General information

AHI Freshman Seminar
Art and Violence

Talinn Grigor

Course Description
Art and violence have been considered antithetical. Artworks have, primarily, been created and admired in periods of prolonged peace and economic prosperity. Art viewing and collecting is one of the most luxurious and lucrative practices in today’s global economy. Few, for instance, were shocked when, in February 2015, Paul Gauguin’s When Will You Marry was bought for $300 million. The creative impulse that results in a ‘beautiful’ work of art or architecture represents and, is therefore esteemed, as the greatest achievement of a given society. Rome is synonymous with the Coliseum; Christianity with High Sophia; Islam with Alhambra; China with the Great Wall; and Paris with Mona Lisa.

During conflict, war, and genocide, art and architecture have been not only strategic, but, above all, symbolic targets. The deliberate and, often, demonstrative destruction of specific art or architectural object has served to denigrate an entire civilization. This First Year Seminar studies the history of violence on art and architecture. It aims to trace major examples of conflict where the arts were at the center of ideological discourses. Each weeks’ lectures and discussions are devoted to the following topics: 1) the French Revolution (1789) and its cult of erasure; 2) World War I and the first genocides (1915); 3) World War II and The Rape of Europa (1939-45); 4) Communist China and the Cultural Revolution (1966-79); 5) 9/11 and the Twin Towers (2001); 6) torture and the Abu Ghraib photographs; and 7) the Taliban-ISIS and the treatment of cultural heritage today. 

Goals: The goal of the course is to explore the dialectical relationship between art and violence from the French Revolution to ISIS. The course asks why, traditionally, art historians have considered the destroyed art object as “non-art” and have simply refused to address it. Why have instead pathologists and criminologists examined the vandalized or destroyed artifacts in order to understand human violence? How, furthermore, has the discourse on art history, made by art historians, placed art objects in a volatile and a vulnerable position during conflicts? In turn, the course examines ways that the valorization of art by the art market and its display in temple-like museums has contributed to its treatment. Does ISIS blow up archeological sites because they are valuable to the Western ethos? Would it still destroy, if they held no civilizational symbolism (for the West)? The course concludes by raising the question asked by many today: save lives or art objects?


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