Faculty Blog – September
September Vanguard Faculty Blog
When Art and Politics Collide; a Teacher’s Perspective
By, Jennifer Ferretter – English Faculty Member – AP English, AP European History, English 3 Honors, AP Art History
B.A., Vassar College; M.A. University of St. Andrews (Scotland)
P.G.C.E., Cambridge University
Visual art differs from the other arts in the importance that society places on the original. One can read a 2016 edition of Steinbeck or listen to a Beethoven symphony without feeling too distanced from the author or composer, but a poster of Starry Night on a dorm wall is not the same thing as seeing it in the MoMA. Looking at a photograph of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Wall Memorial is nothing like standing before it, one’s own reflection fused with granite, transposed over soldiers’ names. There is an undeniable appeal to original art work, an indefinable element that cannot be copied. It is what caused Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust to sell for $106.5 million. On a more relatable note, it is what caused then juniors Amir Hamilton and Amanda Latham to wait more than an hour in line at the Ufizzi, just to catch a glimpse of Botticelli’s Venus Rising from the Sea. It is what called graduate Alexis Davis halfway around the world to Angkor Watt. It is why students like Philip MacLemore email teachers in the middle of summer break: “ You’ll never guess where I am right now!” (The London Portrait Gallery, The Arnolfini Portrait).
There is weightiness to original art. A gravitas. Perhaps that’s because when one encounters an original work, one feels like one is confronting genius unfiltered. Perhaps it is because when one encounters an original work, one is also looking the past in the eye. And something happens when one looks the past in the eye – one sees that there are things that transcend place and time. Universal desires and concerns that we all share and always have shared and always will share. A common humanity, if you will. And that’s what makes the willful destruction of original art so abhorrent. The loss is irreparable.
In AP Art History, students are required to study exactly 250 pieces of work, no easy task. The Bamiyan Buddhas are #182 on that list. Before 2001, the Bamiyan Buddhas in the Bamiyan Valley of central Afghanistan must have been awesome. Created in the 6th-7th centuries C.E. the two Buddhas were carved, along with the niches surrounding them, in high relief right into sandstone cliffs overlooking the valley far below. The western Buddha stood 175 feet high (that’s a 17-storey building!). The eastern Buddha was slightly smaller at 120 feet. The Buddhas were connected to the rock face from head to ankles, the feet breaking away from the cliff so that pilgrims could circumambulate. For centuries, all who travelled along the Silk Route from India to Central Asia, Buddhist or not, could marvel. In fact, even after the 10th century when the area became largely Muslim, the colossi remained untouched and revered, a testament to their universal appeal. In 2001, however, Mullah Omar of the Taliban ordered the Buddhas obliterated. Mad about international money being spent on their preservation rather than humanitarian care and probably more mad about such blatantly awe-inspiring “idols”, he had them blown up so that now, when art history students cover the Buddhas in class, they have to look at before and after photos. The contrast is heartbreaking.
Of course, Mullah Omar was hardly the first leader to target art in his quest for homogeneity. Protestant iconoclasm was particularly rife in 1560s France and Hitler certainly banned all art he considered “degenerate” (Picasso? Chagall? Really?). That said, last year, when we covered the Bamiyan Buddhas, the heartbreak seemed even more pertinent because ISIS was in the process of ravaging the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. Temples 2,000 years old obliterated in seconds made for depressing news and somehow studying the before and after photos of the Buddhas in class in light of the ongoing destruction made the tragedy of what had happened all the more…well, tragic. In class, I felt compelled to acknowledge (and still do feel compelled to acknowledge) that the art that was being destroyed was not equivalent to the lives that were being destroyed. I do realize that the loss of a work of art is not comparable to the loss of a human being. Nevertheless, it does not seem petty to lament the destruction of art even as people are losing their heads because there is a reason that groups like the Taliban and ISIS seek to destroy art. I would argue that it is more than a hatred of idols and even more than an attempt to rewrite history and eradicate the past; the destruction of art and the destruction of lives have often been entwined.
Tyrants and terrorists don’t destroy art because they disapprove of it. They destroy art because they disapprove of human expression – at least any human expression that does not line up with theirs. And what is art if not human expression? From the Apollo 11 Cave Stones in Namibia (c. 25,500 – 25,300 B.C.E.) to the Lascaux cave paintings Hall of Bulls (c. 16,000-14,000 B.C.E.) humans have always felt the urge to create. And as such, art is a unifier; it is a testament to our creative instinct irrespective of place or time, a testament to our humanity. Furthermore, art is subjective – it allows for differing opinions and provokes thinking. And opinions and thinking are definitely not desirable qualities to those who seek to control. And that is why totalitarian leaders are threatened by art. They don’t want to think in terms of individual expression and common humanity. They want to think in terms of us vs. them.
So as we embark on another year of Art History, and as we reach the one-year anniversary of the devastation of Palmyra, I am even more struck by the enormity of what we are studying. And while it is true that when we get to the Bamiyan Buddhas, I will be sad — students will never travel half way around the world to send me an email: ”Guess what I am looking at?” and I will never see a Bamiyan selfie on Instgram — I do not think sadness is all I will feel. I will also feel defiance and a triumphant affirmation of all that free thinkers hold dear. Studying the Bamiyan Buddhas will be a rebellion of sorts, looking up at the screen a triumph of human spirit.
This September I hope that when my students see the Buddhas they do what the Taliban sought to prevent them from doing. I hope they marvel.
I hope they are amazed.