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Art & War

May, 2003

UR. THE VERY name sounds like a hesitation — a tentative utterance that promises more to issue forth. Ur: a seminal concentration of desert peoples close upon the Euphrates from which would flow a piece of mankind’s history that, up to this very day, still affects us all. Ur: a town south of Baghdad where the new interim government of Iraq recently met in a tent to discuss the future of a country that had long been the center of what was once referred to as the "Fertile Crescent." A town destined as a place of beginnings, a place where according to the Bible, Abraham, the father of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity — a family perennially and almost always fatally at odds — came to destroy graven images, a powerful statement echoed in recent days as artifacts from this very town have been looted and destroyed by modern-day avengers. So potent is the name of Ur that it serves as the root element in many German words that denote beginnings: ur-alt — "ancient;" ur-sache — "cause;" ur-sprung — "origin." What will Ur bring us now? Tomorrow? What new paths are being forged, what new visions are at this very moment being brought into the minds and hearts of mankind? And isn’t it of some significance that in all of the political, social, and economic upheavals that have preceded this war — and will surely ensue in the months and years to come — that art has entered into the equation? Let alone all the curiosity that has been aroused by news reports of Saddam Hussein’s aesthetic taste in kitsch and the grandiose that characterizes his palaces, the ongoing destruction of which will, perhaps, cause little concern. But what are we to make of that remarkable repetition of Abraham’s smashing of idols that recently occurred in the Baghdad Museum? What is it about political conquest as evidenced in its arm of military power that, in addition to human life, seems to so often include works of art among its victims? Art and war. We are still finding repercussions of the art that was looted — and how much of it destroyed? — during World War II. Sure, it’s an old story. Conquerors and colonizers have been dragging back art and artifacts from subdued countries since time immemorial — we all know that. But what lies behind this ageless enmity between art and power? What danger does art impose? What lies at the heart of the distrust that so many — and for so long — have harbored in their hearts and minds? Hitler and Stalin went at it wholesale. Ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, seemed content to merely knock off the noses of preceding politicos. What did they fear? For that matter, what did Abraham fear in an assemblage of clay images? Why did they need destruction? Why did the Taliban systematically destroy the statues of Buddha? Art, after all, appeared on the scene long before religions and literature and nations — none of which have ever seemed to advance the civilizing of mankind one jot or title beyond what art had already started. What are they all afraid of? Seems to me that there’s some pretty profound stuff here to mull over.

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