On the chopping block: everyone’s culture

The ISIS destruction of ancient cultural sites in Iraq reaches beyond politics to the very idea of free and open thought

The world is filled with wonders I’ll never see. I take some comfort in this. We are a social species, more interesting together than apart, and I like the idea that discoveries I’ll never make are still out there, waiting, for someone. Until a few days ago, those wonders included the ancient cities of Nimrud, Hatra, and Dur-Sharrukin, sites of incalculable archaeological and art-historical importance.

No more. The three have been largely turned to rubble, the latest victims in a devastating series of crimes against memory by the zealots of the Islamic State, or ISIS. As each site fell, a small but vital slice of human knowledge disappeared with it.

"The Palaces at Nimrud Restored," as imagined by the city's first excavator, A.H. Layard (A Second Series of the Monuments of Nineveh, London 1853, pl. 1 detail, after a sketch by James Fergusson). Wikimedia Commons

“The Palaces at Nimrud Restored,” as imagined by the city’s first excavator, A.H. Layard (A Second Series of the Monuments of Nineveh, London 1853, pl. 1 detail, after a sketch by James Fergusson). Wikimedia Commons

Continuing reports of the destruction of irreplaceable archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria leave us here at ArtsWatch feeling, like much of the world, frustrated and helpless. What can we do? Not much, except to continue to exercise our curiosity about the life around us, and ask questions. Headlines sometimes refer to the ISIS actions as “vandalism,” but what’s been happening goes far beyond that: vandals use cans of spray paint, not bulldozers. These latest targets had held some of the oldest seeds in the memory bank of human culture: Nimrud was established in the thirteenth century B.C., Dur-Sharrukin in the eighth century B.C., Hatra in the third or second century B.C. All three are in or near ancient Mesopotamia, the “cradle of civilization.”

The cradle has rocked. What’s going on here, it seems, is not just an act of war against people, or even a war of ideas. It’s a war against the very idea of ideas, aimed at obliterating thought itself. ISIS militants, as Anne Barnard reports in the New York Times, call ancient art “idolatry that must be destroyed,” and have gone about doing so. (She also reports that what the militants do not turn into rubble, they sell on the black market to help finance their operations.)

All of this seems far off from what we do here at ArtsWatch. And the destruction of cultural sites in the volatile Middle East, while lamentable, seems of vastly lesser consequence than the unconscionable loss of life, via beheadings and more modern means of slaughter, in a shifting and seemingly never-ending war. But we’re all connected, and ISIS has targeted ancient art and artists for a very specific reason: because art trades in ideas, and ideas are the enemy of an aspiring religious-totalitarian regime. At ArtsWatch we think and write about what our artists think and do in the theater, dance, museums and galleries, music stages, and movie palaces: small potatoes in the larger geopolitical scheme of things. Except, while the stakes are lower (and thank goodness for that), the potatoes aren’t so small. Our art reflects our culture, questioning it, prodding it, affirming it, poking at its edges in sometimes uncomfortable ways. For our artists, The Other looms big: what it means to be different and the same, who’s included in what and how, what the nature of a multiple society is, how belief and accommodation coexist. And sometimes, our art simply expresses the unexpected loops and rambles of an unfettered mind. In other words, precisely the sort of free-wheeling thinking that can drive a zealot rooted in a strict medieval mindset nuts. And so, the zealot cries enough.

In a way, the calculated destruction of cultural sites is an act of perverse utopianism – a belief that if only the world is scrubbed free of all ideas except those set down in a particular magical text, everything will be all right and the world will live in harmony. That sort of savage puritanism goes beyond merely rewriting history for political or ideological ends, a familiar corruption that takes place daily in legislative halls and pulpits and the editorial offices of partisan publications. The destruction of art and cultural sites by ISIS seeks to wipe out history – or any history that deviates from the prescribed history. These latest acts of cultural annihilation take their place alongside other such atrocities of the imagination as the smashing of shrines in Timbuktu in 2012, and the Taliban’s blowing up of giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan in 2001, and on and on, at least as far back as the fervid friar Savonarola’s 15th century bonfires of the vanities, and maybe to the consuming hellfires of Sodom and Gomorrah: destroy knowledge and expression, control minds.

Against this blunt force in the Islamic State-controlled territories of northern Iraq, brave individuals have been making lists and surreptitiously taking photographs of endangered sites, hoping to preserve at least a memory of the obliterated memories. They follow in the steps of many others who have taken pains to protect cultural treasures during wartime, among them the curators of the Hermitage Museum who smuggled valuable artworks to the comparative safety of the countryside during World War II’s Siege of Leningrad. And the National Museum of Iraq, looted and vandalized in 2003, has just reopened in Baghdad after a dozen years of repatriation and repair, this time with thick protective iron bars.

Here at ArtsWatch, we often champion the new – art that breaks from tradition, embarks on new ways of reflecting a rapidly changing culture, gives old questions fresh spins. We believe in that: Life is change, and art should change with it. But we also believe firmly in the wealth of cultural expression we’ve inherited. Cloaked in the armor of comparative stability, we are free to debate which parts of the past to keep, and which to let go. Should the city fix and keep Michael Graves’s troubled but iconic Portland Building, or cut its losses and tear the thing down? What about Memorial Coliseum: retrofit, or level? Build a new bridge across the Columbia River, or scrap the whole idea? As individuals, we may not agree with whatever decision comes down, but as a culture we have a choice in the matter: no one’s blowing things up because they feel like it, or their concept of a deity told them to.

Assyrian Lamassu at the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago. From Khorsabad, entrance to the throne room Neo-Assyrian Period, ca. 721-705 B.C. Wikimedia Commons

Assyrian Lamassu at the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago. From Khorsabad, entrance to the throne room Neo-Assyrian Period, ca. 721-705 B.C. Wikimedia Commons

We don’t want to be trapped in the past, but we believe that understanding the past is key to understanding the present and future, and any attempt to destroy access to the past is at heart totalitarian. So we pay attention to Shakespeare, and Haydn, and Austen, and Leonardo, and Palladio, and Homer, and Virgil, because they shape us: what they were, we are, at least in part. And we have the advantage of viewing them from our now as we try to understand them in the context of their now. We don’t need to believe in ancient Assyrian deities, for instance, to be awestruck by carved-stone depictions of the eagle-winged, bull-bodied, human-headed lamassu that guarded ancient gates, and to wonder over what aspect of the emerging cultural mind created such a being, and to believe that such remnants of early culture and belief should be kept in our collective consciousness. That’s what culture’s about. Without the old, there would be no new. Kill the past, kill the future.

Nobody’s coming to get us at ArtsWatch. We’re free to think what we think, write what we write, explore with our readers the peaks and valleys and waysides of the cultural world as it expresses itself in the relative safety of the Pacific Northwest. Lucky us. But isn’t that the point? Whether we make art or write about it, we enjoy a freedom of expression that for much of the world is little more than a tantalizing dream – or a threat to theocratic purity of thought.

We are more interesting together than apart. That’s the wonder of the world. And when anyone takes that splendid, messy, infuriating, provocative, compelling variety away from us, anywhere, we all lose. So: to Nimrud, Hatra, and Dur-Sharrukin, places I’ve never seen, and never will. Your loss is yours mainly, and the people of Iraq’s, who bear the brunt of war. But in some vital way it’s my loss, too. We’re all diminished. And that’s not vandalism. It’s a crime against modernism, a repudiation of the very concept of the open mind, and an assassination of the multiplicities of the past.

One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    Thank you Bob, from the heart as well as the head. When you destroy a piece of art, you kill the artist’s and the culture’s soul, not just its memory, which is quite bad enough.

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