History Column

History/Destruction of Art

by Sarah BeckerHistory-Destruction of Art

“The art of a nation is one of its most refining influences, and is the highest expression of its civilization and culture,” The New York Times wrote in 1918. “Artistic endeavor must be preserved, for the history of a nation cannot be written without due regard to its artistic attainments: in many cases the art of a nation is the only thing that has come down to us.” In 1918 the First World War still raged.

“Who has not heard the world cry out against the German destruction of art?” The New York Times continued. Belgium was one of the first countries to complain, on August 25, 1914 for the destruction of the historical library in Lovain. Whether the loss is associated with World War I, China’s Cultural Revolution, or ISIS it is often permanent.

Tomb robbing is sometimes described as the world’s second-oldest profession and experts suggest the profession has grown “steadily” for the past 100 years. Cultural racketeering is on the rise and conflict antiquities fetch big dollars. Sultan Al-Aziz Uthman did not apologize for partially demolishing Egypt’s Pyramid of Menkaure in the 12th century. Neither did the United States after its 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The U.S. invasion of Baghdad resulted in a net loss of 10,700 Iraqi museum pieces. Iraq’s National Museum, which finally reopened this year, suffered irreparable damage. The American bungle was topped only by the Islamic State’s summer destruction of artifacts in Mosul. In all, at least 28 Iraqi buildings have been destroyed including Shiite mosques, tombs and shrines.

American history offers several examples of cultural destruction, including the British burning of Washington in 1814. Sadly America watched the District of Columbia’s public buildings, the White House and Capitol burn. Alexandria warehouse plunder was observed floating down the Potomac River.

“A kingdom that has once been destroyed [by fire] can never come again into being,” Sun Tzu wrote in his 1st-2nd century The Art of War. Thankfully war-President James Madison proved Sun Tzu’s supposition wrong. A later example Union General William T. Sherman’s 1864 capture of Confederate Atlanta, his March to the Sea, supports Sun Tzu’s theory.

In 1905, consistent with the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War, British Army Captain Everard Calthrop translated The Art of War from Japanese to English, the first ever English edition. Lionel Giles published his English version—the now standard—in 1910. Chinaman Sun Tzu’s The Art of War was introduced in Japan in the 8th century.

Whether cultural antiquities are defined as art and or architecture; drawing, printmaking, painting, sculpture, monuments and or buildings, theft and destruction inevitably follow war. In June 1914, the outbreak of Europe’s Great War, “fifty-two American institutions of art, learning, and humanity signed a memorial addressed to the President of China urging means for the protection of Chinese monuments and antiquities from vandals.”

“The high material value put by Western civilization upon antiquities and products of art showing the progress of mankind, has lately resulted in the commercialization, plunder and destruction of antiquities in China beyond the power of ordinary influences to control,” The New York Times reported. “Furthermore, such plunder and destruction not only are despoiling China of some of the garments of her ancient civilization, but actually tend to break down Chinese society by depriving the Chinese people of their heritage, besides crippling research and education.” Eleven years earlier American art institutions lamented Northern Arizona and Southwest Colorado’s loss of “fast vanishing relics of prehistoric people.”

The United States entered World War I in 1917 and President Woodrow Wilson presented his Fourteen Points, his principles for peace on January 8, 1918. The Points included a general association of nations, The League of Nations. The United States never joined the association; still the League of Nations Committee on Intellectual Cooperation was worthy.

In 1922 the Committee on Intellectual Cooperation established an International Museums Office [IMO]. Germany’s power was again on the rise and in October 1936 the IMO issued a Convention for the Protection of Historic Buildings and Works of Art in Times of War. The report asked that “for the protection of art, competent authorities everywhere put their national art on a war footing.”

Among the IMO’s recommendations: the building of bombproof shelters for portraits and restoration of the medieval sanctuary system for statues; protection measures to insure, in the event of serial bombardment, the safety of architectural monuments more fragile parts [stained glass windows, bas-reliefs and other sculptural features], and shelters or depositories to which movable objects can be protected, sites declared strictly neutral to “serve as a last asylum for humanity’s laws.”

On October 22, 2015 President Barack Obama awarded the country’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal to 345 World War II Monuments Men. Alexandria’s Duncan Library recently remembered them with a lecture.

During World War II the U.S. Army worked hard to locate lost property, especially art. In the 1940s Chancellor Adolph Hitler—a former painter and self-proclaimed art critic—was determined “to assemble for Germany the greatest treasure of European art.” Northern Europe’s Old Masters were highly prized; modern painters, “degenerates” like Matisse and Picasso were either traded or sold.

Under the German law of July 22, 1941 the pro-Nazi Vichy government set as its objective the elimination of “all Jewish influence in the national economy.” The seizure of property—gold, bank accounts, insurance, and art—followed. Tracking was not straight forward in part because the IMO gave way to the United Nations, UNESCO and the International Council of Museums [ICOM] in 1946.

Today the art world is focused on the Middle East.   Like Nazi Germany, the Islamic State is involved in cleansing. Unlike the Nazis, many of ISIS’ military tactics are decidedly East Asian. Whether it is “the use of military weapons or wholesale decapitation, the end in view is to get rid of wicked people and to give comfort and relief to the good…,” Sun Tzu said.

In 2015 Iraqi officials told the United Nations that “ISIS militants seek to sell [using forged documents] what art they cannot destroy.” Cultural antiquities are irreplaceable assets and as such buyers, sellers and states are bound by certain international rules. ISIS however falls through the cracks. ISIS is not a sovereign state. It is a transnational body with a political, if not religious cause. The body’s parts include ousted Iraqi Ba’ath Party officers, Al Qaeda remnants, disaffected Sunnis, and foreign fighters.

The United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution, known also as Security Council resolution 2199, on May 28, 2015. It was presented jointly by Germany and Iraq, and co-sponsored by 91 member states. Said UNESCO:

“The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage is a war crime—it is used as a tactic of war, in a strategy of cultural cleansing that calls on us to review and renew the means by which we wish to respond and to defeat violent extremism.” For more information, visit UNESCO’s #Unite4Heritage social media campaign.

“The attacks on the cultural heritage of Iraq are a test case for all of us,” Germany’s Minister of State Maria Bohmer concluded.

ISIS has also settled in Syria. It beheaded a Palmyra antiquities expert upon arrival. The November 13th ISIS-claimed terrorist attacks in Paris, including the Jewish-affiliated Bataclan Concert Hall, were in response to the French bombing of ISIS radicals in Syria. ISIS’ next stated target: Washington, D.C.

Peace this holiday season!

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