Edward Rothstein’s remarkable article today in the Arts section of the New York Times carries the obligatory bland headline: “Two New Shows Cast Light and Darkness on Early Cultures in America.” The reference is to “Exploring the Early Americas” at the Library of Congress, and more egregiously, an embarrassing drowned-in-cultural-relativism show at Chicago’s Field Museum, “The Ancient Americas.”
In the second half of his report, after a discussion of pottery, statues and artwork, Rothstein says natural history museums have traditionally been shaped by ideas of cultural evolution and ways of life that have been transcended or superseded. No more. In the age of relentless non-judgmentalism and the warmest possible multicultural appreciation for any culture at all (except Western cultures, of course), shows like the one at the Field “resist any hint that any culture under consideration might be less than any other.”
Unlike most such offerings, the Field show is at least straightforward about its bias: “It is important to remember that there is no best or model culture. All cultures are equally valid to the individuals living in them.” This, of course, requires explaining away Aztec human sacrifice, the elusive triple axle of multicultural performance. The show helpfully points out that ancient Rome killed a lot of people in ceremonies too. According to Rothstein, the show breezes past the indigenous commitment to ritual slaughter by referring to it as “bloodletting” and also by contracting the term “human sacrifice” down to “sacrifice.” (A similar bit of verbal gymnastics is under way now. “Female genital mutilation”, a frankly polemical – and accurate – term is often replaced by the bland word “cutting,” so as not to seem offensive to the mutilators.) The bland and generic term “sacrifice” allows the perpetrators of the show to point out that “sacrifice and religion are linked in many societies” and “almost all world religions include sacrifice of some kind.” Yes, but how many, exactly, imitate the Aztecs by ripping out the beating hearts of 20,000 people a year?
Caught in a defensive crouch, the show has to argue the good points of the old cultures -“hunting and gathering was a great way to live” and usually provided more leisure time than farming, and in this culture women and the elderly were respected. (Farming was a mistake because it reduced leisure and respect? ) Among the early peoples of southern California, between 7000 BC and 1600 AD, harpoons and ocean-worthy canoes were invented. Rothstein hurls the obvious grenade at these two achievements: “The more compelling fact might be that during those 9000 years so few brilliant techniques appeared: it was a period when other societies developed science, writing and medicine.”
This kind of assessment is considered improper in light of the multicultural cant that has leached out of the academy into elementary and high schools, the museum world and much of the media. Not only is the word “primitive” verboten, but so are once conventional references to Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age because they imply that some cultures are better than others and that progress is real. If progress isn’t possible, Rothstein asks, what about “the moral progress represented by modern Western societies’ finding the brutality of the Spanish conquerors so repellent?” Congratulations to Rothstein for an outstanding article.