Tom Sutcliffe: The smiley face of extinction

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Walking round the British Museum's Moctezuma exhibition the other day I found myself thinking about the Mitchell and Webb sketch about the anxious Nazi. If you've never seen it, it features two SS officers, sitting in a bunker on the Eastern Front. One, apparently more introspective than the other, is troubled by their skull's-head cap-badge, an emblem which he feels doesn't send entirely the right message. "Hans", he eventually asks – hesitant to voice his deepest fear – "...are we the baddies?"

I wondered if there had ever been an Aztec (or, more correctly, Mexica) equivalent of that fretful soul, someone who looked around at the ornamented skull masks, and the pediments of stylised skulls that fringed some temples, and thought, "you know, I'm not sure this is entirely healthy". Certainly, a contemporary visitor is likely to be intimidated by a culture that pressed the human skull into service as a decorative theme. Indeed there's something almost comical to our eyes about the earnest dedication of Moctezuma's sculptors and craftsmen to the art of morbid terror. It looks like a B-movie version of savagery, reaching for the most obvious logo of death to achieve its effect.

Part of the reason for that reaction is circular. B-movie art directors and video-game designers look for something ghoulish in the reference books, find Aztec, or Mexica, art and think "bingo... that'll do it".

And despite some valiant efforts it's hard to have a fiction which represents the Mexica empire as just another lifestyle, while in any way reflecting its cultural dependence on torture and human sacrifice.

So when you visit the British Museum show it's difficult to shake off an inherited comic-book sense of what this society means. Tintin adventures guide your responses just as much as the Neil MacGregor audio-tour. Skulls, as the anxious Nazi puts it, mean "death, cannibals, beheading, pirates".

That's because the skull lends itself so well to the symbology of death, paring down the endlessly nuanced features of a human face to a literally bare-bones emblem, which will come across in pretty much any medium. You can have a finely crafted object (like the real human skull cartoonised by the application of turquoise and black pyrite eyes) or a relatively crude bit of masonry (such as the frieze of stone skulls which is also on show here) but the essential punch of meaning is much the same. The skull – the smiley face of extinction – is always on brand.

It is, I guess, why Damien Hirst chose it as the armature for his mischievous bit of bling For the Love of God, and it also may explain why, in The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein chose to anamorphose the skull in the foreground into an initially unrecognisable smear.

Yes, it's a showy trick of perception, but it also nervously acknowledges, I think, the black-hole gravity of a human skull, and the way it can suck human attention towards it. However many flies there are around, and however many bruises there are on the apples, a bowl of fruit remains a bowl of fruit first and a vanitas second; it's emblematic meaning being a product of our knowing contemplation.

A skull, on the other hand, however brilliantly and realistically it is painted, strikes us first and inescapably as a symbol, and only second as a physical object like any other which can be depicted on canvas (and the first effect may be so strong that we never quite get round to the second). Holbein, I suspect, knew that, if he put it on the clutter of the table along with lute and the globe and the books, it would stand out like day-glo sticker.

It's very odd really, given the genuine terror and genuine cruelty it can stand for, but there's something almost childish about a skull as a shortcut to mortal gravity. Perhaps that Mexica would have been thinking: "Couldn't we come up with something a bit more subtle?.."

Eject the offenders

I hope the practice of calling a halt to theatrical proceedings when a mobile phone rings – as Hugh Jackman did on Broadway in A Steady Rain (below) the other day and as Richard Griffiths did during a performance of The History Boys – continues to spread. Adopting the show-must-go-on attitude in the face of such discourtesy is all very well, but there's often a sense of mob justice to be satisfied on these occasions. A rage against the offender that can't be satisfied by swivelling in one's seat and muttering darkly. Theatres should attach a condition to the purchase of a ticket making it clear that your right to stay is forefeit if your phone goes off. Nobody can plausibly claim that they "just forgot" to turn off their phone, given the announcements that precede nearly all shows and that the majority of phones can be silenced without completely turning them off. Yes, it would be disruptive for a few weeks – as a spotlight is trained on the offending bleeper and the ushers coax them from the stalls – but, within a month, people wouldn't be nearly so forgetful.

Byron's references to William Turdsworth, which are contained in a collection of his letters that are due to be auctioned by Sotheby's, made me think two things. First, that there seems to be no form of artistic creation that generates quite the same internecine loathing as poetry. I don't know quite why it should be, but perhaps a generalised sense of neglect and cultural demotion by parvenus such as the novel and film finds release in these volcanic fumaroles against fellow poets. Perhaps they're even more horrible about novelists and film-makers and we simply don't get to hear about that. Second, I thought again about that melancholy day in John Murray's parlour when the two volumes of Byron's memoirs were ripped to shreds and burnt in the fireplace. "Turdsworth" is the kind of juvenile joke that I doubt any writer would want preserved for posterity, but you don't write your memoirs with the view of them becoming nothing more than solid fuel. That Byron's wit and energy was constrained by the watchful eye of imagined posterity (which doesn't care about buggery but is unforgiving of literary clumsiness) is surely something to grieve. Turdsworth made the scar ache again.