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The Boy Shill

How King Tut evolved from Cold War cultural ambassador to today’s corporate pitchman

By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

DEATH is not forever. “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs,” which has been packing in crowds at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art all summer, proves it.

When the embalmers and funerary artisans gathered hurriedly near Luxor, Egypt, some 3,300 years ago to ready a tomb following the unexpected demise of their young king, they knew exactly what to do. Tutankhamun, like every pharaoh, was a god, so he hadn’t died in the conventional sense. The afterlife was more an eternal change of venue for his ka — his immortal spirit. Tut’s ka would need a mummified corpse in which to reside and plenty of gold to evoke the life-sustaining sun. It would also require the daily gear of earthly existence even a boy-king was used to enjoying, such as slaves and a crown and a ceremonial mace, not to mention a lavish mausoleum to hold it all. The mummy, the gear and the tomb would need to last forever.

That is what Tutankhamun got — almost.

Tut’s was the first pharaoh’s tomb excavated in the modern era that hadn’t been more or less looted over the millenniums. The 1922 discovery of his pristine burial chamber, just as the age of mass media began to explode, made global headlines. A star was born. Tut became as big a desert idol as Rudolph Valentino, who had had movie audiences swooning the year before in “The Sheik.” Egyptian motifs became an international design rage. Given the pharaoh’s mammoth celebrity, Tut’s divine ka would eventually find itself holding down an unexpected job. Culture is a soft instrument in promoting a nation’s interests in commercial, political and strategic fields, and Tut has been doing that work with skill and finesse for more than 30 years. He has shuttled around the world since the 1970s, first as a player in the Cold War and now, improbably, during the war on terrorism. The dead boy king was reborn as Ambassador Tut,
Egypt’s most celebrated public messenger.

In 1976, when he first landed on these shores, cultural diplomacy between nations was a serious endeavor with high social purpose. The general proposition then was that government is a problem-solver.

But societies change. Today the establishment’s answer to social problems, big and small, is private enterprise.

The difference between public purpose and private enterprise contains the seed for the critical commotion that has swirled around the Tut exhibition at LACMA — tumult that did not accompany the first American show of the pharaoh’s artifacts. Art museums used to be places of escape and refuge from the commercial world. Now they’re just another roadside attraction. Tut is a marker for that shift.

He’s an unlikely candidate for cultural poster boy. Tut was a minor king in an ancient period of artistic stasis. Not much happened during his nine-year reign, least of all artistically. Without the accident and timing of his tomb’s discovery, the boy king would not have gotten the ambassador job at all.

The LACMA show offers more than four dozen items from that famous grave. Few are first-rate aesthetically. As an art exhibition it isn’t nearly as good as “Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen,” which came to LACMA in 2000 — with hardly any hubbub and at much less expense (and with an alternative spelling of Tut’s full name).

And the grand finale — a laugh-out-loud pair of plasma TV screens, showing CT scans of the mummy that you can see at home on the National Geographic Channel — is a far cry from the solid gold mask that finished off the 1976 show. The mask is perhaps the most significant art object associated with Tut, but Egypt no longer lets it leave the country.

Artistic quality is, however, beside the point for either show. Art is not what LACMA is selling now, nor was it when Tut first came in the 1970s. Celebrity trumps merit in the mass culture world (can you say Paris Hilton?), and Tut is a bona fide star. Cameras follow him wherever he goes.

Richard M. Nixon knew that.

The 37th U.S. president was the man behind “The Treasures of Tutankhamen” in 1976, remembered — for better and for worse — as ushering in the age of the blockbuster in America’s art museums.

The art of diplomacy

NIXON was an acknowledged master of Cold War politics. He knew that cultural diplomacy had great symbolic uses. In 1950, one of the first things the brand-new Central Intelligence Agency did was open the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Paris. The CIA took many of its cues from the efficient Soviet propaganda machine, not to mention Hitler’s Kulturkampf. The Paris front-organization was to act as a continental clearinghouse for American art exhibitions, concerts and literary symposia.

British historian Frances Stonor Saunders laid out the clandestine tale in her impressively detailed book “Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War.” The CCF, until its cover was blown in 1967, sponsored presentations of Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe, Aaron Copland, the Boston Symphony, Dwight Macdonald — a panoply of modern American arts and letters. In 1954, it hosted the International Conference on Twentieth Century Music in Rome.

The Rockefeller and Ford foundations and the Metropolitan Opera lent a helping hand, wittingly and not, as did Museum of Modern Art Chairman John Hay Whitney and MoMA president Nelson Rockefeller. (Rockefeller was also serving then-Vice President Nixon’s boss, Dwight D. Eisenhower, in an official capacity as advisor to the president for psychological warfare.) The CIA used the arts to promote the virtues of free expression in an open society, in contrast to Soviet control and artistic repression. Its furtive project was a kind of “hidden cultural wing” to the economic Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe.

Whether free expression in an open society is, in fact, advanced by a propaganda program controlled by a covert government agency is another matter. But the utility of cultural diplomacy was firmly established. It was plainly on Nixon’s mind in 1974, even as his presidency was imploding in scandal.

Egypt had sent a selection of Tut’s tomb materials to the British Museum three years earlier, in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of their discovery by the British archeologist Howard Carter in the colonial sands of Luxor. Nixon saw an opening where none had been before. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president who cultivated Soviet bloc allies and declared Egypt a socialist state, had come to power when Nixon was vice president. Nasser had denied U.S. requests to display the treasure.

But in the aftermath of Egypt’s defeat by Israel in the Six-Day War and amid deliberations for a settlement of the Middle East conflict, Nasser died. Anwar Sadat, his close ally, succeeded him. Nixon arranged the first visit to Egypt by a U.S. president, establishing full diplomatic relations.

Partly it made for a shiny distraction from his Watergate troubles back home. The June 1974 trip was just weeks before the scandal forced him from office.

But Sadat had inherited a deteriorating relationship with the Soviets, and Nixon was genuinely happy to encourage and exploit the rift. He asked his host why Egypt had sent Tut’s treasures on tour in the Soviet Union after Britain but would not send them to the United States.

“Nixon demanded one more city than Russia and more objects,” Thomas Hoving, the museum director who organized “The Treasures of Tutankhamen,” wrote in his memoirs. “Sadat was sympathetic.”

On Nov. 17, 1976, the first Tut show opened to the public after a black-tie gala at Washington’s National Gallery, an art museum under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. It promptly became a sensation. Nixon was long gone, but he had wanted the boy king to be the face of an improved U.S. strategic position in the Cold War struggle in the Middle East. And he was.

Sadat soon discovered just how much magic Tut could work for Egypt too. American foreign policy always acted in firm support of Israel against Arab threats, but Ambassador Tut became a force of moderation. His glittering mask helped soften callused perceptions in the eyes of bedazzled Americans. Making Egypt less of a boogeyman, the golden teenager helped ease public suspicions about Arab motives in negotiations with Israel.

President Jimmy Carter met at Camp David with Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and agreed on a framework for Middle East peace. On the spring day in 1979 that Egypt and Israel signed a formal treaty ending three decades of war and establishing diplomatic and commercial relations, Ambassador Tut was in New York greeting enthusiastic crowds at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The show’s new backdrop

IF the Cold War gave us Tut 1, the war on terrorism is the backdrop for Tut 2. Terrorism has replaced communism as today’s global threat, and terrorism threatens tourism — Egypt’s bread and butter.

Tourism, especially from Europe, accounts for 25% of Egypt’s economy. In the final quarter of 2004, it edged oil export revenues to become the highest-foreign-currency earner in the nation.

Some travelers come for the beach resorts, like the one in Sharm el Sheik on the Sinai Peninsula that was the target of devastating bombs in July. But lots of countries have resorts. Most tourists come for Egypt’s storied ancient past. Ambassador Tut’s exhibition is a powerful advertisement — with an impressive record of results.

Hosni Mubarak came to power when Sadat was assassinated almost 24 years ago, and he has worked hard to cultivate and protect tourism — too hard, say human rights observers chagrined by brutal police tactics. The attack in Sharm el Sheik, where Mubarak keeps a vacation villa, is only the most recent threat to the travel industry. It was first thrown into jeopardy in 1992, when insurgents killed a British tourist at the Karnak temple complex.

Terrorist assaults escalated, reaching a devastating crescendo five years later. In September 1997, nine people were slain on a German tourist bus outside Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. A month after that, 58 tourists, mostly Swiss, were slaughtered at Hatshepsut’s Temple in Luxor. Visits by foreign travelers ground to a near halt.

Since then tourism has spiked and fallen, riding waves of news — Sept. 11, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and now the Sinai bombings. Despite repeated setbacks, in the last dozen years the industry has grown at twice the rate of Egypt’s economy. An unprecedented 8.1 million foreign visitors came to Egypt last year, according to a government report, two-thirds of them from Europe.

That was a 34% jump over 2003 figures. The dramatic rise coincided with a European tour by Ambassador Tut.

Glad-handing the tourists

THE show now at LACMA originated at the Museum of Ancient Art in Basel, Switzerland, in April 2004. Next it went to Bonn, Germany’s Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic. In the 1997 massacres that nearly sank the Egyptian travel industry, Swiss and German tourists had been the primary victims. Tut was sent to invite them back.

He traveled to Basel with Suzanne Mubarak, the Egyptian president’s wife, who presided at the opening festivities. As cultural diplomacy it was only appropriate. Tut 2, like Tut 1, involved a formal exchange between governments. In the grandiloquent words of Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, the show was “a message of peace to the whole world that speaks too much now about terrorism.”

But in the United States, Tut 2 represents something entirely different. The Cold War is long since over, and the technique of cultural diplomacy that characterized the era has withered as a Washington pastime. Instead, corporatism is the new driving force.

The exhibition is said by organizers to be the most expensive art museum show ever mounted, with Tut’s artifacts insured for $650 million. When the show came to the U.S., the loan fee rose to $5 million per museum. (Basel paid $3.9 million.) It’s not that the United States is richer than Switzerland or Germany. Americans, unlike Europeans, simply don’t provide much tourism to Egypt. The money is changing hands upfront.

Yet the biggest contextual difference between the shows is this: Unlike Tut 1, and unlike Tut 2 in Europe, the U.S. version does not involve a formal exchange between governments. The State Department did not pave its way, as Henry Kissinger did 31 years ago, and the National Gallery of Art, with all its official pomp and circumstance, is not on board. The tour is instead an arrangement between a foreign government and an American business conglomerate, led by AEG (formerly the Anschutz Entertainment Group). The National Gallery was replaced by an art museum in Hollywood, complete with a red carpet, klieg lights and celebrities.

The change from public sponsorship to corporate packaging mirrors the political sea change in the U.S. between 1979, when Tut 1 finished its blockbuster national tour, and 2005. It brackets the Reagan-Bush era and the decline of liberal democratic ideals and the rise of corporatist political philosophy.

For decades standard practice for art museums has been to encourage corporations to donate a portion of their profits, in exchange for concrete benefits such as tax breaks and intangibles like community goodwill. Tut 2 stands that tradition on its head. AEG is using tax advantages inherent in the nonprofit sector to leverage tens of millions of dollars in expected corporate profits. Intangibles like hoped-for audience goodwill and possible future visitors are left for the compliant art museum. Tut’s job has evolved — from cultural diplomat to corporate shill.

The formal cultural exchange that happened among Nixon, Sadat and Carter in the 1970s is impossible to imagine today. The symbolism wouldn’t work. U.S. policy in the Middle East is pegged on the export of American-style democracy, which does not describe today’s Egypt. And Mubarak’s police crackdown has sent many Egyptian terrorists abroad, including 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta, fugitive Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri and Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who masterminded the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

But private cultural exchange unfolds on a playing field separate from official channels. In a global corporate civilization, “War of the Worlds” transcends limitations imposed by an actual war in Iraq.

Tim Leiweke, head of AEG, understands. He told USA Today in June, “I’m not sure there’s so much difference between Tutankhamun and Celine Dion.” The observation is vulgar, and one that any distinguished art museum would disdain. But that does not mean it is inaccurate. AEG, like the CIA before it, has no interest in art. One turned history into agitprop; the other turns it into spectacle.

But both demand deception, however subtle. One small example: In LACMA’s golden galleries, we are discreetly told about the daily life of Tut’s “servants” rather than his slaves, as if some dynastic CEO had hired them from Buckingham Nannies and Merry Maids.

Aside from the inevitable intellectual corruption, corporatism also means that someone somewhere will get rich, while most of the rest will get trickled-down on. Sure, a $30 ticket to LACMA is cheaper (and safer) than a plane ticket to Luxor. But it’s more than twice the cost of a ticket to “Pharaohs of the Sun” just five years ago, with less than half the artistic satisfactions. Corporatism thrives by squeezing more money for investors out of less product for consumers.

Tut 1 staged a diplomatic loan of celebrity artifacts from Egypt to the U.S. — a handoff from the West’s oldest superpower to its youngest one. Tut 2 extols something different: the triumphal ascendancy of the corporate ka.

Christopher Knight is The Times’ art critic. Contact him at [email protected].
Photo by AP