Every museum partakes of our ambivalence toward Eldorado, the kingdom of gold
Art museums and geographical exploration curiously share a common story. The first chapter of the story takes place in Peru. In 1540, the conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro, lost in the strange Amazonian jungle, entrusted one of his men, Francisco de Orellana, to take their remaining brigantine and set off down the Napo River in search of provisions. Orellana did not return. Having reached the confluence of the Napo with the Amazon and, realizing that it was impossible to turn back either by water or by land, Orellana and his men continued down the dangerous river all the way to the sea, miraculously escaping shipwreck, wild animals, hostile tribes, strange illnesses, hunger and thirst. Entering the Atlantic, Orellana and his men skirted the island of Cuba and eventually landed safely on the Spanish coast.
Of the many tales told by Orellana on his return about the strange people of the new realms, the most remarkable one was that of Eldorado, the Golden Man, king of the land of Manoa, where everything is made of gold, down to the paving of the roads. Once a year, according to what Orellana had heard, the king would be covered in gold dust and plunge into a lake that, over the years, had taken on the colour of the precious metal. Not only the king’s dust lay at the bottom; golden artifacts of all sorts were also cast into the lake to honour the pagan gods. There was more gold in this savage region, Orellana told his listeners, than any man had ever dreamt of. His audience believed him, not only because it offered the immediate promise of riches, but because, like certain other travellers’ tales, the story of Eldorado merely lent shape to a deeply rooted ancient myth, that of an earthly paradise of purely material rewards, “pays de délices où abondent les richesses.” Orellana only confirmed an ancestral intuition or desire.
The second chapter takes place in Mexico, some twenty years earlier. Exhausted from the continuing battles, convinced that further struggle was now useless, having decided to attempt capitulation rather than lose not only his freedom but his life, the Aztec king Montezuma, prisoner of the Spaniards, agreed in the summer of 1520 to hand over to Hernán Cortés the vast treasure that his father, Axayacatl, had laboriously assembled, and to swear allegiance to the king of Spain, that distant and invisible monarch whose power Cortés represented. Commenting on the ceremony, the Spanish chronicler Fernando de Oviedo reported that Montezuma was in tears throughout the procedures, and, pointing out the difference between a bond willingly accepted by a free agent and one performed in sorrow by someone in chains, Oviedo quoted the Roman poet Marcus Varro, “What is given by force is not service but larceny.”
The royal Aztec treasure was, by all accounts, magnificent; when assembled in front of the Spaniards, it towered in three golden heaps made up, for the most part, of exquisite utensils whose secret purpose suggested sophisticated social ceremonies; intricate collars, bracelets, wands and fans decorated with many-coloured feathers, precious stones and pearls; and carefully wrought birds, insects and flowers, which, according to Cortés himself, “were, beyond their value, so marvelous, that their very novelty and strangeness rendered them priceless, nor could it be believed that any of the known Princes of this World might possess things like these, and of such quality.” The word Eldorado had not yet been pronounced, but the Spaniards realized that here, before their eyes, lay a fabled realm where even ordinary, everyday objects were made of gold.
Montezuma had intended the treasure to be a tribute from his court to the Spanish king. Cortés’s soldiers, however, demanded that the treasure be treated as booty and that they each receive a fair part of the gold. A fifth of the treasure belonged by rights to the king of Spain, and an equal portion to Cortés himself. A large sum was destined to indemnify the governor of Cuba for the cost of the expedition. The garrison at Veracruz and the leading caballeros were expecting their part, as well as the cavalry, the harquebusiers and the crossbow-men, who were entitled to double pay. This left the common soldiers with about a hundred gold pesos each, a sum so insignificant, compared to their expectations, that many eventually refused to accept it.
Bending to his men’s wishes, Cortés sent for the famed goldsmiths of Azcapotzalco to turn Montezuma’s precious objects into ingots, which were then stamped with the royal arms. The task took the goldsmiths three full days of work. Today, engraved in stone over the door of the Museum of Gold in Santafé de Bogotá, the visitor can read the following verse, addressed by an Aztec poet to the Spanish conquerors: “I am marveled by your blindness and folly, that you undo such beautifully wrought jewels to make bricks out of them.”
For Orellana, the value of the land he thought he had discovered, “a land of notable greatness and richness,” lay in the promise of plunder and financial gain. For Cortés, the value of the works of art presented to him, whose “very novelty and strangeness” rendered them “priceless,” was superseded by the value of the raw material from which the work was made. Since gold itself was the measure of the value of his social transactions, he deemed it right to turn the Aztec artwork into ingots. (In our time, the advertising agency that “discovers” new artists and grants their work market value, follows Orellana; the businessman who buys Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and locks it up in a safe, follows Cortés.)
Two conflicting myths surround Eldorado. One is the generosity of travel, the world as constant opening, the impulse to search that which lies beyond. The other is the obsession with loot, the fever of greed and possession, the closing up of borders and the erection of walls. Every museum partakes of this ambivalence. It exposes and it hoards, it shares and it declares itself sole owner, it maps a strict cartography of its physical space and opens an imaginary vastness of limitless geography and history. It lends value to its contents through its own symbolic existence (vide Duchamp) and overlays that value with another symbol, created for economic purposes.
The evanescent Eldorado (even Orellana confessed that he had only heard about the riches, and never set foot in the kingdom) is the land that is never reached, whose principal merit is that it exists beyond our grasp, as proof of a prize that will never be ours. If we accept it on its own terms, it glitters endlessly, marking a direction, not a destination; if we make it our goal, it vanishes, because it has no existence outside the symbolic realm.