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On the Arts: Americans underestimate value of art here and in Iraq

Thursday, April 17, 2003

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It was nothing less than the desecration of a civilization's history, and we watched the aftermath in our living rooms.

Scenes of wailing and outrage, screaming and hair-pulling, carried out by distraught Iraqi museum employees whose anger was directed at those who had looted the National Museum in Baghdad and those who had let it happen.

Last weekend we saw these distraught employees picking their way through their cultural heritage, groping for shards of ancient pottery and sculpture made by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Sumerians and Persians.

But in America, as we watched, we had no reference point for this kind of despair. It's not as if we could compare it to Metropolitan Museum of Art employees weeping over dozens of torn paintings by Andrew Wyeth or Winslow Homer. And it's not as if we know what it's like to have 7,000 years of our history housed in our museums -- an independent America is only 227 years old.

So as I watched the video footage unfolding in Iraq, I could virtually hear the response of some Americans: With so many people dead, why should we worry about art? Isn't it more important to concentrate on restoring civil order? Why blame the military when it has more important things to worry about?

More important things.

Doesn't it seem as if American society is always saying there are more important things than art? That is such a common view that I wonder if it will permeate the debate over whether the American military was obligated to protect Iraqi museums.

Proof of Americans' belief that art is expendable is found within local, state and federal governments, where politicians frequently argue that our taxes should be funding more important things. Hence the current considerations by some states -- such as New Jersey and Florida -- to eliminate their arts agencies in the face of budget woes.

In addition, arts classes at schools are frequently the first classes to be cut whenever budgets become tight. The belief among school boards is that there are more important things for kids to study than painting, sculpture, dance, music and singing.

Even at some newspapers, there are more important things than art -- like television and mainstream movies. Hence the print media's wider sphere of coverage for pop culture -- often at the expense of proportional coverage for theater, dance, opera, visual arts and classical music.

If some Americans fail to feel moved by what happened to Iraq's cultural artifacts, it might have to do with how our society views the place of art.

We might never know why the looting continued unchecked despite strong early warnings from the world art community that Iraq's treasures required protection. But the cynic in me wonders whether the American military would have done more to protect the museums had we been a country that better recognized the value of art.

According to yesterday's New York Times, American troops moved quickly to guard Baghdad's oil ministry from looters. No doubt that happened because, as the Bush administration said, oil will greatly improve Iraq's economy. But tourism could, too, and the Baghdad Museum might have been a major tourist destination that brought foreign dollars into a new Iraq.

If only we could see the situation as if it were happening to artifacts in the Smithsonian. How would we feel if the portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart were maimed, the oldest copy of the Declaration of Independence shredded, original photographs of the American West by Ansel Adams destroyed, or the Wright Flyer smashed to smithereens? Are there more important things than these pieces of our cultural and artistic heritage?

Now that the damage is done, we should ask our military to be vigilant about helping Iraqis return and find stolen artifacts. And maybe down the road, museums worldwide could lend some of their Mesopotamian antiquities to Baghdad so that Iraqis have a cultural reference point that goes beyond the Hollywood movie theaters and fast-food restaurants now destined to take root in their country.

The people we saw weeping last weekend in Baghdad's museum know how crucial art is to a nation's spirit and a people's identity. So did Winston Churchill. When asked whether England's arts budget should be cut to help fund World War II, he said, "God, no. What the hell are we fighting for?"

Caroline Abels is the Post-Gazette's cultural arts writer.

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