things from it. There was a commentary that gave some modest insights into the history of China and the life of the First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi and the making of the terracotta warriors. But generally, I found it quite unbearable to listen to (not to mention mildly insulting) because with the commentary, they decided to include some utterly useless narrative supposedly from the various figures on display. Each had different roles, as identified by their attire and stature (eg. soldiers, musicians, strongman, courtiers, etc). Some actor (I am guessing) with a stereotypical affected Chinese accent very poorly attempted to bring these figures to life. For example, 'one of the warriors' described on the audio tour, how their well designed weapons had saved their bacon many times in combat.

Unable to actually play the audio tour here, it is difficult for me to fully convey this aural farce and so I liken the experience to this - it would be like going to a museum to see African American art with an audio tour given in Ebonics by a suburbanite without any descriptions and analysis of much substance. Not only did I find the narrative in the audio tour an insult to my intelligence, I also found it culturally insensitive.

Now if this exhibition of the Terracotta warriors had not first been at the British Museum, I would have chalked this experience up as odd and left it at that. However, now I have a comparison point. The British Museum too had an audio tour. From all the reviews I have read and heard from visitors' accounts, it seems that their audio program was insightful and enlightening. It was narrated by the British Museum director Neil McGregor and included an interview with Jane Portal, the senior curator of Asian art at the British Museum, who not only has written a couple of books on the First Emperor and the terracotta warriors, but was critical in bringing the exhibition from China to the British Museum.

Now with this as the precedent, why would the Bowers Museum not borrow this material or do something similar? Why spend two million dollars to bring one of the greatest archaeological finds in the 20th century to California and not provide the most enlightening experience you can to your visitors? Having spent close to $30 a ticket, I would have not have expected a cartoon-like narration as my guide. Which leads me back to my original question - as to the necessity of dumbing down for American consumption.

Journalist and author, Susan Jacoby, whose latest book is "The Age of American Unreason," wrote in the Washington Post that not only are Americans suffering from a lack of knowledge, there is a certain arrogance and nonchalance about this lack of knowledge. But surely the people she is writing about, are not the people who paid top dollar to wait in a never-ending line to view this exhibition, to learn about the history and culture of another country. Or is it that in this MTV, You-Tube generation, the American attention span has become so limited that it can only tolerate sound bites interspersed with mindless animation? I guess this time, only the curators of Bowers Museum will have an answer for me.

*The top two images were taken from the Bowers Museum website. The latter two are from the British museum. The last image of the terracotta warriors exhibition at the British Museum.
** This quote was taken from the National Geographic website.

1 comment:

  1. That *is* a pretty sad commentary and depressing to hear. I went to see the exhibit here in Paris but have to admit we did not get the audio guides, so I can't provide a third reference. It would be curious to see if the curators gave any interviews or noted anywhere why they had taken this approach. Until/unless we hear otherwise from them, your take sounds sadly on target. Glad you brought it to our attention.