Destruction and defacement of art is probably nearly as old as art itself, and ISIS’ actions towards cultural heritage sites in Syria, Libya and Iraq – semi-organized bulldozing, demolishing and looting shrines, mosques and archaeological sites – is hardly without precedent. Crimes against art range from everything including the Mongols’ senseless destruction of Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, to Nazi Germany’s destruction of both Jewish and counter-culture art.
In this sense, ISIS’ methods of ‘cultural cleansing’, destroying that which stands against its worldview, are the same reprehensible tools used by the innumerable tyrants of history for control. Besides demonstrating their power and grabbing the headlines, by eliminating the works of others, ISIS eliminates the room for thought outside of its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Every shrine ruined, or statue leveled, is an attempt to wipe out any history of alternative ideology.
This destruction of art and heritage as censorship is hard for most to stomach, incompatible with western ideas of liberties in artistic expression and religious association. I wonder whether I could I ever condone any kind of action against art, especially the ancient and irreplaceable. For example, take the carrion-like temple remnants of Apamea, framed by its rustic colonnade, one of Syria’s best preserved archaeological sites. Once a major city of the Seleucid Empire, it now looks like “the surface of the moon” – thanks to the ongoing civil war in Syria, it has been stripped of over several centuries’ worth of history. ISIS’ recent destruction of Prophet Jonah’s mosque in Iraq – sharing its site with the remnants of an Assyrian palace, and neglected in terms of archaeological study – may have irretrievably lost valuable insights into the past.
As an Englishman born to a protestant family, it’s hard to overstate the influence that Christianity has had in Britain, touching everything from literature to political and philosophical thinking, and it’s troubling that the leveling of Jonah’s Mosque (believed also to be the tomb of the titular biblical prophet), sacred to Muslims, Christians, and Jews, has severed a link to Christianity’s earliest days. The past is finite – every fresco, every statue and every frieze is a window into the past, illuminating to us the values, artistry and lives of our ancestors and serving as testament to the persistence and progress of civilization.
Ergo, the idea of sabotaging a work either for publicity or political protest should be one met with scorn, especially if the creator has little to do with what you are campaigning against. In protest against the government’s arrest of suffragette leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, the centuries old Rokeby Venus by the Spanish painter Velazquez, was slashed in 1914 by the cleaver-wielding Mary Richardson. Whilst the piece was restored, by tarnishing the work of a man who had as much to do with twentieth century England, and the emancipation of its womenfolk, as fish have to do with land, is not only a trite and shallow means of generating attention, but also a potentially damaging action to our collective heritage.
Even works directly associated with or promoting toxic or hate-filled ideology do not deserve our erasure, but an especially critical eye. Take for example the 1915 American silent film The Birth of a Nation, which gleaned notoriety for its problematic depictions of the KKK and the African American population. The former are lionized as literal knights in shining white bed-sheets, while the later are demonized as lascivious brutes eager to seize and rape the white woman and worthy of lynching. The film played a substantial role in revitalizing the then-withered Klu Klux Klan.
to tarnish art for political gain is irresponsible. to SYSTEMATICALLY eradicate it is MONSTROUS
The fact that the film managed to evoke controversy in an America still beholden to the Jim Crow laws is telling. Despite this, problematic art should not face removal. Judged purely on artistic merit, The Birth of a Nation is a masterpiece, with few films doing more to innovate and contribute to the language of cinema. Even with its troubling content, it serves as a useful insight into how deeply instilled, and unquestioned, racism was in the United States, with the director DW Griffith’s following film Intolerance serving partly as an apology, with much of the offensive content of The Birth of a Nation having to be explained to him.
Art, both belongs to its creator and to the world. In whatever form, no matter how insidious the message, it is worth preserving, if for no reason other than facing up to the darkest parts history. To tarnish art for political gain is irresponsible. To systematically eradicate it is monstrous.