- Published on Wednesday, 09 February 2011 21:06
- Category: Art
War and times of crisis have the ability to influence art and material culture in both positive and negative ways. On the one hand, they can spawn tremendous works of art that serve as commentary or shed light on the conflict at hand. On the other hand, art itself can become a causality of war; it can be held captive, sold as a P.O.W., raped from its native land, and, – the biggest abomination – be destroyed.
This destruction of the arts during times of conflict has occurred throughout human history. The question is: is it about to happen again? As recently as 2003, art was at the mercy of criminals during the United States invasion of Iraq, with dismal effects on the antiquities that were housed in the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad.
Priceless artifacts, ancient books, and scriptures were destroyed or lost in the aftermath of that U.S. invasion when looters (or thieves) raided the National Museum, stripping it of its cultural riches. In total, the museum was stripped of more than 7,000 artifacts and artworks. This atrocity, fresh on the minds of those in the Art and Museum communities, has created a heightened climate of concern for the antiquities currently residing in Egypt.
As Egypt is suffering with a historic internal conflict, with Egyptian fighting against Egyptian, caught in the cross-fire is the country’s (and indeed the world’s) visual culture and history. One instance saw people break into the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and damage and/or steal irreplaceable artifacts and historic treasures. World-renowned archaeologist Zahi Hawass, who currently serves as Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, gave his accounts of the looting in Cairo in his blog, noting the destruction which included damage to a priceless statue of King Tutankhamen. It is unclear at the present time who these unnamed thieves were or who they are working for: anecdotal and reported evidence from the ground in Egypt suggest many of the looters were police officers. However, one can be certain that if the country remains in turmoil, more pillaging will likely occur. Though these stolen items will likely end up being sold to private buyers and collections on the black market, they will be lost to humanity as a whole.
An added horror of these art crimes is that money garnered from the sale of the stolen items will likely be used to fund terrorist activities in various countries- and in varying capacities- around the globe. The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA) published research showing that the sale of art on the black market ranks third for funding terrorist and organized crime activities, a staggering $2billion to $6 billion annually. This ranking puts it only slightly behind the dollars generated from firearm and drug trafficking. So not only are irreplaceable items being lost, they are being sold to support criminals and terrorists.
What can be done? Usually, in wartime the last thing on people’s minds is adding extra protection to museums. Yet this lack of foresight only leads to a viscous cycle of art funding terror. Presently, in Egypt the only people who have actively taken a stand against these acts are those curators and historians in the museums themselves, as well as a handful of civilians on the streets who take a noble, yet ineffective stance against these criminals. Something clearly must be done to create greater impact against these thefts. Because the theft of art is an attack that goes beyond the flesh. It is a form of violence that affects the core of humanity, the soul of a society. The damages of war are not seen only on a level of human casualty, but in the loss of cultural heritage.By Erin Joyce, Aslan Media Art Editor*Photo Credit: Michael Liu Via Flickr.com Creative Commons