The Aztecs, the Moche, and our hang-ups about them

I have not yet read and written up Philip Hensher’s critical discussion of Aztec art at the Mail, but fortunately Mark Richardson at Oz Conservative has done so. After quoting Hensher’s article, he quotes the comments of Mail readers who are scandalized that Henscher has negatively judged the Aztecs’ human sacrifice cult. Mr. Richardson also links a VFR post about the giant head of an Aztec god I saw once in a museum.

In addition, I’ve posted at Oz Conservative my discussion about the Moche “Decapitator” cult of pre-Columbian Peru, from my article, “Multiculturalism and the Demotion of Man.” (In my comment at Oz Conservative, I incorrectly said my text on the Moche was unpublished; I had forgotten about the “Demotion of Man” article, which was published in Culture Wars.)

Update, September 28: If anyone was wondering what is this anti-Western relativism that conservatives are always complaining about, the comments of the Mail readers quoted by Richardson give a good idea. It’s a full-blown belief system, shared by perhaps a majority of college educated people in the West. And it’s a belief system that is not only horribly wrong, but that spells our doom.

What it says is very simple: “We of the West are morally tainted, and therefore we have no right to make moral and cultural judgments about other cultures.” Which really means that we have no right to make moral and cultural judgments at all. But if we as a culture have no right to make moral and cultural judgments, then we have no right to exist as a culture, period.

Clearly, when we call this belief system relativism, that is not really correct. Relativism says that you have your ways, and I have mine, and—since there’s no such thing as objective moral judgment—there’s no way to choose between them. But the Mail correspondents do make moral judgments. Thus:

Sarah, USA: It doesn’t matter if it’s gruesome, our civilization is even more disgusting. At least they did those sacrifices with a greater outcome in mind. What do you leave for us? Let’s kill whales to the extreme to feed sushi lovers? Let’s kill seals just because they’re paying me to do it? … Please, for the sake of knowledge, don’t let this person write anything else, ever.

Sarah has an absolute—not a relative—position. Her absolute position is that our civilization is morally monstrous. It is so monstrous that the killing of seals and whales by some members of our society makes our civilization more disgusting than capturing thousands of innocent people every year, dragging them to the top of a temple, and cutting out their beating heart. Relativism—“you must not judge”—is merely the cloak in which this absolutist hatred of the West is dressed. It’s not everyone who must not judge. It’s only people who speak in the name of the West who must not judge. Non-Westerners and Western leftist haters of the West have the full right to judge.

- end of initial entry -

Michael E. writes:

I would like to make an additional point about your post re relativism where you quote “Sarah from the USA.” You are correct that she has an absolutist position. She also appears to proceed from the liberal collectivist mindset that nearly everything is permissible if one’s intentions are good. (See the bold I added.) Human sacrifice for the common good is more moral than killing animals to eat or for money. Liberals have rationalized mass murder by communist regimes in much the same manner. Moreover, liberals excuse themselves for the damage they have done to the West in much the same manner. Their intentions were good.

Howard Sutherland writes:

Your post about Philip Hensher’s perfectly rational response to ghoulish Aztec artefacts in the British Museum reminded me of an exhibition I saw almost 20 years ago. It may be the same one where you saw the Aztec god’s head that you found so terrifying. In 1990, Philippe de Montebello put on at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as one of its periodic blockbusters, a very large exhibition called Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries. I saw it at the Met. After a very popular run there, it was shown—again to great acclaim—at the San Antonio Museum of Art. After that the objects must have been dispersed to their permanent collections. For those who are interested, there is a virtual version of the exhibition on-line.

Even in 1990, when I was less aware than I am now of the relentless drive to multiculturalize (forgive my making that a verb) and relativize (ditto) everything cultural, several things struck me about the exhibition. When I saw it, I had considerable awareness of Mexico and its influences on the world around it (the Southwestern United States, primarily). I had lived and worked in Mexico in the 1970s, and had traveled extensively in Mexico in the years just before the exhibition. My roots are in South Texas and I had lived in California and Texas, so I was well aware of things Mexican-American also.

As a result, I knew of the almost fanatic drive on the part of Mexican governments, especially since the revolutions of the 1910s and 1920s, to laud the Pre-Columbian past as an Indian near-utopia that lasted for millennia until the cruel Spaniards savagely and thoughtlessly destroyed it. The Mexican government’s biases have a lot to do with creating the myth of La Raza and Aztl├ín, now offered as reasons why Americans should acquiesce in the demographic conquest of our Southwest by Mexicans. The flip-side, of course, of idealizing Pre-Columbian Indians is demonizing the Spaniards and dismissing the 300 year long history of New Spain as an unrelieved tale of gloomy oppression of the Indians at the hands of evil (and Catholic) Spaniards. Historic resentment of Spain is, in my experience, far greater in Mexico than in other Latin American countries.

So the first thing that struck me about Splendors was the extent and the richness of the included objects from the Colonial period, and their reasonably respectful treatment by the curators. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Splendors jump right from Montezuma to Frida Kahlo with scarcely a word about anything in between. But the presentation of the Colonial past was, as it turned out, heavily qualified by another Mexican imperative: the militant anti-clericalism of post-revolutionary Mexican governments. Not surprisingly, most of the Colonial art on display was religious, and thoroughly Catholic. As I remember, though, the captions downplayed Catholic or Christian associations as much as possible, so that a polychrome Mother and Child might be described as a cult statuette, or something similar.

The exhibition was laid out chronologically, so I only got to New Spain after going through Olmecs, Toltecs, Mayas, Aztecs and the rest. The blandly misleading nature of the captions about Christian art made me circle back and take another look at the captions describing objects that anyone who knew anything about Pre-Columbian Mexico could see were related to human sacrifice. A few of the captions acknowledged that objects had a sacrificial purpose. Sacrifices of what carefully left obscure. More often, as I remember, the captions hid the truth behind euphemisms such as “ceremonial purpose.”

Overall, Splendors was a tour-de-force and should have been a superb introduction to the art and history of Mexico for anyone unfamiliar with the place. The trouble with it, of course, was the subtle distortions and social conditioning that permeated the presentation of the works. Even though I noticed that then and didn’t like it, I was more struck by the way Splendors gave so much space to Colonial art, so at the time I had a very positive view of the exhibition. As late as 1990, it would never have occurred to me that a man so steeped in the Western high culture mainstream as Philippe de Montebello might be anti-Western in some sense. Now I know better. HRS

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 27, 2009 11:03 PM | Send

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