back to

Orientalism, ISIS, and the destruction of ancient art


In March of this year, ISIS militants released a video showing themselves destroying several sculptures at the Mosul Museum in Iraq. Experts later claimed that most of the ruined sculptures were in fact replicas, but they also confirmed that two of them were authentic, 3000-year-old Assyrian and Akkadian relics.

At the LA Review of Books, art professor Frederick Bohrer decries this senseless destruction, while also pointing out how the ISIS videos have been used by some in the West to advance a pre-existing Orientalist, imperialist agenda. He writes that worldwide, ancient artifacts are for more threatened by capitalist development than they are by religious fundamentalism:

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…

The destruction of artworks and antiquities is hardly the unique behavior of a single group much less an essential property of any culture. We can recall the allied bombs that dropped on the Dresden Museum as on that of Baghdad, or the savage shelling of the Parthenon by Venetian armies that resulted in the disastrous collapse of its roof. If we had a video of the almost complete destruction during the French Revolution of the legendary medieval church of Cluny, or similar devastations wreaked on St. Denis or Notre Dame, it would likely have much the same effect as that of ISIS. Moreover, to any listing of secular destructions in the West must be added those of religious authorities, such as the systematic and wholesale destructions of images under the periods of Byzantine iconoclasm…

Turning to the ISIS videos themselves, Bohrer writes:

The message to the viewer is analogous in either case: these unspeakable crimes, which make one inherently cringe, are performed by men (and only men, of course) who are irremediably “other.” There is a paradigmatic Orientalism at work here. There is no room for dialogue, just death, literal or figurative. Much of the imagery of Western Orientalism of the past two centuries has a similar message, highlighting a binary difference between “us” and “them.” These videos exploit that time-tested market and the Western prejudices they flatter, proving to contemporary viewers, “you see, they’re really like that” in very much the same way the work of 19th-century painters and photographers from, say, Delacroix and Gérôme to Frith and Sébah worked just as effectively in the relative expectations of their audiences. Would the ISIS videos even exist without the Western establishment and longtime support for such a tradition? But, of course, ISIS also appropriates the span of imagery in a new way. These are not the works of Western makers. They are indigenously produced and cannily serve even as recruiting imagery, in a way we cannot fathom. To me, this is among the most horrifying things about the videos, and a key to understanding their imagery: that they open onto a very different, and repugnant, constellation of assumptions. But such bricolage is a hallmark of many insurgencies and does not lessen the ties between all concerned.

Image via Newsweek