Monday, September 14, 2015


It takes no talent to destroy great art.  Any halfwit can wield the knife or light the dynamite.  The gift to create art, on the other hand, is rare and fleeting.  There's only one John Lennon but anyone can pull a trigger.  This imbalance makes lousy odds for those rooting for beauty over destruction.

ISIS thug destroying art with a sledge hammer
In our era, militant Islam has spawned a generation of monsters.  Determined to make bad odds even worse, they've kept busy this summer pointlessly destroying beautiful ancient objects.
Earlier this year, militants bulldozed Nimrud, the former capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire, in order to destroy its 3,000 year old  archaeological treasures.
Last month when ISIS destroyed the monuments and temples in the city of Palmyra, uneducated  trainees required only a few hours to undo loveliness that had been honed over a thousand years by gifted craftsmen and artists.  No talent or experience required.

Yet, brutes with bulldozers are not the main reason the deck is stacked against art.  Nor are government censors, misguided Art Directors, or even collapsing buildings.

When you think about it, lousy odds have always been at the heart of art-making.  2,500 years ago Zhuang Zhou said:
Your life has a limit but knowledge has none.  If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, your effort is doomed.
Art is the use of what is limited to pursue what has no limit.  As a result, our efforts are always doomed to some measure of imperfection and inadequacy.

I spoke with the illustrator Robert Heindel shortly before his death.  Despite a long and successful career,  he was haunted by the questions that many artists ask themselves as they run out of time:
You realize when you get to be my age that you aren't really as good as you wanted to be.  You have to confront the question, "How good am I really?  Why can't I be better?"
Art's strengths are rare, but its vulnerabilities are widespread and permanent.  Perhaps that's why accountants never make good artists: art's odds are so bad, they make no sense to anyone who understands math.  A person who can read actuarial tables wouldn't even take the first step down this path.

So given these lousy odds, is art worth it?  Does it really contribute enough to our lives to make it worth the fight?  For proof, look no further than Khaled al-As'ad.

Khaled al-Asaad in front of a rare sarcophagus dating from the first century.

Khaled al-As'ad was a university professor and for decades the Director of Antiquities in Palmyra. He loved the city's art treasures and devoted his life to unearthing, studying and preserving them.  When ISIS invaded Palmyra, he hid the antiquities and sacred relics to protect them from being destroyed or sold on the black market.  ISIS arrested the 81 year old scholar and tortured him, demanding that he reveal where he'd hidden the treasures.  When he refused to tell, he was publicly beheaded.  Reports said that he never wavered.  They also said that after crucifying him, the militants hung his body from the same ancient columns he had once restored.

There are very few genuine heroes in the field of art.  You won't find them at Sotheby's or teaching graduate classes or managing big museums.  But every once in a great while, someone who has been truly touched by art demonstrates the strength and resolve and yes, the grace that beauty can inspire.  Al-As'ad must have looked around that awful barren desert on the last day of his life and recognized that civilization was not going to rescue him.  Yet, he'd found something worth protecting with his life.  That's enough to change the math on even the worst odds.

Dr. al-As'ad, I stand up at my desk in recognition of your heroism and in honor of your memory.


MORAN said...

We should nuke those fuckers. Commenters here BS about art how many of you would be willing to do what Khaled did.

kev ferrara said...
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Anonymous said...

I agree with Kev. Rules don't apply to animals like that.


Chris James said...

Thirded. Stooping to their level involves sadism and defilement. But those aren't necessary to simply destroy them.

kev ferrara said...
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David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I'm sure you're familiar with the Nietzsche quote, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you do not become a monster. For when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

I agree the situation calls for additional toughness (although toughness would be more effective coming from other other nations that are more proximate, have larger Islamic populations, and are perceived as having a more legitimate interest in the region. On this last point, misdirected, inappropriate toughness from foreign soldiers who are "expressing their stress" is guaranteed to be counter productive). More important than toughness, I'd like to see better wisdom and judgment brought to the problem. When we have simple minded American youth sneaking off to Syria to serve ISIS, there's only so much that can be accomplished with bombs.

MORAN-- Khaled's supreme act of conscience should cause all of us to take a long look in the mirror.

JSL and Chris James-- As a wise man once said, true power consists not of striking hard or often, but of striking true.

kev ferrara said...
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Chris James said...

"I'm talking about doing what it takes to win a war. Those acts you mentioned aren't tactical or strategic measures. So they're not really relevant to achieving victory. "

And I'm saying that "stooping to their level" isn't necessary to combat them, and thus it's just an empty platitude that "sophisticated" people fire off to elevate themselves to a higher moral ground, in their own minds at least. Stooping to the level of the particular menace under discussion would mean going beyond necessary conflict and into child rape, rampant and elaborate tortures/executions; relishing that the "wounded enemy may be half blown apart, in blinding pain, unable even to wipe the dirt from their eyeballs, and it may still take them days to die in an active theater of war."

There is a difference between a few soldiers going off the reservation and having sadism as an organization wide policy.

kev ferrara said...
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Untitled said...

Well. I saw this post when it was first posted and I didnt have time to comment and I come back and it got deep and gory!

I was going to comment on how every era has its destroyers based on religion. Portugese soldiers and sailors steeped in catholicism destroyed and defaced beautiful statues on this island off Mumbai in India about 700 years ago.( When they had colonized parts)

Aleš said...

Kev, what kind of achievement do you have in mind when you say "victory" and "winning a war"? Spilling of the blood is obviously necessary here and decreasing the number of fanatics will surely increase the preservation of monuments and temples. But straightforward eradication of these extremists might simply create a political and social void that some other idiots will fill soon after. The solution to the ISIS problem or spread of violent extremism in general can't be just a military one and I know you're aware of all this. But when you mentioned "meekness of the overprotected newsprint class" I'm wondering whether there is a larger obstruct present that prevents US from entering yet another ground conflict - lack of coherent strategy. Middle east proved to be such a complex web of religious, political, cultural and historical factors that 14 years after 9/11 military force still failed to win over violent religious terrorism.

Aleš said...

Kev I agree, morale is an important component of such collective achievements. I don't know what media is feeding people in US, but since Obama is ending the mandate next year there probably isn't any chance for an administration to pursue nation-building effort like in the past either.

David wrote: "uneducated trainees required only a few hours to undo loveliness that had been honed over a thousand years by gifted craftsmen and artists. "

This reminds me of the fate that plaster casts received under the modernistic regime. (I know those were copies, but still). Great sculptures that were supposed to teach academy students of beauty, masterful craft, history and high antique standards were smashed to dust because it was time to push the western culture forward.
I don't know If that was the case in my country but when I asked our academy two years ago If I can come there and draw on my own from sculptures they said they don't have any (except a few feet and hands and stuff like that) and that it would be hard to acquire them nowdays. So I'm wandering the town with my folding fishing chair since, drawing what I can find on older churches and opera houses.

Tom said...

Maybe the US wants Assad out more then his enemy ISIS? And who help bring ISIS into being?

Those "billions of dollars," go into somebodies pockets.

Don't forget General Smedley Butler famous quote, " War is a rackett..."

chris bennett said...

David, that is an astonishing and very moving post. Thank you.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- Thanks very much, I appreciate it. Dr. al-As'ad was indeed astonishing when his moment came.

Unknown said...

Thank you Mr Apatoff for this post, I did not know the facts you wrote of, and your intelligent comment has affected me more than I would have thought, given how used we are to hearing of such atrocities.