Seeing the beauty in the ghastly.

The acclaimed "Aztec Empire" exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum was going to close in just over a week so my husband and I met a friend uptown to see it. For me, the word "Aztec" immediately brings to mind two distinct impressions: elegant, "primitive," proto-modernist objects; and terrifying ritual human sacrifice, most notoriously, ripping the beating heart out of the chest of a still-living victim. I knew exactly where I had gotten the first impression--from Roger Fry's path-breaking little book on modernism, Vision and Design (1920), which includes an early appreciation of Aztec art, alongside early appreciations of Cezanne, Giotto, and El Greco, which together embodied a new, distinctly modern taste. But I was far less certain where my image of barbaric sacrifice came from--probably as much from magazines of my youth like National Geographic as from Indiana Jones movies. In any case, the thought of the actual Aztec people gave rise to another set of associations, this time concerning their ultimate annihilation at the hands of Spanish conquistadores. And then it occurred to me that the terrible ruin exacted on their ancient cities must have left physical traces, though I wasn't sure if they had been slowly covered over by jungles like the ones I had seen many years ago at Tikal in Guatemala. But those magnificent ruins were Mayan, not Aztec, or at least so I thought, my uncertainty reminding me just how shallow my knowledge was of the ancient civilizations of the Americas.

Such was my frame of mind as we made our way up the famous curving ramp of the Guggenheim, its archetypal modernist space theatrically transformed into a kind of vault--the white walls covered with a continuous, soft, dark, material; the lights dimmed so that each object was dramatically spot-lit from above. Rather than installing the show as if it were a collection of ethnographic objects, the curators had set the stage so that we could attend to the aesthetic qualities of the objects without having the ghastly ritual sacrifices of the Aztecs impinge on the experience. There were, of course, the now ubiquitous, wall-sized introductions at the entry of each new section of the show, but I was surprised and relieved to find only the most discrete labels--name of object, material, and date--next to each piece. If one wanted additional information, placards describing a few choice objects could be borrowed as one moved through each section of the show.

The curators needn't have gone to so much trouble transforming the museum. The balance between representational and formal concerns in a great many of the objects was so perfectly realized that the overall experience was entirely aesthetic--indeed, so much so that the show gave new life to such characteristically modern and now highly contested ideas as aesthetic autonomy, significant form, and the power of immediacy. As I stood before a throne in the elegant, simplifed shape of a coyote--where the bench coincided with the flattened back of the animal, the leg supports were made of the four legs of the coyote, and the armrests consisted of the coyote's upturned tail on one end and his head turned sideways to face the viewer on the other--I felt delighted by its sheer perfection. And my delight intensified as my husband told me what he was seeing, his vision going beyond the intended and perfect coincidence of the figure of the coyote and the utilitarian object of the throne to the way its rectilinear form recalled, indeed, ratified, the primary architectural principle of post-and-lintel construction insofar as the stone-cutters succeeded in suspending the horizontal line of the bench between the four vertical, slightly angled supports of the legs so that this block of hard, smooth stone stood transformed in glorious repose.

As we came to the section of the show that displayed a menagerie of stone animal figures--eagles, coyotes, monkeys, dogs, jaguars, serpents--my attention was immediately arrested by a serpent coiled in upon itself, its form so perfectly reduced to its essence that it recalled, or should I say, anticipated, the sculpture of Gaudier-Brzeska, Arp, or Brancusi to my eyes--eyes prepared to see "primitivist" form as a precursor to modernist abstraction. But just as I told this to my husband, he began to describe what he was seeing: In the mind of the stone-cutter, he is imagining a snake. He asks himself, how do I capture the vital instance of a snake tightly coiled and constricting against the force of its own making, a spiral ready to strike, and at the same time overcome the inertia inherent in rocks and in literal depictions? And his genius answers, not a one-dimensional illustration of a snake, but rather a demonstration of a vital force, equivocating between inert matter and a now-living rock that has been honed and polished so that its final finish is as organic as a gleaming mineral skin.

As I went through the show, I found myself lingering over those objects--animal figures, masks, architectural fragments, jewelry, vessels--that I could respond to immediately in terms of their seeming universal aesthetic qualities and quickly passing over the highly particularized representations of specific gods and warriors. When faced with an imposing, fired-clay, human-like figure--or was it a god?--that was created so that the first thing the viewer sees is the dread figure's heart, or perhaps liver, dangling out of its exposed rib cage--made all the more dramatic by the curatorial decision to suspend it high on the wall--one is forced to seek out an information card or to give one's imagination over to pondering its grisly ritual significance. In either case, the effort to make sense of what is being represented effectively short-circuits any aesthetic response. So, after trying to take in this strange and awful figure for a few moments among the crowd that had gathered, I then hurried to catch up to my husband, who had walked right by.

The next day, as I sat down to read the exhibition catalogue, it struck me just how amazing it is that we are able to appreciate the artistic merits of objects that belong to worlds so different from our own. But the more I read of the catalogue, especially the section entitled "Aztec Religion," the more uneasy I began to feel about the modern capacity to attend to any object's artistic merits, apart from all other considerations. Even though the catalogue was exceedingly reticent when it came to the gruesome practices of ritual sacrifice--employing distancing terms such as "necromancy" and "autosacrifice" and rarely linking actual objects in the exhibition with their revolting uses--nevertheless, I came away with the impression of a fierce warrior civilization whose founding myths tell of gods feeding creation with their own blood, thus requiring acts of human heart and blood sacrifice to feed the gods of the sun and the earth in return.

With such notions fresh in my mind, I found as I turned the pages of the catalogue that I was looking at the objects in a completely different way. The particularized depictions of gods that I had largely passed over in the show now exercised a ghoulish hold over my imagination. Having read that "the procedure of a ritual death would allude to the particular divinity's characteristics" and that "victims were burned in honor of the god of fire, Xiuhtecuhtli, skinned for Xipe Totec, whose name means 'Our Flayed God,' and shot with arrows for the god of hunting, Mixcoatl," I scoured the captions to see what these gods who inspired such unspeakable acts of cruelty looked like.

But it wasn't only that I was now lodged in this hellish region of the imagination, morbidly fascinated at the same time that I was straining to put these acts of ritualized torture in a proper ethnographical perspective. I also felt compelled to look more carefully at objects that I had previously admired, for instance, a large stone eagle with wonderfully articulated, abstract feathers that my husband had compared with a nearby stone snail-shell of approximately the same dimensions. Were their particular plastic forms suggested by the shape of the particular block of stone, which, he reminded me, was the practice of Michelangelo; or did the stone-cutter impose his vision on an indifferent block of stone to bring these marvelous figures into being? But now, as I noticed a bowl-shaped indentation carved into the eagle's back, it seemed less an object of aesthetic contemplation and more one of frightening ritual significance; what purpose, I couldn't help wondering, had this container been used for? Even the superb abstract animal figures that had no overt relationship to ritual sacrifice no longer seemed so appealing; it was as if my eyes, educated by the text of the catalogue, could no longer discern their formal qualities.

The ideal of experiencing art in all its optical richness without any need of mediation is dear to me, but my radically unstable experience with the art of the Aztecs made me consider (not for the first time) the kind of distancing, moral and intellectual, that aesthetic autonomy requires. Which, in turn, led me to recall the history of ruins-gazing, which, in its picturesque phase beginning in the eighteenth century, provides the earliest example of aesthetic autonomy. Instead of falling into melancholy reveries at the sight of ancient Roman ruins, as was the habit of humanists, picturesque travelers, trained to see ruins as if they were discerning the artistic merits of landscape painting, were instead enchanted by the aesthetic wonders worked by time. With the Aztecs on my mind, I recalled how Hippolyte Taine, who was writing with a more highly developed historical sense in the middle of the nineteenth century, responded when he saw the Colosseum. Picturesque travelers had always been in raptures before the silent masses of broken, crumbling stone, overgrown with colorful, fragrant flowers, vines, and trees, but Taine experienced something entirely different: "There is a sudden revulsion, a veritable shock; it is grand--nothing grander could be imagined..."

    This, then, you say to yourself, was a circus; on these
    graded seats sat a hundred and seven thousand
    spectators, yelling, applauding, threatening simultaneously;
    five thousand animals were slain, and ten thousand
    combatants contended in this arena. You gather from this
    some idea of Roman life. All this provokes hatred of the Romans.

As I finished typing these words into the computer, my eye came to rest on a short notice about the Aztec show that I had clipped from the New York Press. It ends with a quote from Felipe Solis, one of the curators of the show and director of Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology:

    I consider myself an enemy of including non-European civilizations
    in natural history museums, along with animals and prehistoric men.
    It is a racist and primitivist bias of white, European society. These
    pieces are art and thus they can make people feel.

Here Solis himself is displaying a bias of white, European society: the insistence that art and aesthetic experience are wholly autonomous. My own shifting and extremely disconcerting experience with the Aztec objects--one day admiring a stone figure for its perfectly realized form, the next day feeling revulsion at its use in human sacrifice--was the consequence of an aesthetic education that prepared me to appreciate what is essentially an ethnographic collection of objects as autonomous works of art.


The radical instability of the aesthetic response is not only a problem for collections of non-Western objects; it plagues all objects that were not intended as works of art as such, yet somehow find their way into the museum. I immediately thought of how innocently I have admired the displays of exquisitely crafted armor, helmets, swords, daggers, sheathes, shields, crossbows, and guns at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And, in my current mood, I now wondered at the common sight of parents taking their children to these galleries in the name of entertainment and edification. The finely tooled instruments of war displayed at the Met are, of course, as remote from us as the elegant objects displayed at the Aztec exhibition. One does not find bazookas, machine guns, or bombs in those magnificent halls. Apparently, the killing machines of our own age are not aesthetic, just as the ruins of our own age--the blasted, smoldering remains of the World Trade Towers appeared before me--are not. It is only after so much time has passed that we no longer know what we are looking at that we can then take pleasure in the aesthetic qualities that disasters and instruments of death sometimes, under particular conditions, miraculously acquire.

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang).

By Rochelle Gurstein