Sunday, October 17, 2010

Cultural Memory

Yesterday an exhibit of of over 40 of my paintings opened at the Palazzo Ducale in Lucca, Italy. One of the paintings on display shows the Kushite King Piye in 724 BCE, painted for National Geographic in 1990.


A few years ago, I brought that same painting out of my house to show a delivery man who had come to my house to pick up some other paintings.

The man told me he was from Sudan, the region where archaeologists have found remnants of the Kushite culture. I asked him if he had ever heard of Piye (or Piankhe, as he’s also known), or of the Kushite civilization, which was once powerful enough to conquer even the Nile valley to the north. The man just smiled and shrugged. He had never heard of any of it.

I was reminded of the stories of modern Khmer people living among the ruins of Angkor Empire, not knowing their ancestors had built it.

How easy it is to forget our own cultural heritage. It can happen from a period of willful cultural obliteration by a group in power, from a failure of education, or simply from the distraction of other things in the present field of view.
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GJ post all about that painting.
The Italian exhibition is sponsored by Lucca Comics and Games.

20 comments:

My Pen Name said...

How easy it is to forget our own cultural heritage
Funny you should say that an then use the silly, politically correct "BCE" which is a. utterly meaningless b. a willful effort to forget our cultural heritage. Shame on you.

why don't the people who push this pc nonsense get in a tiffy about 'Thursday" (Thor's day) or Wednesday "Odin's Day"

phiq said...

@ My Pen Name: "BCE" is used because some believe in respecting other cultural heritages. Please leave waving fingers in pockets, thanks.

James Gurney said...

I understand what you're saying--there are political implications whether one says "Before Christ" or "Before the Common Era." I used BCE because it's used by many archaeologists and other scholars who are reasonably trying to reckon historical time in a more neutral way.

Ernest Friedman-Hill said...

Given that current consensus puts the historical Jesus' birth at around 6 BCE, the acronyms BC and AD aren't correct regardless of one's beliefs.

António Araújo said...

My Pen Name,
there is no contradiction here.

Just beacause Jim is using the BCE notation that doesn't mean he forgot where the year one reference came from. Remembering History doesn't mean you have to stop it still. That would be like asking the Sudanese man to dress up everyday like a Kushite in order to remember the Kushite existed.

I don't much care for or against the BCE notation but it is a pretty normal thing to happen in a society that has freedom of religion. Pretty normal too, considering that Christian holy dates were deliberately placed on top of pagan ones in order to take their place. Every new order alters conventions to its own purposes. Please consider this: there is nothing to stop the majority of the population from converting to some other religion. Making the state conventions religion-free protects you from one day having to call some month Mohammed-this or Krishna-that. Seen from that perspective, isn't it nice? Of course nothing stops you, if you are a Christian or a Hindu or a Muslim, from using your conventions in your personal life or among your congregation, or even in public - you just can't expect the state to treat you with priority because you happen to be in the majority now. Suppose one day the majority converts to Islam. Would you have your child go to a state school and have to fast on certain days and pray turning to Mecca? Then you might understand why removing Christmas bias from *state* schools might be a good idea. One can only hope that such impartiality is firmly established if one day the demographics change. For all you know a mass conversion to Scientology might be the thing, just ask the ancient romans if you think it can't happen.

Furthermore, in scientific circles, BCE is quite common, because contributors to a science come from many places and religions - and you should try to be polite when digging up somebody else's country, shouldn't you? Also, I'd bet there are more of us atheists in those circles, so that might be a factor too.

>Why don't the people who push this >pc nonsense get in a tiffy about >'Thursday" (Thor's day) or >Wednesday "Odin's Day"

Well, because nobody remembers those meanings unless specifically reminded, and because Christians killed off or converted anyone who worshiped Thor and Odin. The political significance of those names has been muted my the destruction of that religion. Compared to that, alternative naming conventions don't seem so harsh, do they?

History moves on. I actually dislike the PC attitude too, but you are just doing the same in reverse, getting all worked up and offended over some minor detail on Jim's post. The mark of PC is ultra sensitivity to irrelevant details.

One thing that marks Jim, I have observed, is extreme courtesy. He strikes me as the kind of guy that considers his audience and tries not to offend anyone needlessly. That's a good attitude. But sometimes it seems you just can't win.

My Pen Name said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
My Pen Name said...

The mark of PC is ultra sensitivity to irrelevant details.
if it is irrelevant why is there such a concerted, organized effort to change it? And why is it 'ok' to get worked up or pressure schools, museums, and yes archaeologists and profs to change to BCE/CE -

In other words, lets pressure and bully everyone into changing the calender because of our hatred of the Christian west (and the terms BCE/CE, indeed to have their roots in hatred, not neutrality) and in some cases, even legally threaten them (this was the case with company 'christmas' parties as well) and then, when people object, accuse THEM of being 'over-sensitive'.

My Pen Name said...

@phig -- respecting all cultural heritages except the Christian west.

@james- who , specifically, was arrogant or hateful enough to decide the change the calender - who actually gets offended about it?

The only attempts to alter the calender in recent western history were done by extreme radicals - the French "revolution' and the Bolshiviks - symbolically that is what is being attempted here.

Please don't hide behind platitudes of 'impartiality' and sensitivity. it's about hostility towards the West, and particularly hypocritical in a post about preserving cultural memory.

Given that current consensus puts the historical Jesus' birth at around 6 BCE,
You mean, B.C, don't you? That is not the issue, or even whether one believes or not - the issue is that at least it has some meaning, tradition and context in western history.

What does "BCE" mean before the common era before the common era of what?
It is essentially putting meaninglessness at the center of our calender. At least be honest like the french revolution and try to create a new calender - hell, even try to make it metric,.


Well, because nobody remembers those meanings unless specifically reminded, and because Christians killed off or converted anyone who worshiped Thor and Odin.
So in other words, as long as something is meaningless and vapid, it is OK? That's the best 'endorsement' I have heard i have heard of PC in long time.

- "pc" or multiculturalism - is an attempt to impose a pretty harsh, destructive and intolerant ideology in the name of 'tolerance' but that's always how it's done, isn't it?

Roberto said...

Mr. Gurney-
Congratulations on your new exhibit of your paintings at at the Palazzo Ducale in Lucca, Italy; and on your new "Color and Light" book. I'm hoping to receive it as a Winter-Solstice gift this 2010(BCE) holiday-shopping-season. Sorry I missed you out here on the left-coast, hope you enjoyed your visit. -RQ
(@ Antonio, Excellent response! I'm sure I would have been less articulate than you, and definitely not as polite as Jim.)

António Araújo said...

My Pen Name,

>if it is irrelevant why is there >such a concerted, organized effort >to change it?

I didn't say the issue of BC vs BCE was an irrelevant detail. I said it was an irrelevant detail that Jim chose the term in the context of a blog post. Jim does a lot of posts, he can't stop to ponder for hours before chosing any term of possible contention!

I also tried to point out that there was no direct contradiction in his post. That is all. I read you previous post and I am glad you erased it or I wouldn't be speaking to you anymore, at all. You see, you got both my affiliations and my personal preferences all wrong. I know people are very angry these days, but it becomes quite tiring. Speaking from experience, If one tries to make a reasonable argument in the middle of Democrats one gets called a fascist and a member of the capitalist elite, and making the same argument in a room full of Republicans you get called a Communist and a member of the liberal elite. Taking my bank statement in my hands and wondering about the price of cookies, I get a bit tired of being called "elite" of either kind, unless you give me a raise.

About Western society, you couldn't find a bigger fan than me. I work in sciences that stem from the Greeks, I love representational art, I believe in objectivity and reason, and, if anything, I trust technology too much. So there. I could say Christianity, as any Roman would point out, is not really Western, it is part of the so called Eastern Mysticism tradition. Oh hell, but then I guess you could say that maths came to Greece from the East too, and you could say that you mean what Christianity has become, not what it was. It's complicated. But I assure you, whatever the West is, I live in it, and I am a fan, I root for it at every game, so there ya go. In fact, if you must know, I think if you forced me to choose a religion I'd probably go for the old Greek Gods, that's how Western I am (mostly I like that there was lots of sex in the Greek religions).

>So in other words, as long as something is meaningless and vapid, it is OK?

I don't get that. I just answered your question. You asked why nobody bothers to change those names. The reason is that nobody notices, and that they are, today, totally meaningless. I am making no value judgements here. I was just stating the facts. Also, when I said those cultures were replaced by christianity, that was no attack on christianity. That kind of thing happens in all cultures, it's just History. And yes, atheists kill too, what else is new?

Look, I was trying to be as judgement-free as possible, not because those questions are not worthy of discussion, but because I don't come here to have such discussions. I find there are other places for that. Jim's blog usually follows a certain character, and I try to respect that. I don't have arguments here or political discussions if I can help it, because this is a place where people get along and discuss art, so this discussion is neither here nor there. So please don't read in my comment what isn't there, and don't assume I am taking a position that I certainly am not taking.

Perhaps you assumed that because I refused to take any position. Fair enough, but here is why:

Look, when I go to a conference on maths, we have people from all over the world. Some of those people hold views I strongly disagree with. Some could be my enemies. Some are sure to be radicals of some sort or another. I had a colleague once who was muslim and held some borderline views that were repelent to me. There were some extreme communists and anarchists. But when we meet to discuss maths, we simply don't go there or less we'd never stop. How do you think we managed to make maths with Russians when the cold war was on? There is a place for everything. And I come to this place to discuss art and take a look at Jim's work, that's all.

Cavematty said...

@António Araújo. Very calmly, rationally and intelligently put. I particularly liked your illustration of why secularism is important irrelevant of your belief system.

I don't think Mr Gurney would mind any kind of discussion arising from his posts - he would indeed encourage it - so long as it is carried out in such a respectful manner. I don't think we can afford to ignore the political context that art sits in. The fact that Mr Gurney paints dinosaurs for scientific publication is a significant statement in and of itself. A statement that is bound to offend people who would have it taught in public schools in America that dinosaurs never existed.

That said I do think he has every right, as we all do, to take exception to hateful or aggressive language. Especially when directed at one who so diligently gifts his hard earned knowledge to us all, and does so in a consistently courteous manner.

If you want to discuss even the semantics of his posts, be nice. You will get far more value in the discussion from it too :)

My Pen Name said...

nd I come to this place to discuss art and take a look at Jim's work, that's all.
I usually do avoid political discussions here, but James' post directly leads to a discussion about the 'culture wars', whether he intended it or not. In my opinion his statement is grossly hypocritical - someone who lacks the cultural confidence to use a notation that somehow was non-offensive for over a 1000 years but apparently in the last 10 is horrifyingly unacceptable, shouldn't be lecturing people here about cultural memory.

BTW, you know of course, that the scientific method is not rooted in the greeks, who only theorized, but Christians, who assumed God's order was behind the universe (Kepler, Newton for example) and therefore experimented??

If you say you are a fan of the west - to deny that Christianity (and I am not even discussing believing it here, let me make that clear) is indeed the foundation of our moral code (for example, infanticide was common in pagan worlds (and still is, India for example) and it is no accident that atheists movements like the 'dawkins crowd' advocate bringing forms of it back, our art, our architecture, much of our philosophy, universities (I am not surprised for example the ivy leagues have declined in quality since de-christianizing in 60s)

but lets go back to art- remove Christian themed art from the west - what do you have left?

, if anything, I trust technology too much.
i believe that when we replace religion,God, we create substitutes for it - the state, science, technology - i don't think anyone will argue that technology and science have bought us as much misery and death as they have bought us comfort and life.

The 20th century was a pretty ugly, horrible one - perhaps it is not an accident that it was also a low point for art. What sort of culture exhalts Damien Hurst and Tracy Eiman ? The same that rids itself of BC, and AD - the same people the same elite.

i deleted my earlier post, because I, indeed, had mis-read or mis-interpreted what you said.

@Roberto- your reply is the sort of adolescent 'pseudo rebellion' against some imagined 'authority' that was so encouraged by the baby boom generation - but what destroying the old order actually results in is a greater centralized authoritarian government -- it is no accident that post 1960s - particularly in our left leaning universities, and particularly where PC is most prevalent - is where you find the most stifled freedom of expression. It is no accident that in this atmosphere freedom of expression is stifled, and often criminalized.

I was born in the late 1960s. I can safely say that I have far less freedom than I had the day I was born and it is the same case for everyone born in any western country.

Are we making things better?

My Pen Name said...

@Cavematty
I particularly liked your illustration of why secularism is important
i am glad you gave it an 'ism' because, it is, indeed, an ideology -that requires indoctrination and enforcement - in short it requires removing Christmas trees, and other longstanding traditions, it involves compulsion, it involves deliberate destruction of culture- inevitably its successful enforcement has required violence (revolutionary France, Bolshivik Russia)

It is, in essence a state religion, the very thing you purport to oppose.

My Pen Name said...

@ antonio
James specifically said this It can happen from a period of willful cultural obliteration by a group in power
That, exactly is what 'secularism' has been all about - it started in the 1960s and has accelerated and become increasingly intrusive and bossy.

It will not stop until people stand up to it. It wont stop at removing "AD" it won't stop at even doing away with the current Gregorian calender - which is apparently so offensive. It won't stop because like most revolutionary ideologies it is an ideology of destruction, not creation.

Back to art- it was the same spirit that smashed the plaster casts in art schools in the 1950s and 60s, the same razed churches in Russia and destroyed 100s of thousands of Christian artifacts in Russia.

ivo.de.wispelaere said...

Are there are political implications whether one says "Before Christ" or "Before the Common Era"?
In America apparently, but I have never heard of that discussion here on the 'old' continent (Europe :-) ).
Glad I don't have to watch my words like that all the time...

James Gurney said...

MyPenName: I can assure you that there's not any ideological fervor behind my usage of BCE or BC. I don't really care either way. And checking it out a bit, it seems that the general trend has, if anything, gone back to using "BC" instead of "BCE" in the last couple of decades.

Christianity's place in our modern world is an interesting topic, but to me it doesn't have a lot to do with how we reckon time for a culture that existed more than seven centuries before the birth of Jesus.

Maybe it would be better to describe the Kushites as living 2700 years ago.

Colin Boyer said...

I just got back from a visit to Gary Kelley's studio, who is, I believe, the most awarded illustrator of all time. We talked about the changing landscape of the illustration world and the issue of blogs came up. With blogs you attract the sort of people who thrive on contention under a veil of anonymity. He says that you will never convince him to put himself through what happened to Anita Kunz, for example, when someone decided to hassle her on her blog over something as equally silly.

There is room for discussion on which term to use, BC or BCE, And James is an incredibly intelligent fellow who I'm sure would be able to contribute much to that discussion. But my Pen Name, you are posting in a community that does not care for contention, or for your hyperbolic extremist stance over absolutely nothing. Please, please go away you troll.

My Pen Name said...

But my Pen Name, you are posting in a community that does not care for contention, or for your hyperbolic extremist stance over absolutely nothing. Please, please go away you troll.
i have been posting and reading this blog for quite awhile. So i guess I am part of the 'community' i don't remember electing you my spokesman oh, sorry , spokes'person'.

James, I would like to say that I think you're pretty darn fair and tolerant, and your blog is a true goldmine to artists and illustrators- I mean this in all sincerity I would never want this blog to become a burden to you and if my posting makes it so please let me know.

My reaction is not at you, though in reading, my posts could certainly have been phrased a bit more courtesy.

its this sort of PC - that sucks the meaning and value out of everything, that really irks me.

Shane said...

"Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain but it takes character and self control to be understanding and forgiving."
Dale Carnegie

I love your blog James - thanks for sharing
Shane =)

Roberto said...

@MPN
Your apology is accepted.
In keeping w my adolescent 'pseudo rebellious' retort, please allow me to clarify my use of 'BCE.' I use it to stand for 'Before the Comet Era' after 2012 I’ll be using ‘ACE’ for ‘After the Comet Encounter.’ (Antonio is right, no one noticed)
Cavematty gives good advice; mine would be to choose your battles more carefully, chill-out, lighten-up, and get over-it! -RQ