Taking a break from the relentless torrent of political news, I recently tuned in to an interview that Christiane Amanpour conducted on PBS with historians David Olusoga and Simon Schama, the principal contributors to an extraordinary and far ranging TV series Civilizations, a PBS/BBC collaboration that examines the formative role of art and the creative imagination in the forging of humanity itself.
Schama made the following comment:
“We’re all so busy building fences around ourselves . . . .Mono mania exists. . . There are all sorts of ways in which you can shut down openness, which is the lifeblood, the oxygen of culture. You can do it by censoring press. You can do it by dictating what art is correct for your country or state. And then you can absolutely cut off the freedom of creativity. To be more cheerful, what is happening in China with all the apparatus at its command, it can’t quite manage to do that. I’m not saying [events] such as Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and what was wiped out and what disappeared in the howling void of prisons and mass executions [did not have an impact]. Yet, I suppose, it is part of our message [in the documentary series] that humanity has this involuntary instinct to resist that – to resurrect itself creatively. As long as we recognize our humanity I don’t think that will ever stop.”
Featured in the series is the story of hero Khaled al-Asaad who was beheaded at age 81 for refusing to lead Isis to hidden Palmyra antiquities. Before the city’s capture by Isis, Syrian officials said they moved hundreds of ancient statues to safe locations out of concern that they would be destroyed by the militants. They believed Isis was likely to be looking for portable, easily saleable items that were not registered.
Amr al-Azm, a former Syrian antiquities official who ran the country’s science and conservation labs and knew Asaad personally, said Asaad had played a role in evacuating the contents of the museum before Isis took control, which meant he faced certain arrest. “He’d been there for so long and been part of that city for so long, maybe he figured he lived there all his life and he would die there too, and that’s unfortunately what happened,” he said. “It’s terrible.” The safety of this art, this history, was more important to Asaad than his life.
American poet and essayist Adrienne Rich has most poignantly expressed the following encouragement as we stumble into despair: “My heart is moved by all I cannot save. So much has been destroyed I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”
The Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung spoke of artists as those born with an inner persistence to listen. He thought artists were the lightning rods of the Collective Unconscious, souls who often, without choice or awareness, carry the rumblings of the collective human story through their innate openness.
To add my comment on artistic expression throughout the world: My view is that it continues to flourish. Even if we can’t visit far-away museums and places of antiquities we continue to be surrounded by an abundance of imaginative expression. We experience the poetry and popularity of music, including rap and hip hop, murals and graffiti, clothing (even New York fashion design reflects the world), painting, poetry, and sculpture. Even advertising – which often times uses the power of poetry and storytelling – acknowledges and reflects our diversity and the power of creative imagination that remains, so far, alive and thriving. This encourages me to have confidence in the future, hope for our children, and hope for humanity.
Please consider looking into this most worthwhile 9-part documentary series, Civilizations. Christiane Amanpour’s public affairs interviews are featured weekdays on PBS. In addition, she is host for a fascinating program on CNN, Sex and Love Around the World, which is also worth watching.
– Justine Willis Toms