The Destruction of Art and Antiquities in Our Time

IN MARCH, I attended a demonstration urging US military intervention to protect endangered antiquities in Iraq. My banner read, “Destroying the world’s most ancient culture is a crime against humanity.” As many have statedincluding the Director-General of UNESCO — the ISIS destruction of pre-Islamic antiquities amounts to an act of cultural cleansing, an erasure of the past to serve an enforced sectarian present. No one has the right to remake history. At the very least, the entire international community must continue to speak out on behalf of the artifacts and sites now actively being bludgeoned, and even more, the Iraqi peoples whose history is as much threatened as their population. Now that a little time has passed since the height of the most recent crisis, perhaps we can find some perspective on the topic and the frenzy it raised.

It should surprise no one that the threat to antiquities today — worldwide — is far greater from projects for dams, airports, parking lots, and the rest of the activities of modernization than targeted wholesale devastation. I mention this because I think it offers a way to specify what, qualitatively, is the nature of the issue raised by ISIS’s actions. The effects of modernization parallel what Rob Nixon, in another context, calls “slow violence”: a gradual but devastating change effected almost invisibly on daily life. By contrast, ISIS purveys a sort of “fast violence”: shocking, theatrical, and easily commodified to the Western (addled, distracted) TV viewer, and highly useful for its own recruiting as well. I turn to the video evidence itself below. But it must first be noted that many Iraqi archaeological sites have already been devastated by slow violence as well, and one that cannot be conveniently relegated to Islamic extremism: looting.

In 2008 the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago mounted Catastrophe!: The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past, an exhibition and accompanying catalog (the best of its kind) that describes and pictures in horrifying detail the devastations to archaeological sites caused by hordes of looters, large and small. Just its cover photograph is enough to make one cringe, showing looters in 2004 actively digging at the site of the ancient city of Isin, now a blasted wasteland of hundreds of holes in the earth. As is well known, a rapacious worldwide antiquities market, unconcerned with ethics, fuels this looting; governments meanwhile rarely enforce existing laws. This market is one of the largest sources of funding for ISIS itself — another way besides television in which the organization cynically uses global norms for its own purposes. Under the economic sanctions first imposed in 1990, civil conditions in Iraq have been extraordinarily difficult and unemployment high. Looting is one of the few moneymaking opportunities available to local populations (much like drug production in Afghanistan). Thus a CNN correspondent casually mentions that the threat to antiquities also involves “ordinary people just desperate to make a living.” A prominent archaeologist of Iraq told me long ago that deprivation and economic inequality drive farmers to plow up their fields in search of artifacts, as they have little access to seeds, farm equipment, and other necessities.

Catastrophe! also documents the faster violence of the allied bombs that fell on the Baghdad Museum, blasts made in historic buildings by US tanks, and other related depredations, which attracted more attention at the time. While we are, and should be, outraged by ISIS’s destruction of irreplaceable sites and artifacts, we should be equally so about the more than two decades worth of orchestrated violence, both fast and slow, inflicted on the population of Iraq. We should also keep in mind the damage done to the reputation of the West (and the US in particular) in the process.

The exhibition and publication of Catastrophe! did not lead to an outcry anywhere near as great as the ISIS videos. Perhaps it would have if the primary concern here for all parties was saving antiquities above all else, rather than demonizing the particular group responsible for a certain portion of the destruction.

On this account, it is worth considering the videos themselves as objects. After September 11 we saw repeated video footage of a violent and tragic nature. Naturally we were horrified by this barbaric act of mass murder. At the same time, our reaction largely foreclosed on the kind of reasoned analysis or understanding of the actions at hand, which regrettably moved the US to actions that ultimately undermined our democracy, agencies of justice, and world standing. Considering this, I hope it is possible to denounce the actions of ISIS in the strongest possible way without “rising to the bait” they so clearly dangle before us. More specifically, I hope we can think about countering these actions without reverting to the neocolonial positions that have done much to lead us to the current situation, and on which many current actors, reactionary fearmongers (West and East alike), depend. We must deal with the crisis in a way that takes us forward, not back. For that reason, I deplore the suggestion that things would be better if we had only kept the system by which a very few Western museums, beneficiaries of capitalist might, and colonial empires had kept their hold on a greater majority of all the world’s antiquities.

I am not an archaeologist, and will leave it to specialists to determine the relative numbers of casts and replicas versus original artifacts in the Mosul Museum, but it seems clear at present that there will prove to be a considerable number of original objects among the group, notably those of Hatra. I think we will surely be faced with the prospect of irremediably damaged antiquities. The direct attacks on archaeological sites — Nimrud, Hatra, Khorsabad, and more — make this all the more likely.

No one can doubt that this is a genuine crisis, but the attack on the past made by ISIS is hardly unprecedented. Numerous ancient Near Eastern artifacts, like those of many other cultures, bear traces of systematic mutilation often done in the service of later dynasties seeking to minimize and control the image of earlier rulers. These damages, like those of ISIS, become part of the meaning of the objects on which they are inflicted, and inflect them with ever more complex resonances, as worldly survivors of the dislocations of power. This may be a revelation for committed aesthetes, or those looking for an original or unitary meaning. But iconoclasm East and West bears striking similarities of technique, motivation, and function, and has appeared at moments of cultural crisis throughout world history.

The destruction of artworks and antiquities is hardly the unique behavior of a single group much less an essential property of any culture. We can recall the allied bombs that dropped on the Dresden Museum as on that of Baghdad, or the savage shelling of the Parthenon by Venetian armies that resulted in the disastrous collapse of its roof. If we had a video of the almost complete destruction during the French Revolution of the legendary medieval church of Cluny, or similar devastations wreaked on St. Denis or Notre Dame, it would likely have much the same effect as that of ISIS. Moreover, to any listing of secular destructions in the West must be added those of religious authorities, such as the systematic and wholesale destructions of images under the periods of Byzantine iconoclasm. As in ISIS’, these attacks on the human image were accompanied by attacks on humans themselves in a long-running history of mutilations of the bodies of enemies — blinding, castration, rhinokopia (cutting off the nose), and more. Of course, the murderous activities on behalf of Christianity are hardly confined to Byzantium. The French wars of religion in the 17th century slaughtered as many as 4 million people. The massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day in Paris alone, in 1572, was responsible for the deaths of up to 30,000 lives of French Huguenots. For that event, “The Pope ordered a Te Deum to be sung as special Thanksgiving (a practice continued for many years after) […]”

Accordingly, there is no unique Islamic propensity to perpetual iconoclasm and violence, much less one to be contrasted with a civilized and “iconophilic” West. Rather, there are enough crimes to go around. With these thoughts in mind, I approach the ISIS videos.

ISIS, a prolific producer of video footage, seems to know that its videos, some as long as 15 minutes, will be edited down to far less in TV news reports. There is rarely narrative, or even much speaking (though often some short explanation for the actions displayed, which is generally paraphrased). Its videos of destructions of antiquities are parallel, in both publicity and visual logic, to the videos of executions for which it first gained notoriety. The perhaps most horrifying executions were those of decapitation, while many of the most equally horrifying moments in the antiquities videos also show decapitation (as of a statue already toppled in the Mosul Museum) or, failing that, the mutilation of a head (as that of a winged bull at the site of Nimrud). While men in either “terrorist black” or pseudo-military uniforms perform the executions, the antiquities are destroyed by unkempt men in simple, often traditional dress. In both cases, these are costumes that distinguish them from any Western or globalized norm. Especially in the case of the museum videos (with a white-walled background and complex spaces that set off the actors), the dramatic setting is part of the activity and highlights its extreme nature. Perhaps these two subjects are designed to horrify Western audiences of slightly different interests or class bases (or even European vs. American ones).

The message to the viewer is analogous in either case: these unspeakable crimes, which make one inherently cringe, are performed by men (and only men, of course) who are irremediably “other.” There is a paradigmatic Orientalism at work here. There is no room for dialogue, just death, literal or figurative. Much of the imagery of Western Orientalism of the past two centuries has a similar message, highlighting a binary difference between “us” and “them.” These videos exploit that time-tested market and the Western prejudices they flatter, proving to contemporary viewers, “you see, they’re really like that” in very much the same way the work of 19th-century painters and photographers from, say, Delacroix and Gérôme to Frith and Sébah worked just as effectively in the relative expectations of their audiences. Would the ISIS videos even exist without the Western establishment and longtime support for such a tradition? But, of course, ISIS also appropriates the span of imagery in a new way. These are not the works of Western makers. They are indigenously produced and cannily serve even as recruiting imagery, in a way we cannot fathom. To me, this is among the most horrifying things about the videos, and a key to understanding their imagery: that they open onto a very different, and repugnant, constellation of assumptions. But such bricolage is a hallmark of many insurgencies and does not lessen the ties between all concerned.

I share the shock and repulsion these videos widely promulgate. I believe those responsible for these repugnant actions should be caught and punished, and the objects of their wrath protected. I can only fear what might happen if ISIS got control of the Baghdad Museum, or the people of the city. But I cannot see the actions displayed in a vacuum, and want to counter the modern media tendency, which can be deeply manipulative, to decontextualize and de-historicize its subject. The video screen is never just a simple window on the world — it is also a mirror, if you’re willing to see it in the right light.


Frederick Bohrer is a professor of art history at Hood College.