One Way to Counter Art Terrorists

Destruction of an unidentified king of Hatra by militants in 2015
Destruction of an unidentified king of Hatra by militants in 2015

I argue in a Saturday Op-Ed that one way to think about the iconoclasm of so-called Islamic State militants is to value the art they would destroy:

The Islamic State militants destroy art to send a powerful and destructive message: that learning, beauty and the transformational power of art has no place in any so-called Islamic State. We can expose the lie in this message in one simple way: by supporting ancient and contemporary art from the region.

Our city demonstrates how effective an ambassador art can be. Houston stands proud as one of America’s emerging cities for terrific art from all over the world, especially art from the Middle East. Works of art that formed the Houston-based FotoFest 2014 Biennial are currently on display at the Emirates Palace Gallery in Abu Dhabi. Also, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) has an outstanding collection of Islamic art spanning the 9th to early 20th centuries; beautiful calligraphy and other decorative art that demonstrates the region’s commitment to learning and beauty.

We should encourage the MFA and other museums to responsibly display more works of Islamic art from this troubled region. By countering the vile message of the Islamic State by consuming and valuing Islamic art, we value and preserve what they would destroy.

The full piece is here.


More news will likely emerge in the coming weeks and days about intentional destruction of sites. Sledgehammers were used to destroy Assyrian sculptures at the museum in Mosul. Perhaps the most unfortunate damage was suffered by statues of the Kings of Hatra, a kingdom which was conquered by the Roman Empire in the 3rd Century. The art of Hatra was a blend styles from the East and West. Militants destroyed a substantial amount of the material legacy of this unique culture. At the ancient city of Ninevah art was destroyed as well. Stone tablets recounting the ancient epic of Gilgamesh were rediscovered there in the 19th century. These stone fragments, archaeologists say, predated the earliest Hebrew bible by 1,000 years. At the walls of the city, men damaged two magnificent “lamassu” or winged bulls. The sculptures flanked one of the gates into the ancient city. These gates were erected nearly 3,000 years ago, but have been reduced to rubble. Thankfully some other examples of these lamassu are on display at the British Museum, the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul, and elsewhere. Terrorists are trying to erase history. They are also likely looting sites for marketable antiquities and destroying the knowledge that future generations of archaeologists can learn with careful study. They are selling these objects, so art buyers must be especially vigilant in the coming years not to purchase works which could have been looted. The piece tries to connect what is happening so far away to what practical things can be done here to respond. Arguing about changes to international law, or insisting on military intervention are also popular reactions, but don’t I don’t think get to the heart of what makes this destruction so despicable. I’d be very interested to hear any reactions below in the comments.

Derek Fincham, Display of Islamic Art Exposes Terrorists’ Lie, Hous. Chron., Apr. 3, 2015.

One thought on “One Way to Counter Art Terrorists”

  1. At the risk of starting a flame war, I will say that one of my favorite magazines is ARAMCO WORLD. Yes, it’s propaganda of a sort, they present only the best of Islam in an art and historical sense. There are no ideological op-eds, no proselytizing, no religious undertones nor overtones. Just interesting and informative articles about places and cultures that we seldom read about in text books or the media. Best of all, it’s magnificently produced and free. The general outrage against Islamic State is certainly understandable and warranted, but castigating all of Islam as a reaction is about the same as blaming legitimate collectors and dealers of art and artifacts for source country looting. It’s just “feel good” rhetoric. Private collecting is a natural preservative and shutting it down with a crusade of self-righteous ideology is not only counter-productive, it is exactly what the fundamentalist Islamic State and others like them would hope for. The difference between fundamentalists of one ilk or the other is minimal.

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