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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

UN Art

Dove of Peace, mosaic copy of
13th century original, presented
by Pope Paul II during his
1979 visit to the UN.
Whether art-related or not, as we plod through our daily work, most of us have known the feeling from time to time of "walking on eggshells" as we try to get the job done without offending a client or coworker. Some of us are better at it than others. Those with the experience of working in retail sales know the feeling intimately. Sometimes you have the feeling you might just as well have gone into the diplomatic corps. On a recent vacation cruise, we had as our dinner companions a delightful elderly gentleman (retired interior designer of retail spaces) and his fuss-budget wife who perfectly fit the stereotype of the "Jewish grandmother." To say she was a picky eater would be like saying Picasso was good at drawing. We lost track of the number of times she sent back her dinner entrees, sometimes twice in a single evening. We nicknamed them Sears and Senderback. The waiter though, an Italian gentleman if there ever was one, was always the perfect diplomat (as well he should be inasmuch as his tip depended on making everyone happy). He would have made a good UN Secretary General...or at least his assistant.

Elephantine in more ways than one.
Speaking of which, filling that post in real life is a South Korean gentleman named Ban Ki-Moon. Rather than walking on them, one of his duties is to diplomatically tiptoe among the fragile eggshells (and egos) involved in the handling of the many gifts of fine art donated to the United Nations each year. How do you tell an ambassador from a small, Pacific Island nation that his prized, stuffed, prehistoric fish has no place among such magnificence as a 2,700-year-old gilded statuette of the Egyptian god, Osiris, or a 2,000-year-old burial mantle from Peru? Or perhaps you'd like to deal with the gift of a life-size bronze statue from Kenya (left) whose freakishly large appendage left little doubt that it was a bull elephant. (A bit of improvisational landscaping tended to minimize this problem.) Even though he oversees one of the biggest and most valuable art collections on earth, Ki-Moon has no background in the arts. Such considerations would only muddy the water. His job is purely diplomatic.

The Code of Hammurabi (replica),
The original is in the Louvre.
The UN version of Picasso's famous work favors
a warm, tan to brown tone as opposed to Picasso's
shades of gray.
But lest you believe that UN art also means bland, UNart, hanging on the wall outside the Security council is the only authorized tapestry of Picasso's Guernica, on permanent loan from the estate of the statesman, former governor of New York, and former Vice President, Nelson Rockefeller. Nearby is a replica of a stone marker carved with the first written code of laws, given down my Hammurabi, king of Babylon nearly 4,000 years ago. It was a gift from Iraq. One thing you won't find displayed at the UN is artwork involving maps--too controversial (too many disputed borders). From an artistic standpoint, Ki-Moon sees his job as keeping the UN from starting to look like a curiosity shop, and making sure the fine art gifts are displayed in such a way as to enhance the minimalist style of architecture of the "home office." From a diplomatic point of view, his work is very much like that of the waiter on our cruise ship, to get the job done without offending anyone.

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