Why Is Art a Casualty of War?

The literal brutal reign of terror of the Islamic State, or ISIS, has been making headlines continually over the past several months for their highly publicized killings of innocent civilians, guilty in their mind of worshipping false gods. Just as shocking has been their recent tirade against ancient art in ISIS-occupied cities like Mosul, Iraq. Militants have defaced and destroyed untold numbers of treasures, from museum artifacts to archaeological sites to historic mosques and buildings, the results of which are all proudly displayed on social media. As hard as it is to accept, ISIS are by no means the first perpetrators of crimes against art, it is indeed a result of countless eras of violence in human history. Naturally the question on all our minds is…why?

There is a disturbingly systematic and cyclical nature to the heinous crime of art defacement. The Nazis plundered all the treasures of Europe during the height of the Third Reich, in addition to the mass book burnings being eerily repeated by the Islamic State. The English committed similar crimes centuries ago in the Anglicization of their colonial holdings, and the list could literally go on until every conquering force in history was mentioned. War naturally makes governments and infrastructure weak, but this does nothing to answer the violence against creative expression.

In the case of the Islamic State, these defacements serve the dual purpose of furtherance of their radically violent ideology and the all too familiar comfort of profit. The destruction of artifacts is being justified by ISIS as a tenet of their warped version of Islam; they feel that these artworks, despite being some of the earliest evidence of civilization on Earth, are nothing more than trinkets and idols meant to be ruined in the name of their God. They have even encouraged civilians under their control to smash and obliterate any items they may find to keep their society pure from the heretical pieces of ancient cultures. This mass pillaging feeds into their second purpose, profit, quite smoothly, as there is always a buck to be made on the black market during wartime. US Intelligence reported that looting was in fact the Islamic State’s biggest source of income, second only to oil.

Sales on the black market were also exponentially spiked during the recent protests collectively coined as the Arab Spring. On a recent trip to Cairo, I was taken on a tour through the Egyptian Museum, where my tour guide told me to overlook the presence of guards sitting atop tanks and clutching their AK-47’s. He laughed off my indignation, insisting I had nothing to fear; they were stationed there to protect the art. As Egypt was initially rocked with revolution in the government overthrow of 2011, the museum was an easy target for protestors to loot, being positioned directly beside the National Party headquarters that was burnt into a hollow shell of a building by mobs. Though much was taken and sold, the museum painstakingly worked to reacquire the priceless artifacts, and have for the most part done so.

A simple answer is that art gets people thinking. In the case of violent government takeovers on the scale of the Islamic State or Hitler’s Germany, the ruling forces cannot have their subjects get to thinking. In order to be fully conquered, a society must be submissive, unable to organize into separate facets of thought other than the ideology being spoon-fed to them by their new overlords. Nor must we forget the immense influence that profit can provide on those desperate to fuel a wartime economy. As much as we’d like to convince ourselves that the moral ramifications of destroying an ancient artwork would be reason enough to sway one against it, that bears little worth from the viewpoint of an Iraqi family desperate to survive in a life governed by an extremist, fascist, militant group.

What can people like you and me do about these atrocities? Unfortunately, very little other than stare at our screens in horror at each new headline bearing more tidings of archaeological devastation. The head of UNESCO, the United Nations department that determines sites of global antiquity and ancestry, has called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to determine immediate action against the continued demolition of some of humanity’s most prized and most ancient pieces of its heritage. In the meantime, the most beneficial thing to do would be to reach out to any contacts you may have in the black market for international art and encourage them to cease and desist. No one should be profiting from erasing our collective past; that seems the very definition of a crime against humanity.

Images via AP, ‘The Scream’ painting by Edvard Munch

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