SHOULD ART BE DESTROYED?

Art, whatever its definition, has certain characteristics. It is equivalent to an entity perpetuating itself across generations. As a result, it is permanent. Art also implies certain value claims, about the precedence of accumulative creativity over destruction, which can not be ethically legitimised. In practice, there is a stable geo-cultural structure, of ethnic and national art. The best response is a territorial separation of art: if art can not be destroyed, it should be confined to the United States. Revised March 2003.

KABUL, March 1 2001 (AFP)
 
Afghanistan's ruling Taliban authorities said Thursday they have started destroying all statues in the country, including the world's tallest standing Buddha statue in the central province of Bamiyan. "The work started about five hours ago but I do not know how much of it (the Bamiyan Buddhas) has been destroyed," Taliban Information and Culture Minister Qudratullah Jamal told AFP.
 
"It will be destroyed by every means. All the statues are being destroyed."
 

Southern Iraq, 29 March 2003: UK forces 'destroy' Saddam statues
 
British forces say they have staged a raid into the southern city of Basra to destroy a statue of Saddam Hussein.... tank squadrons and armed infantry of the 7th Armoured Brigade met with what was described as live resistance by Iraqi forces inside the city. Their aim, according to one senior British officer, was to destroy one statue of Saddam Hussein. But the ground forces reported back the destruction of two. The main statue was located in the centre of the city.
 

KABUL, 30 May 2002: Heritage conference draws up priorities
 
After a spirited debate, the conference decided that the Bamiyan Buddhas should not be rebuilt," Martin Hadlow, UNESCO's director in the Afghan capital Kabul told IRIN on Thursday.... the decision to reconstruct Bamiyan Buddhas was delayed for the time being leaving the ultimate decision to the Afghan people. UNESCO goodwill ambassador, Ikuo Hirayama suggested he would prefer the statues left in ruins, a memorial to human barbarity.
 

The Guardian, 4 July 2002: Thatcher statue decapitated.
 
...a man decapitated the marble statue of the former Conservative leader on display at the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London. The head on the two-ton statue... was knocked off after the assailant deployed a metal rope support stanchion, according to the Corporation of London. A man was arrested.
 
The chairman of the Commons advisory art committee, leftwing MP, Tony Banks, said that although the statue ranked "among our most controversial commissions, acts of vandalism against works of art can never be tolerated in a civilised society".
 

Hoover Digest, 2000.
 
The fall of communism was accompanied by the toppling and vandalizing of statues of communist icons throughout the former Soviet Union and its satellites. Although many monuments were destroyed, some found their way into museums as historical artifacts. The bronze statue of Lenin on the cover, shown prone in rubble, was installed in 1992 as part of a temporary exhibit on the fall of communism at Der neue Marstall in Berlin.

 


The poor, the weak and the oppressed do not speak in defence of art. The voice of art is the voice of privilege, and the privileged are the defenders of art. What did Osama bin Laden and his followers learn, from the destruction of the Bamiyan statues? That western elites are more shocked by the destruction of art, than by the poverty of millions. That will probably be in their minds as they choose their targets: but if they inflict a 'Bamiyan' on a major western museum, it is only the elites who will weep for the loss. If this association with privilege was the only defect of art, then social equality would legitimise art. Unfortunately, that is not all. Art is also ancient tradition - worse than privilege. Is it not time to destroy it?

Art is wrong because it is the past, because it perpetuates itself, because it is transgenerational, because it is culture, and because it requires the suppression of anti-art to exist.

People argue about what art is. High art is still contrasted to popular culture. Certainly elites use art to enhance their prestige: the art galleries and museums reflect the taste of the upper-middle-class. They are not simply temples of art, they are temples where the elite worships itself, and the lower classes worship the elite. In the 1970's some class theories opposed elitist art, as in R. Taylor's Art an Enemy of the People (Hassocks: Harvester 1978). Even then however, the typical response to 'high art' was not rejection. It was the demand for subsidies: for community art, minority art, and women's art. A similar pattern applies all over western Europe: the existence of art is not an issue. Policy simply accepts art: this is true for artists, for individual governments, and for the European Union. A policy consensus implies a definitional consensus.

Despite the apparent disunity about what constitutes high art or authentic art, there is a deep negative consensus about its nature. This negative consensus is common to all modern societies. Some things are not art, never. A trans-Sahel railway is not art. State formation is not art, a state is not art. Justice is not art. The Euro is not art. Seen from this perspective, it is the agreement about Art which is remarkable. Evidently there is something called Art, something clear and recognisable. So what are its defects?

The first defect of art is the antiquity of art. Some art is recent, of course, but there is no planned future art. In urban planning, for instance, some people plan future cities, and some study urban history. In art, however, the first category does not exist, there is only art history. Art is past-oriented, almost by definition: art is tens of thousands of years old. There is an immense volume of art from the past, even though most works of art are destroyed deliberately (of that, more later). The sacrality of art is a sacrality of the past.

Art perpetuates itself. True, this is a reification, but it is an accurate one. It is the actions of people which perpetuate art: but for the opponents of art, it is as if art defended itself. Compare the lives of two twins, born in identical circumstances. However, one is pro-art, the other is anti-art. The pro-art twin can go to art school, or study art history. There is no equivalent for the anti-art twin: there is no school of art incineration. Great social pressure to accept art is applied to one twin. No similar pressure to accept art-destruction is applied to the other twin. Because art is a core value in all existing societies, the social and employment opportunities of the anti-art twin will be limited. It is also the pro-art twin who is more likely to be elected or appointed to political office.

The value attached to art limits the opportunity of its opponents to take action against it. In this way, art is a self-preserving structure. It is like a religion whose adherents systematically discriminate non-believers. If the adherents of such a religion form a majority, it will constantly improve its position of power.

The strength and functioning of this self-preserving structure can be appreciated, by imagining a world with no art, and no pro-art structures. Transferring from this art-free world into 'our' world, can be compared to transferring from 'our' world into a world objectionably different. Cannibalism is a useful characteristic for this comparison, because it is almost universally taboo. Being transferred into a cannibal society would be extremely unpleasant for most people. They would be forced to accept, that something which they abhor is a normal part of society - and that there is apparently no possibility of reform, since everyone accepts it as normal. Such is life for opponents of art, in most existing societies: they are surrounded by people who honour the abhorrent.

Art also perpetuates itself in a more indirect way. Art is often described as human endeavour or achievement, and it is indeed a product of human activity. People are encouraged to consider art as a valued activity, to the exclusion of other activity. In many cultures it is regarded as a high form of achievement: that in itself is a valuing of conservatism. Artists strive to produce good art, but what they produce is never more than conservative art, in the sense that art already exists. It is accurate to say that art is conformity in itself, since artists must conform to the norm of what art is. That norm will vary across cultures and in time, but only in the limiting case that everything is accepted as art does it cease to be restrictive. In practice, creative approaches to non-art areas are often socially unacceptable, or considered strange and deviant. So the artist thinks: "I must not deviate, I must not produce anything which is not valued in my society, I must produce art because that is highly valued in my society, and I must try to do that well, to conform to the values of my society." The artist conforms, and produces yet more art.

Art is therefore transgenerational and open-ended. Art cannot be otherwise. Art is in opposition to iconoclasm, and there is a difference in the value socially ascribed to each activity. Certainly in modern societies the accepted pattern is that creation takes place by accumulation only. Iconoclasm - in the broad sense of art destruction - is defined as a non-creative act. There is no inherent logical basis for this restriction of 'creativity' to accumulation only. However, that is the form art takes, and that form is socially accepted. Although there are millions of paintings already, painting a new one is defined as a creative activity. Reducing the existing stock is not. Destruction is not considered of equal value to creation.

On the contrary, destruction of art is considered a crime, and a sign of mental illness. Entering a museum and destroying a painting is considered shocking. Such acts are widely reported in the media, if they affect well-known works of art. This cannot be logically derived from a sacred status. In religious activity, sacred is not always permanent. Sacrificial animals were killed in some religions, offerings were burnt. It would be logically possible to treat art like this, but that does not occur. Art is not just sacred: its own accumulation is sacred, its permanence is sacred.

The continuance of art is therefore inherent in art. Art is for ever. Yet that which can not end, is inherently wrong, and must be ended. Permanence of any entity constitutes a claim to all time for its existence, specifically against its non-existence. Claims to continuance in time are contra-ethical or morally arbitrary. One state (existence of art) is favoured over another (non-existence of art) merely because it happened to exist first. Now, some people claim value for firstness or primacy - the nationalist claims of indigenous peoples often take this form - but this cannot be logically derived. The 'priority' in the strict sense of 'prior existence' is itself an arbitrary value. Prior existence of an entity implies no superiority over other entities, whatever conservatives may say.

The transmission of art inherently requires that injustice be done to done who oppose art. Their opposition is valid, since there is no moral ground for the permanence of art. Yet they are discriminated against, as indicated above. Some employers, perhaps almost all employers, would refuse a job to anyone who openly advocated the destruction of art. If such injustice is a necessary condition of art, and there is no other legitimation of art's existence, then the existence of art is an injustice in itself, and should be terminated for that reason alone.

Just or unjust: self-perpetuating cycles and transgenerational structures are contra-ethical. Art perpetuates itself by accumulation, and the transmission of the value of this accumulation. Cultures include, over generations, reverence for the permanence of art. More than this, art perpetuates the transmission of culture including itself. Art is a central aspect of many cultures.

This permanence of art has been described here in abstract terms. In practice, some real destruction of art does take place. The place of art in culture determines this: 'real art' is ethnic art, or national art. The art that disappears has lost its central place in a culture - usually because that culture itself has disappeared. The ethics of cultures and art are less abstract, and more political, than the structural and permanence issues described above.

There exists a geo-cultural structure approximately corresponding to geopolitical structures. In practice, people refer daily to English culture, or French culture, to ancient Egyptian art, to Brazilian art, or to the art of the Islamic world. The entities of this geo-cultural structure may be cultures of nation states, cultures of ethnic groups, cultures of regions, or cultures of larger entities called civilisations. They may overlap - in fact they usually do - but that does not mean there is no structure.

The complexity of culture is sometimes used to deny its rigid and structural nature. However, internal complexity can be great, and yet exclude external complexity. The possible moves in a game of chess are astronomically large, yet all chess games are chess games. Consider a simple model, with unitary cultures of tribes. Tribe A invades the land of tribe B. Soon, within culture B there are pro-A collaborative cultural tendencies, there are B-nationalists opposed to A culture, there are A+B 'multi-culturalists', and their purist opponents seeking to preserve an undiluted A culture. The land of A+B then invades the land of C. Now, in this land C, there pro-A collaborators, pro-B collaborators, and pro A+B collaborators. There are C nationalists primarily opposed to A culture, C nationalists primarily opposed to B culture, and C nationalists primarily opposed to A+B culture. Some of the A+B multiculturalists become A+B+C multiculturalist, some are 'multiculturalist purists' seeking to preserve the A+B syncretic culture. Some of the B nationalists promote a revanchist B+C culture, directed against A culture. When this new land A+B+C invades the land of D, the combinations multiply even faster - faster than with simple factorials, and factorials generate astronomically large numbers.

In the past there were thousands of cultures, associated with thousands of peoples. By some estimates, there still are. Combinations of their interactions can generate an immense diversity of culture. Yet all that diversity might be nothing more, than a combination of unitary cultures of geopolitical entities. There is every reason to believe that this is an accurate model of human culture: so-called diversity is hiding a far greater diversity of possibilities, which do not fit the existing geo-cultural structure. This applies to art and its 'diversity' as well. The models of culture used in anthropology in the 1940's and 1950's seem accurate. These models often included organic or life-cycle metaphors, such as culture growth and decay, but they began with the idea of a unitary culture, corresponding to some geopolitical entity. A. L. Kroeber's Configurations of Culture Growth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1944) is a classic work of this kind. In 1959 Rushton Coulborn could still take this approach to cultures or civilisations:

The style of a civilization is perceived as its aesthetic aspect: it is exhibited in everything the society produces and does, pre-eminently in its arts, but also in its thought, its politics, its institutions, its traditions, and in all its ways. It is possible to qualify a society's style, to comment upon it, to judge it even, yet hardly to describe it. It is the 'Chineseness' of what is Chinese, the 'Egyptianness' of what is Egyptian, the 'Westernness' of what is Western.
The Origin of Civilized Societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1959, p. 22.
After the 1960's this approach disappeared from mainstream anthropology: it partly reappeared in the last 15 years under the influence of ethnic studies. An 'Afro-centric' approach to art history, for instance, implies almost by definition a geo-cultural structure. But why did the geocultural classification disappear? Why pretend that there is no such a thing as African art, or English art? Partly because such approaches were discredited by their association with Nazi Germany, or at least with Oswald Spengler and organic-social models of cultural history. But it was a common approach to history in the 1920's and 1930s, not just in Germany. It has been partly 'rehabilitated' by the interest in ethnicity and identity: academic interest in the geocultural model seems cyclical.

In any case, this approach is still, and always has been, the accepted approach in art history. Any introduction to art history (for students in Europe) will present the standard sequence of styles in Europe: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-classicism. After that comes a section on Islamic Art, or Oriental Art, which are assumed to have their own style sequence. In this case, the academic wisdom seems to be right. It can not be proved that there is a geo-cultural structure of this kind - it is too much a question of interpretation. However, the opposite position - that no culture or art is in any way associated with any particular people, culture, or territory - seems untenable.

In turn, this suggests an explanation of art: it is hyper-ethnic. Art is that within a culture which most approaches the core of that culture, and is least accessible to outsiders. Art is the visible soul of the people, just as the nationalists say. The question is, whether that gives art existence rights: nationalism has not been a great blessing for this planet. On this issue, art-historical theory is often manipulated in defence of art. If art is associated with nations, it can be associated with their state - and the policies of that state may be unacceptable and even horrific. Yet art never suffers from attribution of guilt by association: the art historians are determined to absolve it. Many aspects of German culture and society have been blamed for Auschwitz, but never Veit Stoss or Albrecht Dürer or Karl Friedrich Schinkel.

If someone who is clearly a German Nazi, insists on the existence of a German art, and indicates clearly which works of art are German, what is the anti-Nazi response? The defenders of art will deny the truth of the claims: they will say the possession of art by a single nation must be disputed. They would probably say, that in this case anti-Nazism consists in claiming that art belongs to all humanity: that art is universal. So, they will say, the art on the Nazi list of German art is not really German art, and that it should be honoured and respected as universal heritage.

The alternative anti-Nazi position is to accept the Nazi claims as true, and destroy the German art, which the Nazi person has so conveniently listed. Not just Nazi Germans produce such specifications: there are official lists of national art heritage, in most states in Europe. They are not intended for the convenience of anti-nationalist iconoclasts, but they can serve that purpose.

If art is national, then it can have no legitimacy other than within the values of nationalism. If art is national then it is legitimate to destroy art, for anti-nationalism is itself legitimate. Anti-nationalism can extend beyond individual nation states, to the nationalist geo-cultural structure: that structure is merely one of many possible structures, and blocks the existence of others. The present structure is complex, but not self-legitimising. It is for instance legitimate, to oppose pan-Africanism as a form of nationalism, and to destroy African art as part of that attack on pan-Africanism. Equally, it is legitimate to oppose a global geo-cultural structure that includes all art, and in doing so to destroy all art.

Why not? Art is being destroyed all the time. So long as art has existed, it has been destroyed. In reality, the sacrality of art applies mainly to 'our art', not to 'their art'. The same western upper-middle-class who were horrified by the 1972 attack on Michelangelo's Vatican Pieta, were elated as crowds attacked statues of Lenin in 1989. A few months after a man was jailed in London for attacking the statue of Thatcher, British troops attacked statues of Saddam Hussein. If pan-Africanism, in 10 years time, is regarded as a form of imperialism oppressing regional identities, then perhaps people will burn portraits of Nkrumah. 20 years ago, statues of Lenin were indeed 'art' in part of Berlin. Now they are considered 'propaganda of the unjust SED state'. 60 years ago, statues of Hitler were 'art' in Berlin: today public display of any Nazi symbol is illegal. Today, 'art' in Germany means for instance statues of Konrad Adenauer, the pro-western post-war Chancellor. The only constant seems to be, that art serves privilege, it serves the nation state, the powerful, the established, and the unjust. In general, art serves the existing - consistent with its status as a self-perpetuating social structure.

It is legitimate to oppose art in general, and specific national, regional, or civilisational art. However, there is no wide support for the break-up of the geo-cultural structure. The values of that structure itself are incompatible with its reform or abolition. It can however be limited in its effects.

I propose a territorial separation of art. Formally, the best course would be to first destroy existing art - and then choose if the planet was to be art-provided or art-free. However, there is no prospect of any global agreement on this. Art will be in opposition to non-art, inherently. Compromise is not always possible, certainly not in conflicts of universal values.

The most logical place for a 'zone of art' is the United States. Americans, if they have enough money, often collect art. Since there are more rich art collectors in the United States than anywhere else, the main cross-border flow of artworks is probably into the United States, and European art has the highest status with those rich American collectors. So why not make that flow a prime function of American state and society? Art should be formally and structurally transferred from Europe to the USA - beginning with the art listed in national heritage lists, and with recognised European heritage. As a symbolic initial step, transfer the Mona Lisa, the best known European artwork, to the USA. The Mona Lisa is old, and heritage. It is better, that the past should burden the USA, than burden Europe. All artists, and those who wish to continue employment in the art sector, should ultimately be transferred to the USA.

The existence of a large conservative society on this planet, such as the United States, can be useful. It offers a place to 'unload' conservative elements from other societies, which should accelerate innovation there. Art is such a conservative element, and Europe would benefit if it was 'unloaded' in the United States.

Any attempt at such a transfer - by definition an assault on the national heritage of the nation states - might result in civil war in Europe. It might conceivably lead to military intervention 'in support of art', at least the official national heritage. However, given the fundamental opposition between art and iconoclasm, violence seems inevitable anyway.



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