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Art People October 5, 2015

Despots and Art

Khaled al-Asaad was an author, historical and archaeological scholar who dedicated a great chunk of his life to the world heritage site of Palmyra, Syria. Famed for its ancient European and Persian infused architecture it was recently overrun by Islamic militant group ISIS. In August it was revealed that 82-year-old al-Asaad had been beheaded by the group for his refusal to lead them to a stockpile of valuable artefacts. ISIS have begun to destroy parts of the ancient city, having already wreaked havoc in Libya and Iraq, most notably in Mosul. “The mindless attack on great art, on history, and on human understanding constitutes a tragic assault not only on Mosul Museum, but on our universal commitment to use art to unite people and promote human understanding,” notes Thomas P. Campbell, director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. While some valuables are being plundered for profit, a raft of relics are being obliterated for being un-Islamic.

They’re not the first despotic regime to have destroyed cultural icons, and history proves the relationship between tyranny and artistry is often a contradictory one. When Pol Pot’s murderous Khmer Rouge marched victoriously into the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in 1975, top of his target list were artists and intellectuals. Such was the scale of that genocidal reign — which possibly killed a quarter of the nation’s population — that all art was very nearly eradicated from Cambodia’s history, kept alive only by oral tradition.

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Half a century prior in totalitarian Russia, thousands more intellectuals and artists were rounded up, including poet Osip Mandelstam, who was arrested for reciting an anti-Stalin poem to his friends. He later died, like so many of his contemporaries, in a prison camp. In 213BC, the first emperor of China’s first imperial dynasty, Qin Shi Huang, ordered the live burial of hundreds of Confucian scholars along with the burning of their books and when Europeans arrived in the Americas they too set alight to an array of Mayan and Aztec works. But, perhaps the most infamous book burners of them all were the Nazis, whose campaign of literary destruction began on the evening of 10 May 1933 when university students hurled 20,000 ‘unGerman’ volumes by writers such as Ernest Hemingway, H.G. Wells and Marcel Proust onto a giant public bonfire.

Four years later, the Nazis put on two art exhibitions, one of which, simply entitled The Degenerate Art Exhibition, showcased modernist works by the likes of Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka and Paul Klee. The accompanying handbook explained that the purpose of the show was to, “reveal the philosophical, political, racial and moral goals and intentions behind this movement, and the driving forces of corruption which followed them.” Not all art was considered an affront to their twisted ideology, however. Another show, The Great German Art Exhibition, comprised of Hitler-approved pieces, mainly conservative and classical affairs of landscapes, soldiers and the odd nude blonde. The Fuhrer himself was once a budding artist, twice failing to get into the Vienna Academy and between 1933 and the close of the Second World War his party looted a significant number of collections across Europe, many of which still remain unaccounted for. A spree known as the Nazi Plunder.

Notorious Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar often used works of art by the likes of Dali and Picasso as money laundering tools during his transactions. One artist, Fernando Botero has since sought revenge for the use of his works as drug currency by making a profit from the criminal’s demise with his painting The Death of Pablo Escobar.

Saddam Hussein was widely mocked for his questionable taste in art, his collections having been discovered following his overthrow in 2003, but, a decade later, one Iraqi sculptor spoke of a golden age for creative types under Hussein’s tyrannical rule. “Working as an artist in Iraq, when Saddam Hussein was president, was a golden period for all artists, not just myself,” Natiq al Alousi, who was commissioned by his former president, tells CNN. “He was supportive of artists and was open to them. But we weren’t open to the world for security reasons, and that’s it.”

Fellow fallen late dictator Muammar Gaddafi is also known to have been an avid art collector, and his son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was even an exhibited painter, though his works were universally derided. Just in case critics killing his creative attempts weren’t enough, in July a Libyan court sentenced him in absentia to death by firing squad for crimes against humanity.

Image left: Fish Magic by Klee Paul
Image right: The Death of Pablo Escobar by Fernando Botero

Word: Jamie Christian Desplaces



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