The Destruction of Art and Antiquities in Our Time


Frederick Bohrer reviews Catastrophe!: The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past edited by Geoff Emberling and Katharyn Hanson, in the LA Review of Books:

It should surprise no one that the threat to antiquities today — worldwide — is far greater from projects for dams, airports, parking lots, and the rest of the activities of modernization than targeted wholesale devastation. I mention this because I think it offers a way to specify what, qualitatively, is the nature of the issue raised by ISIS’s actions. The effects of modernization parallel what Rob Nixon, in another context, calls “slow violence”: a gradual but devastating change effected almost invisibly on daily life. By contrast, ISIS purveys a sort of “fast violence”: shocking, theatrical, and easily commodified to the Western (addled, distracted) TV viewer, and highly useful for its own recruiting as well. I turn to the video evidence itself below. But it must first be noted that many Iraqi archaeological sites have already been devastated by slow violence as well, and one that cannot be conveniently relegated to Islamic extremism: looting.

In 2008 the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago mounted Catastrophe!: The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past, an exhibition and accompanying catalog (the best of its kind) that describes and pictures in horrifying detail the devastations to archaeological sites caused by hordes of looters, large and small. Just its cover photograph is enough to make one cringe, showing looters in 2004 actively digging at the site of the ancient city of Isin, now a blasted wasteland of hundreds of holes in the earth. As is well known, a rapacious worldwide antiquities market, unconcerned with ethics, fuels this looting; governments meanwhile rarely enforce existing laws. This market is one of the largest sources of funding for ISIS itself — another way besides television in which the organization cynically uses global norms for its own purposes. Under the economic sanctions first imposed in 1990, civil conditions in Iraq have been extraordinarily difficult and unemployment high. Looting is one of the few moneymaking opportunities available to local populations (much like drug production in Afghanistan). Thus a CNN correspondent casually mentions that the threat to antiquities also involves “ordinary people just desperate to make a living.” A prominent archaeologist of Iraq told me long ago that deprivation and economic inequality drive farmers to plow up their fields in search of artifacts, as they have little access to seeds, farm equipment, and other necessities.

More here.