Saturday, 7 March 2015

Architectural Sauvage/Salvage

During the French Revolution the statues of the kings of France were toppled from the facade of Notre Dame by a mob intent on destroying not religious idols, but the idolatry of Feudalism. They were decapitated, blinded, gouged and left in a heap to be used a a public toilet. They were cleared away at some point and used to shore up the foundations of a building. They were discovered by chance in 1977, the year that was the zenith of punk with its, here, ironic cry of "Destroy."

Knight killing a King, Mediaeval stained glass, Musee de Cluny
Today they are displayed in the day-lit salle de Notre Dame in the Musee de Cluny, but not in silence as the air conditioning keeps up enough noise to drown out passing police sirens from the street outside. A few people wander in and out, not staying long enough to do more than give a sideways glance to the worn crowns (in both senses), broken noses and crumbling stone. The noise seems right. Calm would be too much reverence for these relics of violence.

Art is destroyed in all revolutions, it seems to be part of the process, clearing away the old, making room for the new.  There are many examples - in my own lifetime, say those statues of Lenin littering architectural salvage yards in Britain in the 1990s, the Banyam buddahs blown skywards, the libraries in Timbuktu, and this week the destruction of Nimrud by bulldozer. We may not like it. We may call it a war crime. We may not even think it qualifies as art in some cases; cultural heritage comes in many guises.

Mediaeval book on the art of warfare, Musee de Cluny
The pity of it is that no human shield saved that part of the Assyrian Empire, unlike the Cairo Museum. People are rightly too terrified of the men with guns. And we? We watch from afar, safe in our places. We sit and we watch our screens and tut and say it's terrible and do nothing, except write, as I am free to do now. The irony of this post is not lost on me.

Idolatry, Mediaeval stained glass, Musee de Cluny
But what of the hypocrisy of selling artefacts to fund oppression, whilst obliterating others for fear of idol worship. How exactly do you chose, I wonder? I imagine portability is the key. Large statues don't exactly fit in the post. And what's the point of having all those automatic weapons and jack hammers if you are not going to use them, pray? But who is buying the looted treasure, and why don't we hear so much more about and do something about the daily destruction of human lives? Could it be because any kind of action really is in the too-difficult-no-quick-buck-in-it box? If it is, then I despair, again.

I was taken recently by comments in a interview with Mark Rylance in which he pointed out that Islam was about 500 years younger than Christianity and 500 years ago we were busy chopping off heads, burning people and smashing idols. It was called the Reformation (and Counter-Reformation). So is what is happening today very much of a surprise? No, not really, but at least the Assyrian culture lives on in other museums. Reason then for not giving back acquired things? Perhaps.