Destroying Art, The Perfect War Crime
There are countless precedents for acts of cultural vandalism like ISIS perpetrated against the Mosul museum. A society's art and cultural history may be its very embodiement of power.
BOGOTA — Art has been one of the chief targets, and victims, of political upheavals and war. Pillaging monuments may have picked up pace in the 19th century and become "respectable" to satisfy the yearnings of Western collectors. It was a time when European states had turned fallen empires into colonies. But art vandalism clearly did not begin or end then. Think of the Vandals. And who can be sure how much patrimony was destroyed in the Reformation or the Thirty Years' War, or by the Iconoclasts in eighth and ninth century Byzantium?
And more recently, at the hands of the bloodthirsty iconoclasts of our time, ISIS nihilists destroyed ancient sculptures at Iraq's Mosul Museum. It appears that some of the statues ISIS ravaged in Mosul were replicas, though not the Assyrian winged bull shown being drilled in video footage.
Since December 2014, several of the city's cultural buildings, including the main library, have been ransacked and had treasures stolen or destroyed. Close to 8,000 books and manuscripts have reportedly been burned, including some dated at more than 5,000 years old.
At their word
Watching footage of the Mosul art being destroyed is painful. The statues seem to acquire a human quality for a moment, which may be why ISIS ordered them wrecked — for being idols and distractions from the warped worship of their God.
The religious argument is not invalid per se. We may suppose ISIS really does wish to remove anything harmful to Islam, or its version of Islam. Since taking Mosul in 2014, ISIS has made Sharia law — again, its reading of it — the law of Mosul, implementing other "smashing" — of social measures such as dismissing women from government and teaching positions.
Yet religion can also be a convenient facade for another, more ambitious objective: power. ISIS sees in these social forms (religion, personal conduct, morality and art) areas where power is wielded, and rightly so.
Art in this case is a repository of a society's representations and history, so destroying it is one simple way to negate that reigning society and its history, or at least make a mark on them. "When I hear the word culture, I reach for my pistol," Hitler's "art" and propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels infamously declared.
Why this contempt for cultural forms, though, when power has so many facets? The answer may seem simple, but is more ambiguous than meets the eye. Regimes, and not just those with radical religious or political tendencies, have resorted to destruction because culture expresses a type of power, and perhaps power itself.
The destruction in Mosul sought to "erase memory," as Iraqi Haifa Zangana wrote in The Guardian. She sees the culprits here as "war criminals." Culture is the first enemy targeted by those who wish to impose a single point of view, because at its best art is an expression of diversity. And diversity is sickening to dictators, however they dress or think or speak.
You can impose your power on culture through destruction — like ISIS or the Taliban, which bombed the Afghan Buddhas in 2001 — or through various forms of "appropriation."
Some of the artworks the Nazis termed "degenerate" were destroyed in May 1933, but others entered the private collections of various Gauleiters and goons. One of them, Hermann Göring, was fond of paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Maurice Vlaminck, all deemed degenerate, of course. Yet he valued the status art bestowed, and that may well be one reason why he built a collection of 1,800 pieces.
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Goebbels visiting the "Degenerative Art" exhibit. Photo: Bundesarchiv
Colombian drug traffickers also liked to collect art — even fake art — in the 1980s, thinking it would help them scale the social ladder.
The Soviet Union banned Expressionist painting after taking power, instead promoting Realism, seen as fit for the workers. It was an appropriation of art and creativity, of a part of the human mind. Appropriation and theft are two other ways of imposing yourself on culture, leaving a people without its cultural references, or scattering them abroad and "smashing" the national spirit in pieces.
The ideology behind the acts is of little importance. The blows have come from all sides: Left and Right, Christians and Muslims, conservative and liberal empires. Spain ransacked the gold of the Americas and knocked down native temples, monuments and idols. The Great Temple of Tenochtitlán and Moctezuma's palaces provided bricks to build the first Christian cathedral of Mexico and residences for the Spanish conquerors.
In the 19th century, Great Britain destroyed a part of Benin's heritage, while sending numerous artefacts to be auctioned or placed in its museums. Yet such actions, which in some cases turn out to be "rescues," are also a form of historical creation or cultural construction. They have allowed us today to view artefacts and even entire segments of buildings that may have otherwise disappeared, like the Pergamon Altar in Berlin or Parthenon Frieze in the British Museum.
The Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei may well recognize the constructive value of such processes. Some of his interventions (like dropping an ancient vase) remind viewers of the relentless destruction of China's heritage, for commercial reasons.
Culture is cyclical and mobile, and for some, intimidating. Hence their need to impose themselves through destruction, appropriation or banishment. That destructive act should perhaps also be considered a part of mankind's cultural heritage.