Thursday, 16 April 2015

FATHER FRANK’S RANTS Rant Number 628 15 April 2015 ISIS & ART


Are the Caliphate guys, aka ISIS, the worst vandals and barbarians on earth? So scream the British media, after Jihadis smashed and blew up ancient monuments in Iraq. Wait a minute…Weren’t countless, priceless antiquities from Iraqi museums looted and lost exactly because of the criminal US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2001? Hasn’t ever since that wretched nation degenerated into lawlessness, sectarianism and chaos? Moral: perhaps those living in glass houses should not throw stones.

ISIS’ iconoclastic fury is in the name of Islam. There is something a bit laughable about Western ‘infidel’ commentators bending over backwards to deny that is so. What the priest can vouchsafe is that Christianity has its own egregious legacy of artistic destruction in the name of God.  Fanatical English Protestants unleashed two massive waves of cultural suppression. The Reformation saw innumerable churches, statues and holy images ruthlessly spoilt and demolished. Sacrilegious acts first ordered by that hideous tyrant and syphilitic monster, Henry VIII. Chiefly through his diabolical instrument, the murderous swine Thomas Cromwell, now rehabilitated for the ignorant in ‘Wolf Hall’ thanks to that pestilent woman, Hilary Mantel. A century later the Puritans, under another, equally savage Cromwell, Oliver, completed the horrid job of wanton havoc on the nation’s Christian heritage.

Odd how iconoclasm seems a link between Jihadis and the Protestant thugs of old. Islamists could presumably invoke in justification the concept of jahilia. That means the putative age of ignorance and darkness before the rise of Islam, from which the Iraqi relics came. Any reminder of jahilia should perish, fundamentalists believe. But Protestants could hardly have regarded the lovely images of Christ, the Virgin and saints they were smashing as pagan products. Because they were the works of artists belonging to their own religion.

Christians no longer vandalise their sacred art. Instead, they shut it safely away into museums and art galleries. The many stupendous works in London’s National Gallery excite admiration and rekindle the spirit. But they also make me a bit sad. The wonderful portraits, triptychs and altar pieces by Paolo Uccello, Raphael, Hans Memling, Giovanni Bellini, Piero della Francesca, Gossaert, Velasquez, Zurbaran and others were painted for churches or private patrons. They were the focus of devotion, meditation and prayer. Windows into the infinite – means for ordinary people of entering into a personal communion with God. Today they are largely a pretext for heedless tourists to make selfies. Who are the barbarians now?

Not all men of culture have considered past treasures with awe. Mark Twain felt the classical remains exhibited in Italian museums for a charge made him think of ‘somebody making a living by exhibiting the bones of his grandmother’! And in 1849, when the revolutionaries of the Roman Republic were blamed for damaging classical statues and stone friezes while resisting the clerical forces, French novelist Stendhal defended them: ‘For the sake of freedom I would sacrifice the Venus of Milo and all of Raphael’, he said. Freedom does not motivate the Jihadis, of course but a narrow ideology does.

Nonetheless the logic of the Caliphate lads is wobbly. They appeal to the cherished example of their Prophet. When Muhammad took Mecca and cleansed the Kaaba from idols he did so because the superstitious folks around treated them as objects of worship – something due only to God. So in a recent video a Jihadi boasts that ‘we are removing every statue and idol that could be worshipped alongside God’. But the statues and slabs they ruin are engraved with Assyrian deities of 2800 years ago. There are no worshippers of those around today, you bet. What is the point of the iconoclasm then?

The Times damns the Jihadis as guilty of ‘the worst act of cultural vandalism since the Nazis’. Granted the British psychoanalytic mania to drag Nazism into anything, a most asinine comment. Because Nazism did not ban all art. It championed modern artists like Arno Breker and Kurt Schumacher, for example. And certainly the Third Reich did not vandalise the works of the great masters of the past. The hapless journalist mentions the blowing up of ‘Russian cultural monuments’. Wot?! Ugly statues of Lenin and Stalin, probably? Equally call the blowing up of Saddam Hussain’s giant monuments after the Western invasion ‘cultural vandalism’!

But can the West really consistently charge anyone with barbarism? When its own, much trumpeted art icons consist of eyesores by grotesque characters like Anish Kapoor, Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin? Frauds the masters of the past would have either laughed at or simply spurned away, like you would do with a piece of ordure on your path? Their habitual repertory is a dreary display of infantile, imitative, crass, incompetent, unoriginal, tedious, obscene and backward-looking stuff. (Significantly the wealthy patron of those pseuds, Mr Saatchi, is of Iraqi origin. A nemesis of the ancient Assyrian gods, perhaps?)  Anyway, surely a ‘culture’ that celebrates such meaningless garbage really is dead. The only question is: when is the funeral?

Lastly, jihadi iconoclasm took place in Nimrud, on the Tigris, a few miles away from Mosul. My annotated copy of the Qur’an, translation by the late Abdullah Yusuf Ali, in note 1565 to Surah Hud, refers to it as ‘the site of Assyrian ruins of great interest’. Sounds like appreciation to me. Take note, you thick Khilafa guys!

Revd Frank Julian Gelli

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