imagesWe tend to be a bit judgmental about this topic. We see iconoclasm as something awful “they” do. But hang on. It’s not really all that long ago that we were busily engaged in it ourselves. Religion and politics make people do odd things. Oliver Cromwell’s men would go around chopping the heads off “catholic” statuary. Here’s an example from Ely Cathedral.

George III bites the dust at Bowling Green, NYC, 1776

George III bites the dust at Bowling Green, NYC, 1776

ditto, Saddam Hussein, Baghdad, 2003

ditto, Saddam Hussein, Baghdad, 2003

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course we don’t think that these eager Protestants were right to smash stained glass windows and pull down statues, but we can, I think, recognize that they did have more or less rational reasons for doing so. They weren’t just doing it to be naughty.work_155

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now we focus our anti-iconoclastic gaze on the middle east, most recently the destruction of so much stuff in Mosul. Let’s assume that the reports are genuine and that it wasn’t just copies that were destroyed for show on their videos: these guys are known to be shrewd merchants, and might be thought to have saved the real stuff for resale. (And in a way, is being destroyed more of a loss than being sold into a secret private collection?) It is claimed that most Muslims disagree with the interpretation of scriptures which holds that these acts are mandated on the faithful. But the belief is surely not utterly crazy: one can see how a faith might come to the view that making images of god, or man, who was made in god’s image, was a bad idea. We may find it hard to sympathize, but so many tenets of all religions are hard to sign up for (without of course faith, that cure-all when it comes to the swallowing of extravagances). Of course it’s deplorable that these artworks should disappear for ever, but most of the people objecting would never have gone to Mosul to look at them anyway. Is it awful to suggest that the Bamiyan Buddas are as immediate to me today as they were in 2001 (which is rather more so than they were prior to their destruction, as I’d never heard of them)? I do think that if a majority in a society decides this is the thing to do, then their neighbors have no reason for preventing them. I do acknowledge that Mosul and Bamiyan don’t represent majority decisions, but east and west, might is unfortunately right. We western intellectuals do tend to idolize art, and maybe this modern attitude is a little offbeat in world-historical terms.

When it comes to destroying libraries, I’m a bit more conformist. Remember the panic about the destruction of the Timbuktu libraries by fundamentalist militants? Publishing Perspectives sent us an account of the saving of the manuscripts we were worrying about. It does seem that at least some of the documents escaped destruction. In the case of books, one of the great things is that printing, by making multiple copies, lessens the odds of any individual work being destroyed for ever. If you burn up the copy in Mosul’s library, you don’t affect all the other libraries and individuals that may have copies too. Now of course some of the Mosul stuff was, like Alexandria, no doubt unique, manuscript originals, which nobody now will be able to see. I too regret the fact that so little of classical Greek literature has come down to us. But again, if destroying it is what the “owners” really wanted to do, do any of us really have a right to say they can’t? Whatever the ethics of the situation, as a practical matter we certainly don’t have any way of enforcing our view. Our view, just because it’s ours, doesn’t automatically gain primacy anywhere in the world except in our head.

One of the more fascinating aspects of these things is how we none of us give a hoot about remote libraries and artworks until they have been destroyed, or are threatened with destruction. Of course you can’t know what you don’t know, and maybe just caring in a sort of generalized way is sufficient — though to me it verges on “just keep it there in case I ever get around to making a visit and want to look at it” selfishness. Here from MessyNessyChic (via Book Patrol) is a story about Chinguetti, another unknown desert library center which seems to be struggling against the sands of time. Of course “caring” folks will doubtless want to inveigh against the dust and storage conditions, but they’ll be relieved that UNESCO is on the case. I wonder how many more places like this there might be awaiting discovery by us (though doubtless perfectly familiar to the locals) so that we can take them under our western wing and care for them “properly”.

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