Historical Preservation & the Humpty Dumpty World of ISIS

There is something quite profound and humbling looking at an ancient artifact. This is also true with an architectural site that was constructed eons ago. Exploring these ancient places and relics is what I call mind-travel. It provides a spacial context for a temporal understanding of our past.

One of the functions of art is to provide a context for interpreting our world. Sometimes that interpretation is immediate. Sometimes the context develops over a long period of time. Art, at best, can do both by being responsive to time itself.

Another function of art is meaning. By using our intelligence and intuition to integrate the details of our experiences we can find meaning in art. All art is abstract no matter how realistic it may appear. What is real and not real is established from an interpretation we invent to simplify our lives. I believe, this process of simplification is how we find happiness. It can create a feeling of being completely satisfied in the moment where time escapes us.

We also cannot separate context from meaning. Context is always changing because of time and cultural tradition. The mosquito net of culture creates a buffer zone shielding us from things we are not ready to understand. If we can not create a context or if that thing has no meaning in any of our traditions, the object becomes inessential, an impostor to what we know to be true.

Another function of art is that of memory. There are many ways people form memories but culturally & historically our memories seem to be very short and exclusive. Art can be a story. Art can take us back in time. Art adds color, beauty and inspirational thought to our lives.

The last and most important function of art is play. It is vital to find the ability to play to create art. Art also encourages us to play to enjoy, understand and fully appreciate it. We sing and dance to music. We solve problems and discover new ideas by allowing ourselves to explore our curiosity. Something extraordinary can be created, invented or learned just through our ability to play. I believe it is one of the essential ingredient that allows culture to grow and change.

Recently we have seen historic art be brutally destroyed. I was told by an old friend, “…almost anything can be justified by history, it is so varied, not all of the same cloth. Even what ISIS is doing has its historical precedent in both the East and in the West.” And there are substantial examples throughout history of people disgusted with any iconic use of an image or object. But something else is going on here, I think. We do not live in a humpty dumpty world anymore. We honor our civilization by remembering history. We respect our past, our heritage. We can and will put the pieces back together again. In fact, we do it all the time. With our modern technology we fabricate copies of historical artifacts in every detail. It is hard to tell which one is the copy and which one is the so called “real” one. So what’s the point ISIS? I am sure ISIS is aware of this. So it is pretty clear that these theatrical events that ISIS is so proud of are just an idle worship of destruction itself.

What ISIS doesn’t seem to understand is that the purpose of historical preservation is not for idle worship and never has been. Civilization has come a long way but history has also showed that people have short memories. We still haven’t got it right yet. Throughout human history we repeat the same atrocities over and over again. But violence is never a solution for anything. Through written documents, old ruins and artifacts we can get a glimpse of history. We want to learn from our mistakes, grow from our accomplishments and be a kinder, wiser and more compassionate civilization.

Objects in particular take on an identity of their own separate from any intentional iconic meaning they might of had in the past. These artifacts in many ways are nothing more than a hollow shell wiped clean of most of the secrets they once contained. We pull these hand-made objects into our existing culture. Give them a new frame, context and some kind of meaning according to our impressions of something we really never knew. We treat them as an artistic object admiring scale, the sense of detail, the material and craftsmanship. We look for any clues that might of been missed that could reveal its purpose. Who made this? we ask. Yes, many of these artifacts do come with a story but it is foreign to us, always incomplete and outside of our cultural buffer zone.

Precariously, time is on arts side. ISIS is only destroying shadows from the old humpy, dumpy world that we keep re-assembling and will continue to do so no matter what. The truth is there are many cultures in this world and many roads on our journey. No one group has a cornerstone on anyone’s path.

Place not thy heart on what passes away; for the Tigris
Will flow after the Khalifs have passed away in Baghdad.
If thou are able, be liberal like the date tree,
And if thy hand cannot afford it, be liberal like the cypress.

                                                                                                                Saadi Shirazi (ch 08, maxim 81)


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.

by Juan David Torres Duarte 

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.

ISIS Militants Destroy Priceless ancient artifacts in Mosul.

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.

Nazi taste

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.

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.

From Juan David Torres Duarte (2015-03-08) essay posted in the oldest newspaper in Colombia, El Espectador. We are proud to carry it here. Read the full article: Destroying Art, The Perfect War Crime
Many thanks to 
Juan David Torres Duarte

When Wrecking Balls Are Swung

Something has changed in this era. Art has shifted off base. Its watered down, covered up because in some places art poses a threat. Yeah really, people are afraid of the power of art. But don’t be fooled. Though we hope it is just an illusion, the reality is the repercussions of the fear of art are devastating.

What is interesting to me is that in many of these same places we find that artist have vigilantly gone underground for survival.  The underground art movement is alive and well.  It’s waiting.  For what?  What’s it protecting?  The artist?  Art?  Women & children?  Historical landmarks?  Cultural integrity?

Art is vulnerable, along with women and children.  So when violent men are angry with some THING, some ideology or some religion they take their violence out on what they are most afraid of.  And art, women and children are easy targets.  Solving problems in this manner is brutally barbaric. It’s misguided thinking to believe violence will solve anything at all.

When the wrecking balls are swung the destruction is overwhelming.  We need to protect our artistic heritage.  Oneway is through diverse and respectful education.  Another is by eliminating poverty.  These same processes also protect women & children.  The United Nations claim that the modern world now is capable of doing these two things.  So why is the world dragging its feet?  What else is going on? Is it just about power and money?  Are too many people still living in the past? …or is it all madness?

What about this THING that shows up from time to time called beauty? Is all art suppose to be beautiful or is it meaning we are searching for?

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