Sunday, January 30, 2011

Monumental

A few decades back, when the British Museum System started to give in to international outcry to begin returning historical artifacts initially "discovered" and transported under less-than-legitimate legality to their countries of origin, one of the principal arguments against said returns was that various nations in - for example - Asia, Africa and the Middle-East were too unstable to "trust" with the safekeeping of priceless treasures of human history.

This argument was largely dismissed as self-justifying hyperbole couched in racism and cultural-bigotry; and honestly that was probably the correct response. "I'm better than the person I stole from, so I DESERVE the stolen goods more" is a pretty bad defense in any circumstance, and folks who'd make it pretty-much self-identify as total bastards by doing so.

So... how much does it SUCK that, now that the unfolding clusterfuck in Egypt has predictably led to the desecration of priceless antiquities... those aforementioned bigoted bastards would probably have more than a little cause to say "told ya so?"

Yeah, I'm "that guy" who doesn't really get "torn up" over stuff like this until Museums and cultural-treasures start getting destroyed. Y'know that "heroic" scene in "Volcano" where the guy is chastising the rescue team for trying to save "a buncha paintings and stuff" instead of "the people?" Out of the whole ridiculous movie, that's the part that makes me roll my eyes the most. In the comments section, someone will make the (very sincere) argument that worth of historical art-treasures is nothing compared to "the fight against oppression" or "a poverty-stricken people"... yeah, I know that's how I'm "supposed" to see the world - but I don't. Not really.

Obviously, in the abstract, I'm for "the little guy" and against dictatorships and autocrats... but in all honesty, like the thoroughly-detached, media-placated Ugly American that I am I'm unable to summon much more than a that's-too-bad about the plight of the protesting Egyptian citizenry - whoever the good guys are, I hope they win and I don't want to see any (more) people die needlessly, that's about what I can muster. On the other hand... the idea of Mubarak falling, a Muslim Brotherhood-backed theocracy filling the vacuum a'la the Taliban and the Pyramids, Sphinx etc winding up like The Bamiyan Buddhas? THAT makes me literally shake with indignation. "Things" can win out over "people" with me, on a case by case basis. That's who I am, and I accept it.

Anyway... it got me thinking about one of my favorite "why don't more people know about this?" pieces of 20th Century history; and how much we could use a version of it today. How many of you have heard of "The Monument Men?"

Basically, during WWII the Allies were assissted by a U.S. Government-initiated group of art and history experts culled from the upper-echelons of the University and Museum community (y'know, those terrible "elites" you hear so much about) in the preservation of Europe's art treasures during and after the war effort. They're best known for helping to identify, secure and reclaim the stolen artwork caches of the Nazis, but they had active-combat functions as well. My favorite: When the Allies bombed Nazi-occupied Florence, they built tactics partially around detailed maps and coordinates provided by Monument Men to avoid damaging the city's priceless landmarks. This was very much an of-it's-time phenomenon - it existed because concerned art historians made the case for such an undertaking to the government, and men like FDR and Eisenhower agreed - it's the first time in modern (or pretty much ANY) record that an Army had been instructed to include the preservation of art and cultural treasues as part of their standing orders.

Two thoughts always occur to me about this, in order. First: Why the HELL was this never the plot of an "Indiana Jones" sequel?? Second: Can you IMAGINE the outcry if anyone proposed such a thing today? The wailing and gnashing of teeth from both the reflexively art-hating, "no spending!!!" Right and the "you're spending it on paintings... what about the PEOPLE!!!???" Left?

28 comments:

TheAlmightyNarf said...

Perhaps this is largely because of me growing up in an age where the line seperating objects and places being actual tangible things that exist somewhere, or objects and places existing purely as intangibles that I've seen on TV or the internet, has grown to almost nil.... but, I don't see actual physical artifacts as being all to important after they've been thoroughly studied. They've become ideas and knowledge. At that point their existence as intangible objects known to all of man is substantially more relevant than as some tangible relic sitting somewhere in a museum.

Especially not compared to a oppressed people rising up against a tyrannical dictatorship, at least.

Bob said...

@Narf,

Ever seen "The Time Machine?" The original movie, I mean.

rob said...

Or Planet of the Apes for that matter.
The Statue of Liberty.

Bob said...

Well... Apes has kind of a whole other angle going on.

In Time Machine, the Eloi have devolved into complacent cattle partly by having no reference for or familiarity with the wealth of human history and culture that preceeded them - they've literally let art, literature etc. turn to dust. The kicker is, they DO have "records" of it, as what we'd now call digital-media storage... but robbed of the actual CONTEXT they have no way to process it.

Nixou said...

“the idea of Mubarak falling, a Muslim Brotherhood-backed theocracy filling the vacuum etc etc etc blablablabla...”

You know, there are a lot of reasons why this premise is wrong: for instance the fact the Muslim brotherhood is not the Talibans nor Al Quaeda (actually Bin Laden & co despise the Brotherhood for being too soft and not enough let-there-be-blood-ish) and unlikely to destroy the heritage of the country should they take over, or that there is no certainty that they actually have the power to establish an enduring dictatorship. Or the fact that nationalistic and fundamentalists movements arised from the collapse of the Soviet Empire and even managed to win elections in a few countries without people reminiscing the good old days when Moscow kept them under control, or even the fact that some homegrown american politicians are as vicious as the Muslim Brotherhood and most certainly have had a more nefarious effect on the planet thanks to their immensely bigger ressources...

But in the end, all of this is of secondary importance

What is important here is that the false choice "either a vassal dictator or an anti-western dictator" is one of the most dishonest and despicable political con ever given to western audiences and therefore a completely invalid argument.

The thing is, dictatorships fall: they ALWAYS end up collapsing under the weight of their own corruption. It may take a few years or a few decades, but they always end up exhausting their forces and ressources. It's simply a case of positive feedbacks reinforcing each other: an authoritarian regime will be more vulnerable to corruption, since things like due process, independant courts, freedom of expressions, which are normally used to denounce and prosecute corruption and abuses of power are not there. As the corruption increase, so does the anger of the public and its willingness to openly fight the regime, which in turns becomes increasingly authoritarian in order to forcefully submit the populace, increasing the anger of the people and creating even more opportunities for corruption and abuses, repeating the cycle until the regime falls, sometimes when the people start thinking that systematically slaughtering the members of the ruling class is a fine idea and do start doing just that.

Not only that, but dictatorships are well known for making the free minded intellectuals leave (either by exiling them or making their life so unbearable that they chose to leave), and for weakening the civil society to the point when the Nation itself either dissolves into a clusterfuck of tribes and clans hostile to each other or maintain a semblance of unity through some very base concepts like ethnic or religious tribalism.

Sooner or later, Mubarak's regime is going to collapse: it is as unavoidable as the eventual fall of the Soviet Union: the regime has become too corrupt and its ruling aristocracy too endogamic and short sighted to reform itself and survive in the long term. At the same time, the longer the regime survive, the worst the post-collapse situation becomes: the number of intellectuals will keep diminishing leaving even more space for the Brotherhood's preachers, the civil society will become more and more broken, blind nationalism and religious chauvinism as well as violent radicalism will become more and more tempting for a fed-up population, etc...

The great question is not "what happens IF the regime falls?": its "WHEN will the regime fall?": it will fall: if Mubarak manage to survive this crisis and to give his regime a few more years so he can die on his throne, it will be nothing more than a reprive, and the next uprising against the regime will be uglier, and should this one fail, the one after it even more so, etc...
The longer the current corrupt dictatorship survives in its senility, the more likely your nightmare of culture destroying mediterranean talibans becomes.

David Page said...

I feel EXACTLY the same. I too shudder when I read about the loss of cultural art.

Never knew about the Monument Men, thanks for bringing that to my attention.

Andrew said...

Erm?

Told you so.

Discrimination and prejudice are not the same thing, while I will freely admit to prejudice I try very hard not allow my prejudices to cause me to discriminate.

The political and social situation in Egypt is not conducive to the preservation of these things.

We (modern Britons) did not steal the artefacts, our antecedents did.
We (modern Britons) are better able to look after these things.

That is not bigotry, that is fact. I saw a documentary 15 years ago showing a very stuffy old professor openly weeping while watching the "leading experts" in Egypt mutilating artefacts in a ham fisted attempt to preserve them.

Some middle ground should have been found, perhaps western archaeologists working in Egypt but no.

Don't get me wrong, we're not perfect. Even until a few decades ago people were still using stonehenge as an easy source of stone.

Bah, there are over 6 billion people clogging up this planet but only a few ancient treasures lie this.
People who don't see the value of these things over a photo or video of them have clearly never seen them in person, I saw the site of the smashed Buddhas and cried.

Robert said...

I've watched every single Game Overthinker, Moviebob, and Big Picture video you've ever uploaded, and ever since the "Once Upon A Time In The Future" episode, I kind of have a good idea on how valuable life is to you.

With all of the marketing slogans and sayings that the internet tough guys are saying like "get over it" and "everybody has problems" I feel weird thinking I can tell you anything you haven't heard before, especially since I don't know what kind of problems you've had to deal with growing up. Though by watching the "OUTITF" episode, i'm assuming you were bullied at one point or another.

The only thing I can ask you to do is to please look on the bright side. Focus on the few good things humanity has done instead of the many bad ones. I can tell you from personal experience that your current view of humanity does more harm than good, to yourself and others.

I couldn't go to sleep after I read your post. Read into that what you may.

John Berry said...

Robert, that's also kind of the problem: It IS a few good things versus a lot of bad things. That's pretty depressing.

Also, I don't know if this counts as irony, but forgoing humanity for antiquities that were created by humanity is... ironicish?

Curtis said...

For Fuck's Sake, I'm not entirely familiar with what these Egyptian protests are about, but how does destroying pieces of their cultural heritage help the Egyptians?

Caspian said...

@John Berry

Merely acknowledging those things and choosing to act depressed over them rather than actually do something about them is very likely the worst thing humanity has done.

Q said...

@Caspian
Fair Enough, I thought is was genocide though.

@Bob
I don't know Bob, I think your full of steaming hot dog shit. I can't think of a single organization outside of the KKK that would object to the rescue those artifacts.

Do you really think that the Right attacked the Smithsonian because they hate art? Could you really be that simple as to think that what they did wasn't entirely political. The right love art, they founded their entire political philosophy base on art. The right has no stall in contemporary art because it has no importance yet.

And the Left, come the fuck on, the whole "you're spending more on art than people" thing only works if the people weren't already helping themselves. A country that is not destitute but fighting for self-determination requires no humanitarian aid. That was one of the reason the Left didn't want to get involved in the Iran revolution. They would be perfectly willing to protect the artworks.

Though of course the national deficit would probably have the final say in this Tea-Bagger owned Congress - BAM.

Foxed said...

To be fair, protesters have now formed a human chain around the museum in question.

http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2011/01/a-very-touching-story.html

John Berry said...

Right then, Caspian, I'll just push my Change Everyone's Personality button and the world will be filled with great accomplishments.

I do my part. The little things like loving my friends and returning lost dogs and whatnot. Doesn't make the majority of people less selfish though, does it?

Disclaimer: This comment has nothing to do with Egypt.

Caspian said...

Did I say I was specifically referring to you, John? I'm happy you're doing your part. I'm not saying that you can change everything working alone.

The point is, there are all too many people who recognize the flaws and problems we're going through now. They sit around and act depressed, saddened, or angered over it. Most of them don't do anything about it.

Humanity's flawed. Very flawed... but what does merely acknowledging that accomplish?

TheAlmightyNarf said...

@ Bob

I think so... I only recall it having shit to do with the book, and that's about it.

Why can't anyone ever translate that book well to film? I realize that most of Well's social-political commentary has lost it's relevance in the years since, but still...

@ later post by Bob

I don't see how a relic sitting in a museum provides any more context for itself than a 3d model and some photographs of that same relic sitting in a database does.

Reverend Allan Ironside said...

Without our artistic achievements, how do we measure where we are, where we were, or perhaps even where we're going?

Bob said...

@Narf

One word: PROOF.

Each generation measures itself against what came before, and said measurement is made more concrete by having the real evidence of past achievement preserved. A photo of The Great Pyramid CANNOT replace standing at it's foot and being forced to ask "what have I done with MY time, so far?"

TheAlmightyNarf said...

@ Bob

That's the thing, though... You're never going to stand at the foot of The Great Pyramid. Neither am I, or anyone else who isn't an archeology student or a big Egyptian history buff. We only have the photo anyway.

Joe said...

@Narf,

Because technology, research methods and societal outlook changes over time and a later generation might find something in an artifact that a previous one missed.

E.g., for centuries, people believed the statues of the ancient Greeks were always meant to be white. Only a few decades ago did a researcher discover they had originally been painted in (by our standards) very garish colours that had been stripped away by time.

So many historical films were actually based on history as understood by British scholars of the Victorian period, and interpreted through their biases. But modern interpretations of history by contemporary scholars are very different. My archaeologist friend says the same thing about his field.

Andrew said...

Narf, why not?

I've been to the great pyramids, and the Mayan ones, I've seen the Taj Mahal and the temple at Angkor Wat.
I've driven across the world's tallest bridge and through the deepest tunnel.
I've been to the top of the World Trade Centre, Sears tower, Petronas tower, Sydney harbour bridge and the CN tower.
I've seen the Lycian tombs in Turkey and the dwellings at Petra.

Does that make me an archaeologist?

No. I am - in fact - a plant operator.

They say travel broadens the horizons, it certainly gave me some perspective. What - if I can ask - is it that is preventing you and (in your opinion) Bob from doing that too?

matthew_harvey13 said...

"I'm unable to summon much more than a that's-too-bad about the plight of..."

Bob, check this out for why most of use feel this way...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuHrJBrkAlA

And while you are at it. If you are not already aware check out the rest of Adam Curtis and Charlie Brooker's. I think you will like.....

matthew_harvey13 said...

@bob
Sorry this link is better as it has an intro with some disclaimers....
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xW3XeT7qavo

Chalire brooker BTW is the person who Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw say insspired his cutting humor. Back from when he used to computer gaming colums for PC Zone magazine back in the early 90's.

Anyway I as saying this as unles you already know of him I think you will get a kick out of his ScreenWipe and Newswipe shows....

matthew_harvey13 said...

Again, I know, last post on this subject..., honest.

Be warned though that the shows I talked about are British and since you seem to be having a very anti-british day today (sarcasm). Bad British museum, british movie get awards maybe it shouldn't and too many brits playing superheroes now (better than just all the bad guys's says me). Maybe these links will not help your mood 'British bad mood' at the moment.....

TheAlmightyNarf said...

@ Joe

An interesting note on your example, though... the chemical analysis that discovered that tib-bit either damaged or destroyed the artifact being tested, as, well, chemical analysis's generally destroy or damage whatever is being analyzed.

Sure, science will advance, and perhaps we'll be able to learn more from artifacts in the future than we can now. But, we really do have nearly all of the raw information now (and most that we don't have will require destroying more artifacts), and scientist will always be able to study that information with or without the actual artifacts.

@ Andrew

Lack of disposable time and income, which you apparently have far more of than most people. And especially in my case, obviously, a complete lack of interest in traveling half way across the world to see something I could just as easily look at a picture of.

That's not to say I've never traveled. But, it's pretty much always to actually do something, to experience something that I couldn't at home... A good example would be a few years ago when me and my bother took a road trip to Philly for the express purpose of trying as many genuine Philly cheese-steak sandwiches as possible. We were there for three days, and we really didn't do any sight seeing at all.

Reverend Allan Ironside said...

Bob, I see where you're coming from, I really do. And I'm not going to say you're wrong, but here's some food for thought.

Art is useless WITHOUT people. People create art and people appreciate art. Without the artist, the art will either not exist or it will simply exist. What has been made can be made again, although when you speak of the monuments, that's something else entirely from art.

Andrew said...

Narf, I heartily endorse your food-based road-trip.

When I did the bulk of my travelling I would work hard whilst living in a crummy bed-sit for about 8 months of the year and then travel for 4.

It is possible to do it on a shoestring but it is difficult.

There really are things out there that are better if you see them in person.
You could have compared the philly cheese-steaks by looking at pictures, chemical analyses and witness statements but it wouldn't have been so tasty.


If you go back you should see the Liberty bell, Independence hall and the Franklin institute.

All good stuff.

TheAlmightyNarf said...

Speaking of which...

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/107502-Explore-the-Worlds-Museums-Like-a-Videogame