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The boy shill

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

August 28, 2005|Christopher Knight | 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 04, 2005 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
King Tut -- A Critic's Notebook on "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" Aug. 28 said that Egypt had denied U.S. requests to display the tomb treasure before 1976. In fact, 34 small Tut artifacts were exhibited by the Smithsonian Institution in 1961.

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.

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