Miriam Goodall: Sex, Class, and Pearls

Reviewing the Pearls exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum

It is becoming a fashion to construct exhibitions around one single concept, material or object. In 2012, the Royal Academy produced Bronze, the Tate has followed with Iconoclasm, and the Victoria and Albert museum are currently showing Pearls. These exhibitions have the potential to be incredibly wide-ranging and intellectually exciting. They change the ways in which the works of art are in dialogue by bringing together unconnected ideas. The relationship between two works is no longer predicated on similarities such as age; instead, these exhibitions ask us to examine something new like the physical media in which the works were formed. However, the Victoria and Albert museum’s Pearls is neither new nor exciting: it reinforces traditional preconceptions about the prestige and status of the pearl without questioning the ramifications or validity of these views. This objectionable conservatism manifests in sexism and class prejudice.

The exhibition was not entirely free from new perspectives. The first few rooms took great pains to explain that pearls are not, as the myth goes, formed from a grain of sand, but are created by the penetration of a parasite into a bivalve mollusc. When the bivalve opens to let water and nutrients in, a parasite in the water enters the shell and embeds itself in the mother-of-pearl substance (the ‘nacre’) that covers the inside of the shell. The mollusc protects itself from this invasion by creating multiple layers of nacre which build up around the intruder and eventually form the pearl. The sexual and reproductive implications of this are endless. There is the labial-like appearance of a bivalve, the penetration, the embedding of the parasite into the soft side of the shell, and the mother-of-pearl material which reproduces itself to form a new object. The video included in the exhibition seems to recognise this without explicitly stating it. It bears a striking and quite hilarious similarity to the GCSE Biology videos many of us were forced to sit through, in which a red cartoon womb takes in little swimming sperms, so it is immensely frustrating that the exhibition never makes this connection, never says “this is a bit like sex”. (They could just concede that the act bears some similarity to human reproduction, but they do not even do this.) Because sex is still a taboo at the V and A, they ignore all the startlingly obvious parallels, and so they never give themselves the platform to discuss the massive incongruity inherent in the iconography of the pearl. The pearl is one of the most frequently-used symbols of chastity, and yet the way in which it is produced is similar to impregnation. Instead of starting this interesting discussion, they use a considerable length of wall-space to repeat (in a somewhat stultifying manner) their exultation of the pearl as the emblem of virginity and Christian purity.

The pearl does have this symbolic status, but rather than tacitly accepting the disparity between the pearl’s creation and the meanings we have bestowed upon it, the exhibition could critique this disparity. We identify the pearls as rare, immensely financially valuable, beautiful and pure. If they bestow these characteristics onto the women who wear them, do we start to see women as similar commodities? Or were women commoditised before they started to wear pearls? At a time when feminism is proliferating all over the planet, these are the sort of questions an exhibition like this needs to examine.

Pearls could redeem itself by being intellectually rigorous and historically detailed. Unfortunately, it fails on that front too. The manner in which the exhibits are set out does not help its audience to analyse how the iconography of pearls and the attitude towards them have changed over time. It is loosely chronological but the message of the exhibition is confused by the unsystematic interweaving of themes. The curators aim to present the symbolism of pearls in the Wilton Diptych as representative of the manner in which royalty has employed pearls, so they position the pearl which Charles I gave to his daughter nearby as a point of contrast. However, this is left unclear, because the general attitude to pearls had changed so much in the intervening 250 years. By 1649, the status of the pearl had completely changed; in the Wilton Diptych, Richard II is figured as an emblem of pure Christian piety, whereas Charles’ pearl was viewed as a symbol of his lavish lifestyle, at odds with the Puritan “good old cause”. The exhibition wants us to understand that royals used pearls almost as propaganda, but cripples itself by not acknowledging the huge difference between these two ages.

Moreover, the curators’ decision to display the pearls in small ornate cabinets does nothing for coherence of thought. Spectators are forced to crowd round these cases and peer at the jewellery which, secreted away, remains rarefied and inaccessible. It celebrates and fetishizes the value of the pearl and removes the possibility of any cultural or intellectual engagement. This was made noticeable by the asinine comments made by some of my fellow spectators; jewels such as “oooh what a wonderful piece” and “simply stunning” and “just beautiful” represent the majority of the commentary. It is impossible to see into the cabinets clearly and therefore it is unclear on what evidence these statements were founded. I cannot criticise aesthetic appreciation, but when it is so evidently lacking in substantive basis, it is risible.

The figuration of the exhibition clearly reveals the ideology on which it is based: the celebration of privilege and wealth. Mikimoto’s innovative advances in pearl-farming in the 1890s meant that pearls could be artificially created, and thus there was a huge increase in the number of pearls on the market. The exhibition laments the commercialisation and increased breadth in the market. Firstly, it expresses disappointment that the wearing of pearls is no longer the reserve of “ladies of high lineage” but is now open to anyone, specifically “media-friendly celebrities” who can wear them on any occasion. Most striking is how modern cultured pearls are presented in comparison to the natural pearls. Large numbers of them are unceremoniously dumped in buckets at the exit to the exhibition, rather than thoughtfully positioned in decorative display cases. This issue is undoubtedly a thorny one: we should not condone the over-production and consequent wastage of pearls, but the curatorial focus was not on the wastage but on the corruption of the market. I do not support excessive consumption, but the sense of despondency which arose from large amount of low-quality pearls on the market was truly objectionable. It was grief which stemmed from the realisation that purity was no longer valued. This attitude is as antiquated as the pearls themselves.

Perhaps the show’s celebration of wealth finds its roots in the V and A’s partnership with the Qatar Museums Authority. According to Forbes,Qatar is the world’s richest country per capita and its royal family is obsessed by the accumulation of valuable artworks. Sheikha Al-Mayassa, the sister of the current emir, is expected to spend £600 million on artworks this year. She tops the ArtReview Power100 list which ranks art dealers’ spending power. She is rapidly importing vast numbers of famous western artworks into the Qatari desert. Return flights to Qatar cost around £450, meaning that this art is increasingly the reserve of those who can afford to travel to see it. To hide art away in the air-conditioned private palaces is to take away aesthetic pleasure from many people. It is not a bad thing that the art market is now dominated by the east, but many works are no longer in state museums where they could be seen by millions. We could draw an interesting comparison here. A small number of very wealthy people now dominate the art market in the same way that a small number of people used to own pearls. The Qataris and the V and A share the same sense of cultural elitism, one that is predicated on the celebration of wealth and prestige.

But as one might ask, why review an exhibition that is so obviously going to focus on materialism and consumerism? Having seen it, I did ask myself the same question. But I was seduced by the V and A’s history. It was the first state museum and founded on the principle that great art should be available to the masses. William Morris and other socialist intellectuals of the Victorian age were involved in its conception. One could see it as the prima genitor of Labour’s museum sponsorship scheme. This exhibition is a traitor to that ideology: rather than grappling with the contentious issues surrounding the pearl market and its history, it celebrates consumption and elitism. The seminars which run alongside all such exhibitions now did not aim to educate their audience but chose to teach women “how to wear pearls”. The V and A have made clear their desire to have a socially acceptable audience in the same way that they desire only a socially acceptable person to wear pearls. This attitude had already filtered through to the socio-economic profile of my fellow spectators, most of whom were wealthy, well turned-out women (wearing pearls).

I do not believe that we should ask all exhibitions to provide a radical overhaul of the ways we think about art, but museums are intended to educate and enlighten. It is fascinating to learn about historical symbols and iconography, but the value of these traditions need to be examined and questioned. Instead, the unthinking conservatism displayed in this exhibition reneges on this responsibly; Pearls is sexist and classist and only serves to reinforce the notion that art is the reserve of the wealthy.

Mimi Goodall is a third year English student at Magdalen College. She started the college’s feminist society and is outgoing independent chair of the JCR.

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