Art and the loss of human heritage

 

In the last 30 years, several countries whose current dominant religion (Islam) considers artistic representations of the human form as idolatrous, have seen the destruction of some of humanity’s great artistic and cultural heritage. Those countries include Afghanistan, where cliff-size statues of Buddha at Bamiyan were dynamited in 2001 by the Taliban, and Syria, where the Baathist regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad has outright plundered and looted the great Roman ruins of Palmyra. Both places have been ravaged by civil war, invasions, and religious intolerance. Even before these attacks by religious fanatics and criminals on monuments to cultural melting pots that were ancient Syria and what is now Afghanistan, art from these areas has been plundered and sold.

The St. Louis Art Museum, a great institution that I love dearly, has two examples of art from these locations. They include a funerary bust in the Roman Palmyriene style and the head of a Buddha that mixes Greek-Hellenic features with Chinese traditions, which dates from the 4th century of contemporary Afghanistan, from the ancient Gandhara region. I have no idea how these two pieces ever entered the art market, but many pieces like them have flooded into the global art market because of civil conflict and violence in both countries, where proxy wars, terrorism, religious intolerance, and intolerance have prevailed. Our sense of who we are has been lessened and ultimately chipped away by the destruction of such places.

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