Art and Destruction in the Trivialization Era

March 29, 2015
Art and Destruction in the Trivialization Era
Estella Carpi
Estella Carpi Non-Resident Fellow in Social Anthropology

The art-violence binary has widely been discussed in the literature and in the mass media in terms of aesthetic representation of political and social violence.

In light of the recent destruction of ancient artifacts and manuscripts – original and non – in the Iraqi city of Mosul at the hands of Da’esh, as well as in the ancient city of Nimrud, Hatra and Nineveh, capital of the ancient Assyrian kingdom, following the kidnapping of about 220 Assyrians in the North-East of Syria, it is important to explore the phenomenon of artistic destruction as a strategy of psycho-social war waged by armed groups, both governments or other social groups.

As Amr al-Azm, a Syrian archaeologist now residing in the US, has recently affirmed, Da’esh has certainly not opened the process of looting artifacts in Syria, which was already undertaken by other armed groups and the regime itself in the clashes; however, Da’esh has surely accelerated and intensified that process.

Armed groups, like any other social group, tend to build and preserve their ethnic, religious and ideological characters, and therefore make sure to attack monuments and places of worship that best define the identity of their “victims”.

Many are the acts of vandalism on works of art in the course of human history: from the ancient Romans, who razed to the ground Carthage and Jerusalem. Likely, the Germanic tribe of the Vandals invaded Rome in 455 AD. Napoleon Bonaparte remains among the best-known historical figures who used to plunder his territories of conquest. Churches and ancient villages of the Soviet Union were demolished in the Communist and Nazi eras. The same happened in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge built their military bases next to Angkor Wat, a complex of Buddhist temples. Or again, the Croats in the former Yugoslavia war destroyed the famous sixteenth-century bridge in Mostar and Serbs destroyed the Begova Mosque in Sarajevo. In Kosovo the central archives of the Islamic community and more than a third of the 600 mosques of the province were damaged. All these events seem to suggest a deliberate repudiation of human civilization.

In the Middle East this repudiation was repeatedly expressed through the destruction of historical symbols representing different communities, like in the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), or through damaging the Shi‘a holy sites in Karbala and Najaf in Iraq at the hands of Saddam Hussein in the 1991 revolts against the regime. Similarly, Taliban plundered the national museum in Kabul and destroyed the huge statue of Buddha in Bamiyan, as Mullah Omar ordered the destruction of all idols worshipped outside of God by “the infidels”.

In the act of vandalism against works of art, the intentional annihilation of cultural and historical references to other communities is perceptible, as well as the basic misunderstanding about the uses and interpretations of any community other than their own. For example, the Buddha is for believers an incarnation of the episodes of his own life. Its statue is a biography, meant to guide people through physical gestures and postures: the statue of the Buddha is thus not an idol to be worshipped, as a fatwa of Mullah Omar was reporting while requiring its destruction in a bid to move war against idolatry.

In the capacity of present witnesses in an era permeated by nihilism, in which everything, as was said in Faust by Wolfgang Goethe, deserves to perish, we continue to create associations and see a proliferation of activists who try to protect these historic remains, pillars of contemporary cultures. For example Ahmed Saleh, the pseudonym of a young Syrian activist, entered his country armed with a camera to capture the damage of artifacts in Syria. These attempts, however, are ineffective in a reality in which destruction weapons are easily obtainable by all.

The psycho-social war that “art vandals” undertake through the destruction of this sort of existential landmarks highlights the non-passivity of such inanimate objects within a social and cultural code. These objects act within human imaginaries, are able to change events, interact with their creators in a changeable way throughout history. The intrinsic value that humankind-produced objects own is expressed by the morality that different communities attribute to them. In fact, artifacts express the Weltanschauung of their promoters, which they and those who want to understand their interpretation and embrace the same morality, even for a moment only, can decode.

The expression and acceptance of a moral code are made on the basis of our recognition of our predecessors’ success, which becomes, hence, a part of our lives. To exemplify the different moral interpretations that can be advanced about art and destruction, Naomi Klein has described the repeated process of destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq as an attempt towards a neoconservative “utopia of a free market.”

The goal of destruction is the persistence of collective socio-cultural community, and the demolition of alternative systems of thought to what the art vandal yearns to become the only dominant. Such strategies of symbolic war that act on thought – and not only on bodies – have often been used by the international powers which now disdain the current “artcide” committed by Islamic extremists, and reify the latter as the only inhuman and uncivilized groups. It is sufficient to recall the terra nullius concept (“no man’s land”) in Australia, that is the destruction of the aboriginal civilization that Britain operated in Oceania from the late eighteenth century on. Or even the destruction of the native indigenous civilizations in the Americas, intensified since the sixteenth century. The artistic and cultural vandalism carried out by the developed world is also much more recent: modern art structures were damaged by the US invasion of Iraq (2003), after the local cultural life had long since been paralyzed by regional wars (in both Gulf Wars) and the anti-Saddam international sanctions after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (1990-1991). The fact that the Bush administration contributed to the demolition of the Iraqi national identity[1] should lead the public to be wary of unilateral readings of art and violence, according to which the vandal may be only “the barbarian”, the other to the self; today, so to speak, the “armed Muslim”; the only one capable of conducting the cultural and psychological destruction of entire societies.

Therefore, the cultural heritage itself becomes a weapon of physical and moral destruction. Destroying means demolishing even the most remote hope that art can act as a healing tool in any country ravaged by war and keen to be rebuilt. Artistic vandalism is an attack on the social values ​​of a civilization and against egalitarianism, which allows – and encourages – the intimate encounter of the public with art objects[2].

In the media we mainly discuss the public interest in art, which requires protection. Paradoxically, the laws punishing the artistic vandalism are still missing, to say the least, since art is not identified as a field in its own within the general legal category of vandalism. Not even the reasons behind vandalism against works of art have so far been sufficiently explored, especially in the case of economically motivated vandalism, more difficult to resolve and punish. Aside from the fact that the laws on artistic vandalism are extremely vague and scant[3], the destruction is an aggressive act against the will of society, not only against its own values ​​and consciousness. It is in fact the narcissism of the official forms of society, the internationally recognized and the dominant ones, that determine which objects are to be venerated and preserved. In this regard, Italian journalist Domenico Quirico recently stated that it was good for the West to have looted the Eastern works of art in the past: now they would be demolished by Da’esh, which however does not represent us at all, injuring the social narcissism of the West, which protects within its art museums what it plunders elsewhere.

By damaging an artwork that symbolizes the group or society to which the vandal is the enemy – or, paradoxically, to which (s)he belongs – a high sense of control is acquired, that reverses the oppression that the vandal perceives from her/his same group, from the enemy, or from both, for Otherness is itself the founding substance of Identity.

If, as stated, a social order and its human capital are embodied by the object that is destroyed, destruction also aims to capitalize on public rage to draw attention to a specific “cause” – mostly identified as social or religious – as if the audience homogenously represented in all spaces and times the international community patron of art and order. This is the current case of Da’esh in Syria and Iraq.

Therefore, artworks venerated by entire societies are deliberately selected as ad hoc targets of violence by the vandal, be it the State, a set of States, de-institutionalized groups or groups banned from the common moral order.

The deeper wound, and far more difficult to cure, is not destruction per se, but rather the fact that, when what humanity collects throughout history gets destroyed, the instinct to production itself is killed by nihilism. Recalling the concept of the “banality of evil” advanced by Hannah Arendt, we are now in the era of trivialization, in which behaviors that are generally considered as abject in the universal moral orthodoxy, are applied unconditionally while remaining normal in their regular occurrence.

[1] Stone, P.G. and Farchakh Bajjaly, J. (2008) The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq. Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press.

[2] For further details see: Williams, M. J. “Framing Art Vandalism: a Proposal to address Violence against Art”, Brooklyn Law Review 01 (2009), vol. 74, Issue 2.

[3] The other interesting factor is to what extent art vandalism acts are underreported, in that museums are accountable for them.