On the uncomfortable relationship between radical politics and art, from creation to destruction—and back again.
Among the killing fields and ritualised butchery, Islamic State is committing another grave atrocity: a profound disrespect for the grand canon of world art.
As they bulldozed their way through Syria and northern Iraq, filling the power vacuum left by the fall of secular regimes, ISIS fundamentalists staked a claim on the scarred earth by destroying the archaeological riches of the region. They burnt art as freely as they did oil wells, sometimes electing to sell the remaining pieces to fund further geographic expansions. The Byzantine mosaics, the Greek and Roman sculptures, the newly profane Islamic art of many generations prior. It echoed the actions of the Taliban more than a decade earlier, who found the fabled Buddhist statues of Bamiyan and left only craters.
The clichéd notion of the Levant as the mythic cradle of civilisation contains more than a grain of truth—many areas now occupied by the rigid theocracy of the Islamic State have been continuously settled for the better part of 6,000 years. Embedded in the artefacts of Iraq and Syria is a journal of world culture in its becoming.
In September, Islamic State mujahideen—a collective term for those engaged in jihad—detonated a series of bombs around the 1300-year-old Assyrian Green Church in Tikrit, levelling the building. The church, one of the oldest in Iraq and often considered the most ornate, had been restored under Saddam Hussein two decades earlier. Hussein, who once encouraged art and sculpture as central to a vibrant and patriotic Iraqi culture, had been overruled.
There is the obvious outrage: how could someone spoil the tangible histories of the world so unflinchingly? Indeed, it’s the blasé attitude toward total cultural excision that infuriates us more than the destruction itself. When we decimated a truck carrying Gustave Courbet’s celebrated social realist painting The Stone Breakers with a stray bomb during the raids on Dresden, we did it with a heavy heart (of course).
But it’s far too easy to dismiss this as a kind of ancient, viciously conservative ideology manifest. The philosophy of the Islamic State, and Islamism as a whole, is rendered by mainstream press as primordial horror, a deranged pursuit of an ancient religious condition that not only predates modernity, it is actively hostile toward it. The liberal left enable this connection and pursue it with aplomb, drawing leylines between Islamic fundamentalism and socially conservative western movements. It’s pure bunkum: ISIS are radical reformers, not stodgy conservatives.
Writing for the New York Times, philosopher Slavoj Žižek argued that the Islamic State does not constitute resistance to progress, but instead a perversely forward-thinking progress akin to the violent modernisation program of the Meiji restoration in 19th-century Japan. It’s colour-by-numbers Žižek agitprop—not least because he plagiarised it from his own, earlier work—but it makes a valid point: is it reasonable to describe an ideology which untethers itself from most of that which came before it as conservative?
He makes one thing clear: unlike ‘true’ fundamentalists such as Tibetan Buddhists and the Pennsylvanian Amish, who possess a “deep indifference towards the nonbelievers’ way of life”, Islamists are both fascinated by and hostile toward the spoils and excesses of Western neoliberal existence. The intersection between our spiritual and material hedonism and their alleged chastity is no better illustrated than by the famous photo of self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wearing an elegant Swiss watch.
The ISIS jihad, compromised as it is by the market forces that deaden all modes of life, is radically progressive in its very pith and sinew; an active rejection of colonial hegemonies enforced for so many years.
What of art then? Certainly the Islamic State, which is propped up by craven pundits as the biggest threat to life, liberty and culture since the Dawn of Man, are not the first thinkers to encourage the destruction of art, either explicitly or tacitly. Many of these thinkers did so not as a censorship of cultural depravity, as free speech zealots might have you believe, but instead—they thought—as a termination of obsolete beliefs and cultural values.
Iconoclasm is an ancient and venal art itself, mired in both vaulted ideological aspiration and a pragmatic desire to erase undesirable histories. When the Pharaoh Akhenaten died in 1334 BC, his successors eradicated his sun-worship cult by force, laboriously destroying the stone relics and reliefs at his temples. During the American Revolution, lead statues of English monarchs were melted in New York City plazas and turned into bullets. Every would-be insurrectionist throughout history got the message: political change has collateral.
The futurists, that loose cabal of Italian poets and artists who saw the rapidly encroaching future as an idealised sphere of technology, speed and raw violence, regarded the existing art world with deep suspicion. In celebrating a rather narrow vision of urban modernity and the cleansing property of war, they dismissed all previous art as corrosive to the national spirit. It was useless ideological cruft that profaned the Modern and stood directly against the rejuvenation of Italy.
Every would-be insurrectionist throughout history got the message: political change has collateral.
Futurism embraced a brand of wild, youthful nationalism, heralding industrialised technology as a bridge between the self and the state. The Futurist Manifesto, possibly one of the most lunatic documents yet produced, called for the destruction of all existing museums and libraries as part of an Italian cultural renaissance. Instead, or so its fascist author Filippo Marinetti posited, aesthetic purity should be seen in the form of the automobile, with its sleek construction and interminable speed.
And so, the region that produced much of the world’s classical and renaissance art birthed a radically rightwing avant-garde, one that sought to eliminate the very same work. The tasteful nudes and wistful Roman poetry of yore didn’t fit within the futurist vision, and so they were to be eliminated.
The most famous piece of futurist art might be Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, a bronze sculpture of an androgyne form in flux. Inspired by the dynamic physicality of a football player, the piece was intended to rip the art of sculpture from a 2,000-year torpor with a sense of forward motion and synthetic continuity. The dramatic vision of man that Europe had formulated since antiquity was unacceptable—humanity’s conception of its physical self was to be relegated to the dustbin of history. By some strange twist of fate the sculpture still appears on the Italian-issued 20-cent euro piece, long after the death of fascism.
Marinetti, once a committed atheist, later reconciled with the Catholic Church and attempted to initiate an artistic revolution within the Holy See. The degenerate artifice of the church was to be stripped away: candles replaced with the celestial purity of electric light, the stodgy, natural representations of Christ and the Madonna substituted with dynamic, angular forms. He claimed that only something crisply modern, something that connected with the existential condition, could truly convey both the horrors of hell and the transcendent beauty of heaven. It was old spiritualism imbued with a churning machine aesthetic. The Pope, perhaps regrettably, chose to ignore the recommendations entirely.
Our civic sensibilities are deeply embedded in our art
In Marinetti’s vision, art and politics are twinned, and to allow the art of old political forms to persist into posterity is to cut short any meaningful notion of progress. It’s the kind of noble idealism you can imagine from any garden-variety socialist agitator fantasising about the collapse of the Hollywood-capital junta. Merely initiating regime change is not enough to reverse culture: our civic sensibilities are deeply embedded in our art. If you’ve ever been lectured by a first-year film undergrad about the capitalist iconography in the Transformers series, then you’re familiar with this method of thought. Everyone knows there’s a symbiosis between politics and art, but few deign to do anything meaningful about it.
If it is true when they say that great ideas outlive their thinkers, then futurism was a poor sport indeed. The First World War put an end to their youthful fantasies of ultraviolence—Boccioni himself died pitifully in the mud after being trampled by his own horse. War ended up having a hygienic property after all: it washed futurism from history.
Wahhabi Islam, borne from the teachings of a reformist 18th century scholar, seems worlds apart from the flamboyant rants of a few overexcited Mussolini sympathisers. But it too reached into an allegedly unprincipled past to justify a radical future—casting aside the bloat of history in pursuit of a new social order.
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the father of the movement and of the strains of fundamentalist Islam that continue to drive conflict across the Middle East, rejected what he saw as a widespread erosion of true Islamic values. His central grievance was cultural: a tendency amongst Muslims toward the worship of tombs and saintly figures, which he saw as idolatrous. Like the Islamic State centuries later, al-Wahhab’s followers destroyed the shrines, tombs and art that did not comply with a new interpretation of Islamic doctrine.
That Wahhabis would claim they are returning Islam to a pre-tainted, Quran-focused state is inconsequential. Wahhabism was a new order, not an old one, and its later ascension to a true global force on the back of grey market crude oil sales merely cemented it. This was not the Islam of their fathers. Destruction of art and culture wasn’t part of a conservative cultural program seeking to revive a golden era. It was the deliberate elimination of art as part of a new future.
When Baghdad fell in April 2003, the first action of the occupying Coalition forces was to topple the 12-metre statute of Saddam Hussein that stood in Firdos Square. The statue had been erected the year before, in celebration of Hussein’s 65th birthday. A US armoured recovery vehicle tore it down, in what journalist Robert Fisk described as the “most staged photo opportunity since Iwo Jima.” Though 2,000 Iraqi soldiers had died in the preceding conflict and civilian infrastructure lay in ruins, it was the toppling and beheading of the statue that marked the symbolic end of the Battle of Baghdad.
One can hand-wave away this kind of action as indulgent political theatre—something for the zealots back home to hoot and holler over—but for autocrats like Saddam, artistic image is as important to authority as supreme firepower.
Though in reality he was a second-rate dictator, thrust into power by sectarian bloodbath far beyond his own reckoning, Saddam’s public art sustained a personality cult of staggering breadth. He commissioned oil paintings of himself as a devout Muslim, as an ideal version of a nomadic Bedouin peasant, even as an ethnic Kurd. In stark contrast were the private paintings he kept in his own palace: bizarre triptychs of sex and violence, buxom blonde damsels and dragons in psychotically pornographic arrangements. When he fell, all of the art was destroyed or bartered off.
It mirrors Soviet Russia after Stalin’s death. When the nation began a radical process of ‘de-Stalinisation’, the triumphant (state-sanctioned) art of the previous era was liberalised into non-existence. Instead, the artists of Russia embraced a rejuvenated national art, which discarded Stalin’s cultish, inward-looking paranoia.
Albert Speer, the chief architect in Nazi Germany, conceptualised the notion of ‘ruin value’—the idea that buildings should be constructed in such a way as to leave spectacular ruins, so that a regime’s ideology could exist into posterity. The staggering size of many Nazi constructions, designed to mimic the glory of Rome, carried with them deliberate evocations of an unshakeable German national spirit.
Though many of these buildings were destroyed during the war, those that remained became subject to a program of Allied urban denazification. Reinhold Strenger, who oversaw local postwar renewal projects in Munich, decreed that the buildings be bulldozed and replaced with those that were simple and plain, avoiding “monumental forms” and “cubic silhouettes.” That a regime could be etched into the brickwork of a city was obvious to these planners. In order to liberalise, the cities themselves were rebuilt in a manner enabling the new democracy. Old architectural forms were destroyed and the offal discarded.
The tearing down of ‘outmoded’ art is not the exclusive domain of a rogue gallery of despots and wartime occupiers.
John Keats, the romantic poet, said Isaac Newtown had destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by “reducing it to the prismatic colours”, narrowing its artistic mystery to something quantifiable and utterly mundane. For someone like him, God was the ultimate artist, to whom all other artists are inevitably compared. To be told that natural beauty was an externality of some precise and knowable process was a difficult truth to swallow.
The Enlightenment and the birth of secular liberalism were predicated on the erasure of this final, enormous craft. If the individual was to be the centre of the political world and not the Church-enabled elite, then the world itself could no longer be a piece of great art by a knowing creator.
Richard Dawkins, the doyen of New Atheism, has often tried to reconcile his own ruthless scientism with the fact that much of the beauty of world culture emerged not from careful application of detached methodology but from a much messier convalescence of religious and political conditions.
“I am a secular Christian”, he said at a literature festival in Wales earlier this year. He was talking about the pomp and grandeur of High Anglican ceremonies, which he admitted some affinity for, but the Christian doctrine still held no meaning to him. Regardless, he acknowledged the symbology and art of Western religion was deeply embedded in his cultural sense of self.
Dawkins’ book, Unweaving the Rainbow, attempts to reclaim art as a scientific endeavour and science as an artistic one. It is much more of a political treatise than he would likely admit. He is attempting to eradicate the spiritual foundations of artistic expression in favour of a new objectivity. A painting is not gorgeous because of godly inspiration, it simply is—and that’s fine. We can appreciate a beautiful flower as the product of strictly scientific processes while still finding it beautiful.
This essay appears in the Renaissance issue of Museum, which you can buy here.
These musings on science as art are nakedly political—Dawkins wants us to embrace antitheism as a radical new structural condition. He cannot merely say that religion and politics should never intersect. Everyone with the basest sense of justice knows that. He needs to argue that art and cultural expression are also scientific processes, and that his own crude objectivity is as spiritual as a sonnet or a watercolour.
James Hennessy is a politics and technology journalist, who writes for The Monthly, The Guardian Australia and SBS.
It is no coincidence that one of the first actions of the Islamic State, after capturing the Iraqi city of Mosul, was to ban the teaching of both art and science. Dawkins might conceptualise this as Islam’s medieval religious impulse, a coarse attempt to pull the Middle East back into the swamp of pre-modernity. He would not admit that, like him, ISIS seeks a radical and fundamental change in the way people relate to the world. Iconoclasm is the only real way to achieve it.
Some radical notes on renewal:
It’s a maxim understood by everyone from the low despots to the slick neocon raiders to the jabbering public intellectuals. It is not enough to merely conjure up a new way of being. The exports of old cultures need to be stomped out. The commoditised future of late capitalism makes us treasure each artefact as the manifestation of all human progress, but the real progressives know that sometimes you need to take out the trash. Even if the proverbial trash is indeed a centuries old artistic relic of inestimable beauty and value.
In the end, it is only the archaeologists and art critics who give a shit. Writing for ArtInfo, Abigail R Esman laid out the final stakes: “We must remain vigilant in our work against the Islamic State and defeat them: for the future of the arts, and the future of humanity.” The future of the arts and the future of humanity? Art is the surface sediment of humanity.
So it continues: to embrace the future, you must destroy the past.