I first got a look at the great terracotta warriors of Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of China, in a show in Washington a few years back. At the time, I felt it didn’t make any sense to see just a handful of them, away from their thousands of fellows at their home base in Shaanxi province. Today, I took in the whole giant dig, with hundreds of the soldiers on view and thousands more waiting to be excavated. It was a stunning sight - and convinced me more than ever that an aesthetic, art-critical take is almost irrelevant to these objects. For all their visual glory and exquisite crafting, these figures, buried soon after their creation in about 225 B.C.E., were never really meant to be seen. And in some weird sense they are unseeable today, at least with modern, art-oriented eyes. In their massed ranks, they don’t invite or repay careful, connoisseurial scrutiny. Instead they manage to communicate the fact that they once had an entirely practical function: They were meant to serve their lord in the afterlife. If you can’t pretend for a minute that they are actually capable of doing that job, then you’ve missed their point. That is, they weren’t meant to please anyone but the emperor himself – and not by looking good, but by fighting well.
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