Philip Hensher: The art of death on a mass scale

At any period in history, the Aztecs' customs would have been regarded as abhorrent
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The Independent Online

Suppose that a major museum here has just mounted an exhibition largely devoted to mass murder. Many of the objects in it were used in the ritual slaughter of thousands of people. They were killed in the most brutal way, having their hearts torn out in public and, sometimes, a burning torch rammed into their chest cavity. The victims were of all ages, and some of the objects were specifically of use in the sacrifice of children.

You might expect the organisers of the exhibition to display some kind of moral position on these atrocities. It might even occur to you to wonder whether museums should really be paying attention to these repulsive people. What might surprise you is that the exhibition not only takes a morally-neutral position on the subject, but actually seems to regret the fact that they were subsequently conquered.

The Aztecs and their last king Moctezuma, currently the subject of an exhibition at the British Museum, were undoubtedly a most evil society. They used human sacrifice on a massive scale as a tool of state control.

At one festival in 1484, some authorities think as many as 20,000 prisoners were slaughtered in four days. If no wars had recently taken place to supply sacrificial victims from the defeated, the Aztecs would force defeated tribes to fight as an artificial spectacle.

The objects they left behind are witnesses to this barbaric cruelty. In the Royal Academy's exhibition, two years ago, there was a sculpture of a priest in a coat made of flayed human skin. Here there are sculptures with inbuilt basins to hold human hearts; boxes to contain the entrails of sacrificed children; reliefs of Moctezuma against a background of dozens of human hearts.

What really makes you wonder is that some of these objects are offered up to us as aesthetically interesting and even beautiful. The eagle sculpture holding human hearts is, we are told, a triumph of the sculptor's art. I really don't get it. It does no good to pretend these objects are morally neutral; they are disgusting and barbaric, and the only point of looking at them is to learn the horror of some of our shared human past. No doubt some of the machetes used in the Rwandan massacres were well-made, too.

Cultural relativism has made some leaps in understanding possible, and it is important not to judge past societies by our own standards. In this case, cultural relativism has gone a long way towards presenting the conquest of the Aztecs as a terrible shame. Certainly the Spaniards were, by our standards, immensely brutal themselves. Certainly, as well as carrying out their own mass slaughters in battle, they unwittingly introduced European diseases which killed many of the indigenous people.

But none of that negates the truth that the Aztecs, or Mexica as this exhibition calls them, were barbaric, ruling by public execution on an immense scale. Many of the subjugated tribes that the Aztecs had conquered, indeed, joined with Cortes and the Spanish forces to ride against Moctezuma.

Often, in dealing with the past, we have to hold our noses. However, this approach has definite limits. I hope we will never come to the point where the instruments of genocide of the Nazis or of the Khmer Rouge are offered to us in aesthetic mitigation. The scale of the Aztecs' barbarism places them on the far side of a line which divides civilisation from its opposite. At any period in history, their customs would have been regarded as abhorrent.

Why, with the passage of time, should anyone pretend that their hideous artefacts have become morally neutral?

Students fit only for corrections

In a bizarre article, the vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, Terence Kealey, exhorted male, heterosexual, academic tutors to "enjoy" their attractive women students as "a perk". These antediluvian views, however, bear very little relation to reality. When I started work at Exeter University, I was preserved from any mental transgression by the thought that in a week's time, I'd be correcting their spelling. Many have claimed there is something erotic in the teacher-pupil relationship. It's hard to contemplate flirtation, however, when your red pen is hovering over a dangling modifier.

If the LSO can do it, why not the Sugababes?

When Keisha Buchanan left the Sugababes last week, a philosophical milestone was passed. She was the last of the three original Sugababes. The current line-up contains no one who was in the three that started out.

There is a piquant legal precedent of the original members of Yes, who were prevented from touring under that name because a later formation was already using it. It seems unlikely that the original three would be allowed to reform and call themselves the Sugababes.

There is no reason why it should not go on forever.We don't expect the London Symphony Orchestra to contain any original members. String quartets replace one member after another. Dozens of people have been in The Fall.

The philosophical conundrum about the old knife which had its blade replaced, then its handle without becoming a new knife just got quite a lot more glamorous.

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